Green Urban Renewal:Transforming Industrial Cities Creatively

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It’s not news that the basis of western economy has shifted since the late-20th century. We’re no longer enjoying the fruits of domestic industrial labors as we were in the late ’40s and into the ’70s. The manufacturing sector has since shifted a significant portion of that kind of industry abroad, with what’s left over needing serious injections of government intervention to stay afloat.

Despite this economic shift, we still have the vestiges of that earlier age. We’re seeing cities that are now characterized by industrial sectors that have since fallen into disuse – at least where their intended purposes as factories and other industrial buildings are concerned.

This state of affairs got me to thinking about 21st century urban renewal, and making use of what’s around, rather than knocking everything down, or simply leaving it to molder, often along with the communities that are still building lives in these places.  It got me wondering about green building, and the transformation of industrial cities in the United States that supports communities and families who call these places home.

Green urban renewal as an alternative to gentrification

An important aspect of effective urban renewal to build into planning stages has been  involving the community, instead of pricing them out of the neighborhood. It’s easier to build a city with the people who live in it, rather than relying on the hope that it will be built by those hoped to be living there in the future by knocking down buildings and spending money constructing new ones, which is a product of urban gentrification.

Urban gentrification is a big problem in many cities where the “new and shiny” stand where the “old and busted” once stood. This is because, very often, this approach does the opposite of what is intended. It can cause neighborhoods to be unlivable not because they’re falling apart, but because they’ve been made too expensive to live in due to the cost of construction, and the resultant mark-ups of new buildings in old neighborhoods.

One way to avoid the negative impact of urban gentrification  is be redefining what’s in place by making the best use of what’s around, rather than knocking it down and building something new. Yet in some communities, gentrification is not the main problem. The real issue in many communities is out and out abandonment of industry, local business, and populations. So, redefinition here takes on a whole new meaning.

Green urban renewal in the rust belt: Braddock, PA

This idea of redefinition goes naturally with with the principles of green building. The cost savings of refurbishing existing properties make urban renewal projects more viable for those who are already resident in these areas, instead of the hope for shiny new buildings through gentrification.

These re-use and redefinition principles can also inject much needed job creation in cities once known for high industrial output for those already living in the neighborhoods, creating new blue collar sectors as new industries emerge.

It’s a nice theory. But, can this be a reality? Well, yes.

Braddock PA, once a thriving industrial town devastated by the failure of the local steel industry, is making a comeback under Mayor John Fetterman:

 Since Fetterman arrived in 2001, galleries have opened in rundown schools, vacant lots have been converted into organic garden plots, outdoor pizza ovens have been built from the rubble of collapsed buildings, bee colonies discovered in an abandoned structure are now being tended by nearby charter school students, and the convent has become a sort of hostel for prospecting entrepreneurs, artists and young families looking for affordable first homes. (read the full article about Braddock, PA).

When talking about urban abandonment in the USA, there is no better example than Braddock. Yet, what is now evident is that these ideas of transformation and redefinition is the clarion call for those who live there, leaving the past behind, and thinking about how to re-position their city for a 21st century green economy.

Click on this infographic (courtesy of Awesome Good) to see the timeline of the city in full, and how the community came together to re-define it.

Infographic: Awesome Good. Click image to view and enlarge in a new window.

These projects are characterized not by gentrification, or by sweeping away old structures. Rather, they are defined now by what has gone into their re-definition by those who live there. Fetterman sought to go that much further by exploring the possibility of alternative energy in Braddock in an area once known as a coke and coal producer. That is redefinition of yet another stripe, thinking beyond the conventional, and seeking a solution that is viable, even if it’s unexpected.

Redefining identity of cities with green building and economy

Green building transformation in industrial cities in America  remind us not only that it’s prudent to re-use materials and spaces even on a structural scale like this, but also that the true 21st century principle of making your own rules to suit your times can work out pretty handily when redefining the identity of cities, as well as homes.

For more information, be sure and check out the blog that coined the term ‘rust belt chic’, I Will Shout Youngstown, which is transforming aesthetics as as well as second uses for former industrial buildings.

Also, check out this fine website themed around renovating the rust belt into a hub of green urban renewal.

Finally, read this article about Braddock PA mayor John Fetterman for more information about how 20th century industrial cities can be redefined for a new, green economy in the 21st century. The piece  includes a transcript and video of his testimony at the Pennsylvania committee on Energy and Commerce U.S. House of Representatives, urging Congress to think about redefinition on an even wider scale for cities like Braddock.



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