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Revitalization in Olmsted’s Small Town

Olmsted's plan for Vandergrift.

A small town in Pennsylvania designed by Frederick Olmsted is trying to turn a corner after years of decline by building on its history as a city designed to be in tune with nature. The AP’s Ramit Plushnick-Masti writes how Olmsted designed Vandergrift, 35 miles northeast of Pittsburgh and its streets to follow the river. Street corners and the buildings on them were rounded. Parks dotted the hilly landscape, and the town was walkable. Today the town is not as pedestrian friendly, but there seems to be a new thinking afoot:

While many communities are embracing sustainable revitalization, Vandergrift’s strategy is all-encompassing: to create an energy independent, ecologically low-impact, economically viable town from the ashes of its postindustrial wasteland. It aims to renovate buildings with sustainable materials, from carpet textiles to solar roof panels. A farmers market has been expanded. Trees are being planted and green spaces recovered.

Perhaps the most ambitious is the river energy project. With Weiland’s guidance and a grant from the National Science Foundation, University of Pittsburgh students are seeking to exploit the hydrokinetic forces of the Kiski River to offset energy costs downtown, without building dams or coal-burning electrical facilities.

The city has gone from 6,800 residents in 1980 to about 5,000 today. We often concentrate on the efforts of big cities, but with many Americans still living in smaller cities and towns, and the fact that sprawl is common and energy used more in those places — the work in Vandergrift (and other places such as Greensburg, Kansas) is worth telling.

A “3rd Century” National Mall

Speaking of national capital green spaces in need of repair (as we do in our post on Brasilia below), last week the National Coalition to Save Our Mall released its “3rd Century Mall” plan to revitalize and orient the nation’s front yard.

Greater Greater Washington gives an overview of the recommendations, including better transportation options, improving restrooms, creating a visitors center and more engagement between the Mall and the museums inside it.

When the stimulus was being debated, some Congressional members mocked an allocation for repair of the Mall. The irony here is that the Mall lacks the necessary qualities that visitors from around the globe and residents expect of what is supposed to be a premier public space.

The Desire Paths of Brasilia


The capital of Brazil, Brasilia is a planned city with parks and open spaces  designed at the height of automotive thinking in the late 1950s.

The city was laid out by Lucio Costa and the buildings by famed and still-living centenarian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Many of the buildings are iconic and beautiful in their modern form, but the highways of the city horrificly cut off key public places. Discovering Urbanism provides a great analysis of the city’s equivalence to Washington’s National Mall in showing the “desire paths” of those pedestrians who do venture into this green space.

The analysis “reveals a complex network of activity very different from the plan.” The exercise says much about how planners and designers should consider where people want to go perhaps more than where they themselves want people to go.

It also raises an interesting question about Brasilia and other planned cities: despite the historic nature of this planned city, should modifications be made, such as removing the clover leafs? Or can compromises be reached. For instance, could the integrity of the design be preserved by closing down the clover leafs and on-ramps to cars and making them into people-oriented park features?

Discovering Urbanism

Detroit’s Parks Struggle in an Increasingly Spread Out Metro

There’s a sad article in the Detroit News about that city’s 250-acre Eliza Howell Park. The grandson of the benefactor who gave 138 acres of the park to the city is asking that it be given back to the family so that he can develop it into a big box grocery store and homes.

Kenneth Cheyne, the grandson, is suing the city, claiming that it is violating a 1936 deed restriction that says the land be maintained as a park. Because of Detroit’s dire financial condition, it stopped mowing Eliza Howell and 137 other parks this spring. But the park and its loop drive remain open to the public and although there are concerns of crime and disrepair, the space remains important to and used by some community members.

The irony of this situation is that Detroit is a city that has tons of land for development. In fact, according to the American Institute of Architects, 40 square miles of the 139-square-mile city are vacant. If a developer wants to build a grocery store (which the city is in dire need of) and housing there is plenty of space to do so.

This gets to the larger issue of Detroit’s development over the years. People often say the city is shrinking, but that’s only true in population numbers, not development. Metro Detroit is a classic case of sprawl without growth. The decline of the auto industry has not in itself caused the central city’s problems. Those are also due to sprawl from central city flight and the movement of migrants from rural areas to suburbs and exurbs. In 1950, Detroit had a population of 1,849,568. At that time, the metro had a population of 3,219,256. Today, the city has 912,062 people and the metro has 4,425,110. The metro population has grown about 30 percent more than the city has shrunk.

Detroit seems to be slowly turning into one huge suburb. Converting a classic urban park into a strip mall would represent one more step in that direction.

Some News From Around…..

  • Nina-Marie Lister in Places: cities “have reassessed their underused harbors and riverfronts, and committed to costly and complicated clean-up processes with the goal of stimulating redevelopment. Cities worldwide are rediscovering and reengaging with the water’s edge. Early projects like London’s Docklands and New York’s Battery Park City, which took shape in the 1980s, have been followed by a groundswell of revitalization efforts. Today the water’s edge is a front — a battlefront at the edges of the postmodern metropolis, where serious conflicts arise around brownfields and greenfields, around the health of cities and the availability of water.”
  • Milwaukee’s parks running out of time, but prospect for dedicated funding is there, says legislator in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • PPS Blog looks at some great community gardens in the Second City.
  • Queen grabs shovel and plants some trees in London’s new Olympic Park.