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.

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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.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.