In the years following 2008, the recession spurred a new movement in city planning, centered on revitalizing existing public spaces rather than building new ones. Called "tactical urbanism," this approach supported small-scale efforts, like guerrilla gardening or pop-up parks, that can have an outsized impact on making cities more livable and enjoyable.
Recently, tactical urbanism has attracted the attention of architects and designers with the skills and resources to scale it up—including Jeanne Gang, the MacArthur Fellow and architect behind Studio Gang in Chicago.
"This approach is really working in regards to buildings that already exist but have fallen into disrepair," says Gang. While architecture has long been defined by new buildings, Studio Gang is thinking sensitively about how we use and alter the buildings that we already have.
Gang and her team have long been engaged with civic revitalization efforts through one-off projects, like their 2015 Polis Station project, a proposal for turning police station into community centers as a way to increase community engagement and combat police brutality. But now, the studio is working with the Knight Foundation and Kresge Foundation to apply this type of thinking on a much larger scale, by reimagining existing community spaces in Southwest Philadelphia, like libraries, parks, and recreational centers, to fit more precisely with a city's needs today. Alongside the foundations, they're creating a blueprint for four other cities looking to do the same.
The project part of a $40 million initiative announced last week called Reimagine the Civic Commons that invests in civic buildings in American cities that have fallen into disrepair or out of productive and widespread use. Funded by the Knight Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the John S. and The Kresge Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation, the initiative will connect architects with community leaders in cities including Akron, Chicago, Detroit, and Memphis, to revitalize the cities' public spaces, particularly in low-income or working class neighborhoods, in an effort to reverse trends of economic and social segregation.
Studio Gang and the foundations have been testing the concept since 2015, in a neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia, in order to establish guidelines for the four launch cities. The foundations reached out to the studio after seeing the Polis Station on exhibition at the first annual Chicago Architecture Biennial. While Knight and Kresge had already been working in Philadelphia on the social and political aspects of the Civic Commons plan, they needed an architect to take the community's needs and synthesize them into a practical design proposal that all cities could use.
Gang's job was to work with the Philly government and community in the neighborhoods of neighborhoods of Elmwood and Paschalville, in Southwest Philly, to create a design proposal for how to move forward with their civic buildings and parks. The proposal will also be used as a guideline for other cities seeking to revitalize their own public spaces.
The result is a booklet that looks a lot like Gang's Polis Station proposal but incorporates other civic assets like schools, libraries, parks, recreational centers, and a tweaked version of the original Polis proposal. "It turned into this middle-scale plan that could really help cities transform themselves with what they already have," says Gang.
Located on the corner of a busy, tree-lined avenue in Southwest Philly, the big brick building that houses the Pascalville branch of the Philadelphia Public Library is a familiar sight. It's one of over 1,600 libraries industry titan Andrew Carnegie funded in the U.S. between 1880 and 1930. Built in a number of different architectural styles, these buildings are historic and well-made—they're built to last, and to withstand the weight of thousands of books each. But the utility of libraries has shifted since the Carnegie era, and Gang and her team found that some of the library's services to the community had changed.
"People just aren't borrowing books to the same degree," says Gang. "So we thought perhaps what’s more needed is to think of information as a resource regardless of the media that its held in." In other words, libraries can still lend books but can also become technology hubs, where people can borrow things like iPhones or laptops. It can become a place for people to gather for events, network, apply for jobs—"things that it wasn't necessarily designed for," says Gang.
Gang and Gia Biagi, the lead designer on the project, worked with library officials and community organizers to understand their programming, but their most important role was rethinking the layout and design of the space so that it would work better for these new functions. They designed some short-term fixes that could be done immediately and with little funding, like reconfiguring the spaces for new technology, classes, and events. Others aspects of the plan will take longer, require the sign-off of city planners, and would need to tap into private and public funding.
For example, the architects designed a new entrance for the library that would open it up to the main street, instead of sequestered to a side street. The side street entrance becomes a gathering area and performance space, and the other side an outdoor theater.
Studio Gang's plan also called for turning the nearby Francis Myers Recreation Center into a Wellness Center. The building has been renovated and added to so many times over the decades, it's now a sprawling, multi-building complex. Taking advantage of the separate but conjoined buildings, the architects imagined that some spaces could be rented-out to health providers and used as clinics or health education classrooms. The idea? If kids can get a flu shot at the same place they play basketball or go to summer camp, they'll be more likely to get one. The architects' proposal also suggests knocking down the walls of closed, single-purpose rooms to create more open spaces. A longer-term solution includes creating an outdoor area accessible from the gym, which could house gardens and host the city's outdoor team activities.
One of the big ideas for Civic Commons is that all of these community spaces will be stronger if they are connected, rather than operating separately. In this respect, the design initiatives for encouraging exercise extend to the parks, and to the schools, where the architects designed gardens and sunlit-spaces to encourage productivity. "Parks specifically play a role in reducing trauma and reducing ADHD symptoms in kids, so the more that we can make it so people cross that threshold into a park the better," Biagi says. "Then we can aid in that mental and emotional support system, just through the design of these public spaces."
As with the library, each building on Gang's list includes some short-term, achievable projects as well as more involved, longer-term goals. Looking to tactical urbanism for inspiration, Gang and her team included guidance in their plan for small interventions that don't take a lot of capital investment. And for those, they found, there were a lot of programs already put in place by people who live and work in the neighborhood—the architects just needed to support them by making these programs more obvious to other members of the community.
A transformation had already been underway at the library, for example, where people were increasingly coming to find the resources needed to apply for jobs. The branch has a service that lends ties for interviews, though not many people in the community knew about it. Part of the rationale behind redesigning the entrance was to reveal these existing services to the residents they were meant to support.
"It's important to note that it's not all failing in Southwest Philly," says Gang. "There are seeds of things that are working, so that’s what our work was to do—not just come in and say 'this is broken,' but also to see the potential of the things that the local people already know work and amplify their message and make a synergistic relationship with the architecture that they already have."
Working with people who are already there, with systems already in place, and with buildings already constructed, is a key part of Gang's philosophy, and the only way that intervention can really work. It's also not the most natural mode of operation for architects, who are used to engaging with city officials, but not necessarily on the street level with the people they are building for.
"It’s not necessarily something [architects] learn how to do in design school and it maybe it seems intimidating to be so directly engaged with the community," Gang says. "People might think that it would hinder creativity, but which we’ve discovered it actually really incited creativity because people are collaborating and getting excited. It's this whole process of engaging with people directly at the very early stages that is helping transform the process of urban design."
Correction: In a previous version of this article, we noted that the Knight Foundation worked with Studio Gang on revitalizing Philadelphia's civic buildings. Both the Knight and the Kresge Foundations worked with them. The article has been updated to reflect the change.
[All Images: courtesy Studio Gang]