So what’s the New Urban to me? It’s the city as a conscious experiment, where placemaking, green innovations, neighborhood creation and cohesiveness, luring exurbanites back to a vibrant environment come together. It’s easier in some areas than others, and it’s easiest in places that have good bones but sagging flesh: that is, cities like Cleveland, Baltimore, Detroit. Places that understand that turnarounds are possible, and that they are the lab. How much experimentation can take place in a city that’s filled to near capacity, with solid, lovely buildings, lots of employment, and attractions galore? Not so much–perhaps in run-down neighborhoods only. Cleveland is a scrappy place with plenty of heart and treasures, and is doing its best to leap back into top-tier urbandom. This is the time to run rampant with small ideas, as well as large ones.
On the larger scale, Cleveland’s trying it through expansion, such as the new extensions of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the new structures on the CSU campus, the MedMart, Aquarium and casino. Do all these work? Ah, this is not going to be a series of reviews, but these are all places worth evaluation (see my take on the casino below as well). They’re trying it through innovative thinking, too. This past week saw my first interaction with Kent State’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, a downtown-based group of Kent architectural and urban design students who both actively create city moments through their pop-up interventions, temporary sites that open viewers’ eyes to urban possibilities, and through actively researching and engaging citizens for more long-term neighborhood planning. They brought their Fall charrette (such a great word, and new to me–an intensive collaborative series of meetings in a short time to bring diverse minds together for a design solution) to EcoVillage on Cleveland’s near West Side this past weekend, and I loved the result. I thought I’d write up the findings today, but it would feel feeble without their images, so I’ll wait for their postings before I go into details. Instead, here are some general thoughts and observations they’ve inspired.
Inspiration is key. When you live in a bleak area, small islands of hope seem miniscule indeed. It can take outsiders who have done research and talk to people to see the possibilities inherent in a place, from the small tinkerings that can make a big visual and emotional impact to the larger, costlier changes that can bring about major shifts. A lot of what they brought up was integral to the goals the EcoVillage had from its founding–to regenerate an urban neighborhood while incorporating advanced ecological design in order to realize the promise of diverse, vibrant urban life. Some of those dreams are underway, but the economic climate’s slowdown, petty crimes, vandalism and degenerative creep had instigates some discouragement–at least in me.
But this is where the CUDC folks blew on the embers and restored hope. Not only were the efforts going into residents’ ears, our councilman Matt Zone and Jeff Ramsey, exec director of Detroit Shoreway’s organization, both of whom have done so much to perk up Detroit Shoreway‘s Detroit Ave. through the splendid Gordon Square Arts District’s exciting revivification, were active and interested participants. It was thrilling to hear them talk about nearly–immediate doable aspects that fit an existing budget, and you could see wheels turning regarding community action committees, grant applications, and other ideas.
Cleveland is a city of neighborhoods, but it’s essential to make those neighborhoods destinations for eager residents and interested visitors, rather than places to avoid. Many of our neighborhoods have underexplored architectural wonders–the EcoVillage’s St. Colman towers might excite some nighttime appreciation from the highway, but how many visit (outside of St. Patrick’s Day, of course)? St. Stephen’s is an otherworldly gem, rightfully on the National Registry. But it’s not permanent architectural wonders alone that make a neighborhood, or provide it with a desirable identity.
The CUDC folks looked at the “Eco” part of EcoVillage, and pushed for plantings of native wildflowers and grasses, in meadow-like vacant lots and front yards. They suggested low-scale resident agribusiness that would combine urban farming with outlets for sale, education and employment.
They looked for ways to increase manageable wildlife, both along the RTA train corridor and through possible green art birdhouses. I think one of the things the neighborhood could really use is an urban greenhouse, designed to both employ underemployed residents and feed all through sales of espaliered fruit and winter vegetables–a lot of our residents aren’t riding bicycles for exercise or enjoyment, but as a primary means of transportation. The local convenience store has bread and milk, but fruits and vegetables require transit–great to be able to trot down the street and get your fresh winter produce. One resident mentioned a Great Depression practice for our alley-rich
neighborhood: he said everyone planted a fruit tree along their alley, so the hungry could have something to eat–a variety of types, so there was nearly always something in season. The CUDC was big on green walls, which could certainly improve the many blocky structures along Lorain, and could make the bridge over the RTA corridor a link to other greenery. This has been done to great success in some other cities, even when sponsorship is involved.
I was pleased some of the quickish fixes that emerged from the charrette were small (solar-powered!) lighting projects, such as a canopy of lights across a bridge. as well as bigger plans for a series of solar bus stops on Lorain that might have wifi and recharging stations. The implementation of bigger projects like these might find collaborations that draw in not only RTA and corporate sponsors, but the upcoming LAND-studio coalition of Cleveland Public Art and ParkWorks–artist-conceived, creatively-lit solar bus stops could provide a wow factor for all. I think mosaic work from recycled materials along the to-be-rehabbed Madison Ave. bridge could be a fabulous direction as well–or as insets bordering new pedestrian walkways along Lorain. As I mentioned before, inserting color into our winterscape (as well as light!) can make a huge difference to perceptions.
There are some exciting new urban prospects afoot in the world–some aren’t even far afield. Columbus, for example, is implementing a green “highway cap” that’s generating much buzz and reconnecting neighborhoods–Innerbelt rehab, anyone? Some haters of skywalks might find relief in the addition of other greenery rehabbing.
Thank you CUDC! My mind is racing, and I’ll bet you were similarly a catalyst for other residents of this part of Cleveland. You show just how much neighborhood and even individually-driven design intiatives can create a sense of space that rivals (oooh, dare I say COULD even surpass) the big players in the Cleveland game. And in that regard, I want to give a heartfelt shoutout of tribute to developer Ari Maron, who made East 4th St. the most vibrant corner of downtown, and has begun to work his magic on the Lorain/W. 25th crossroads of Ohio City. Vision to fruition for us all!