Here are three projects which demonstrate architecture’s power to build and sustain communities

In Los Angeles, the architecture firm KTGY is repurposing shipping containers to build a transitional apartment complex for the homeless. Image: KTGY.

A decade after the global economic collapse, urban development is booming.

This is good news for architects. Indeed, 2018 promises to be a favorable year for the profession: a spectacular array of sleek museums, posh hotels and some of the world’s tallest towers are slated for completion.

But income inequality is on the rise in the United States, with many city dwellers reaping few benefits from the current economic upturn.

The same could be said for the colossal scale and visual theatrics of high-profile buildings. Residential towers for the super rich are transforming the skylines of cities and public spaces are increasingly being privatised. As a result, cities are being shaped according to the desires of the elite.

This is particularly troublesome as many cities are also grappling with the ongoing politics of austerity – less and less investment in public services, infrastructure and public housing. Yet some architects have dedicated themselves to addressing these very problems.

The architecture of social engagement – the idea that buildings should address inequality and improve the lives of all dwellers – first started gaining steam during the Great Recession. It’s important to continue moving this work out from under the shadows of the glossier buildings that tend to receive the most media attention.

Three projects to be built in 2018 – a library in Brooklyn, a low-income housing project in Chicago and transitional housing for the homeless in Los Angeles – demonstrate architecture’s unique power to build, sustain and forge communities.

Fostering local activism

In the popular imagination, cities are often associated with their biggest buildings and largest monuments. But the lifeblood of all cities is their small-scale civic buildings and public spaces: libraries, schools, community centres, parks and playgrounds. These places are gathering spaces for residents; they create robust and enduring urban enclaves.

A new building for the branch library in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood – the Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center – exemplifies public architecture’s ability to reflect the concerns of local communities.

A massive oil spill that was discovered in 1978 wreaked havoc on Newtown Creek, the waterway bordering Greenpoint to the north. Because cleanup efforts are still ongoing, environmental activism remains a defining aspect of the community’s identity.

Given this history, it’s no surprise that issues of environmental justice were important when it came time to rebuilding a larger library in Greenpoint, one of the more widely used branch libraries in the Brooklyn Public Library system.

A rendering of the Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Image: Marble Fairbanks.

Designed by the architecture firm Marble Fairbanks, the two-story building has all the features of a traditional library, from book stacks to reading rooms. But there are also meeting spaces being built for the expressed use of community activists and environmentalists, as well as an education centre for environmental awareness – nods to the neighborhood’s history of environmental activism.

It’s also being built according to the highest standards of green design, with plans to reduce the building’s air pollution, energy and water use. The building’s two green roofs, in addition to its public plaza, will be planted with species native to the region.

A grant from the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund, created through a settlement with Exxon Mobil over the spill, even paid for part of the new project. Collectively, the library’s design shows how at the local level, environmental justice and social justice are intertwined.

Beating back the tides of gentrification

The same could be said of an affordable housing project being built in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago’s West Side. As important as public places, affordable housing helps create equitable and accessible cities. Dubbed Tierra Linda, the project is the result of Landon Bone Baker Architects’ ongoing work with the community-based organisation Latin United Community Housing Association.

2

When it’s completed, Tierra Linda will have created 12 small-scale housing projects scattered throughout the neighborhood. Most will be located on lots that were formerly vacant. While all of the buildings plan to incorporate sustainable design practices, one of them will be Chicago’s first affordable, multifamily passive house, which means that it’s designed to dramatically reduce energy use for heating and cooling.

A rendering of Tierra Linda in Chicago, Ill. Image: Landon Bone Baker Architects.

These affordable homes are part of a broader effort to maintain the vitality of the neighborhood’s Latino community, which, in recent years, has been threatened by gentrification. The Bloomingdale Trail – an elevated greenway running though Chicago’s Northwest Side – has caused real estate prices to rise in the area.

By collaborating with the community as part of the design process, Landon Bone Baker Architects’ work in Humboldt Park underscores how neighbourhood-focused projects can help sustain communities facing economic and social change.

A shipping container as a home?

Affordable housing also has the capacity to build new communities. In Los Angeles’ Westlake neighborhood, the architecture firm KTGY is building Hope on Alvarado, a transitional apartment building for the homeless. (Hope on Alvarado is one of a number of similar housing projects in Los Angeles planned by developer Aedis Real Estate Group.)

The project, which is being privately funded, will address a crisis head on: last year, California had the largest homeless population in the country, with Los Angeles County experiencing an especially dramatic rise in its numbers of homeless people.

KTGY has plans to use recycled metal shipping containers as the primary units for what will be a five-story building organised around a central courtyard.

A rendering of the interior of a unit in the Hope on Alvarado Housing Project in Los Angeles, Calif. Image: KTGY.

It’s certainly an innovative approach, since the use of prefabricated containers allows for quick and cheap construction – necessary, given the dire state of homelessness in Los Angeles. At the same time, it’s not hard to see how the building could create a safe and supportive community for its future residents.

Cities for everyone

Looking at how everyday buildings can strengthen communities and invigorate urban life is becoming increasingly important. Currently over half of the world’s population lives in cities, and urban populations are only expected to grow. Meanwhile, natural and man-made disasters are wreaking havoc on cities around the globe, another trend that promises to continue.

With these challenges in mind, the smaller buildings highlighted in this article can help us understand architecture as a social art – a means to weave an urban fabric that creates lasting social ties. They offer models for thinking about architectural design as a tool that addresses the needs of individual communities – lessons that cannot be learned from the slicker buildings that so often compete for our attention.


The ConversationAfter all, museums, hotels and towers do not alone make cities.

Sean Weiss, Assistant Professor of Architecture, City College of New York.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.