Design after Decline: How America Rebuilds Shrinking Cities

Design after Decline: How America Rebuilds Shrinking Cities

Design after Decline: How America Rebuilds Shrinking Cities

Design after Decline: How America Rebuilds Shrinking Cities


Almost fifty years ago, America's industrial cities--Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Baltimore, and others--began shedding people and jobs. Today they are littered with tens of thousands of abandoned houses, shuttered factories, and vacant lots. With population and housing losses continuing in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis, the future of neighborhoods in these places is precarious. How we will rebuild shrinking cities and what urban design vision will guide their future remain contentious and unknown.

In Design After Decline, Brent D. Ryan reveals the fraught and intermittently successful efforts of architects, planners, and city officials to rebuild shrinking cities following mid-century urban renewal. With modern architecture in disrepute, federal funds scarce, and architects and planners disengaged, politicians and developers were left to pick up the pieces. In twin narratives, Ryan describes how America's two largest shrinking cities, Detroit and Philadelphia, faced the challenge of design after decline in dramatically different ways. While Detroit allowed developers to carve up the cityscape into suburban enclaves, Philadelphia brought back 1960s-style land condemnation for benevolent social purposes. Both Detroit and Philadelphia "succeeded" in rebuilding but at the cost of innovative urban design and planning.

Ryan proposes that the unprecedented crisis facing these cities today requires a revival of the visionary thinking found in the best modernist urban design, tempered with the lessons gained from post-1960s community planning. Depicting the ideal shrinking city as a shifting patchwork of open and settled areas, Ryan concludes that accepting the inevitable decline and abandonment of some neighborhoods, while rebuilding others as new neighborhoods with innovative design and planning, can reignite modernism's spirit of optimism and shape a brighter future for shrinking cities and their residents.


In the summer of 1993, on break from architecture school, I paid a visit to friends in the city of Detroit. I knew of Detroit’s fearsome reputation, and the city’s vacant lots, burned-out homes, and bleak, empty skyscrapers confirmed Detroit as the paradigm of urban blight. The sense of emptiness was overpowering; I was shocked to see that even the city’s train station, designed by Warren and Wetmore at the same time as their Grand Central Terminal, had been left open to the winds of fate. Entering the station’s burned-out, rubble-strewn great hall early one morning, I felt as if I was walking into the ruin of America. To me, Detroit was a half-dead declaration that the decades-long attempt to rebuild what were then known as “declining” American cities had utterly failed. What place was there for optimism in such a landscape?

As I researched cities further, I discovered that optimism did exist in Detroit and other Rust Belt cities such as Philadelphia and Cleveland: new housing was being constructed in small quantities, some commercial areas were thriving, and downtowns still attracted visitors for sports, conventions, and tourism. But my overall sense of disappointment was scarcely allayed by the scattered new neighborhood developments that I saw in declining cities. Many of them seemed to imitate suburban developments, complete with iconic culs-de-sac. In the late 1990s public housing towers began to disappear, replaced by townhouse communities allegedly modeled on the historic city but to me more reminiscent of suburban condominiums. The overall effect of these “revitalization” efforts struck me as not only formally unadventurous but sadly underscaled against the evident abandonment of declining cities. Was no one else noticing North Philadelphia and Detroit, I wondered? Why weren’t we doing anything about these places?

I was well aware that older American cities had gone through a substantial rebuilding process only a few decades earlier, during the heyday of Modern architecture. My hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, was . . .

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