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[I’ve been meaning to post this for months.]

During our group project for the CRP New York City workshop, we specifically studied the neighborhood around the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, an old industrial area around a historically-working waterfront, now becoming a mix of warehouse space, unfinished office and craft spaces, a few residential units (in addition to the large housing project on its edge), and an influx of creative activity like artists, performance venues, trendy bars, and randomly a Holiday Inn Express.

Being generally unfamiliar with New York City and very familiar with Chicago, it struck me that the Gowanus area looks and feels (perhaps smells) a lot like the Clybourn/Goose Island industrial corridor two miles northwest of the Loop.  Both have a lot of old, messy industrial uses – some of which still exist, others which have left only brownfields – along a formerly working waterfront, in Clybourn’s case the Chicago River.

The forces of gentrification and redevelopment have been at work longer in Clybourn, however, perhaps in part because the river is not a heavily, notoriously polluted Superfund site.  While Finkl Steel and a few others have held on in the area, by and large the area along North Avenue and Goose Island has flipped to become retail (and a bit of housing), especially home furnishings like Restoration Hardware, Design Within Reach, and Crate & Barrel.  The two most buzzworthy developments were the flagship Whole Foods (May 2009) right along the river on Kingsbury, and the Apple Store and renovated Red Line stop (Winter 2010) at the edge of the industrial development.

Comparing aerial views of the two highlights their similar scale, location near a highway, and situation between two dense residential neighborhoods – Wicker Park and Lincoln Park in Chicago, Carroll Gardens/Boerum Hill and Park Slope in Brooklyn.

Clybourn Corridor and Goose Island, Chicago, 1000 ft

Clybourn Corridor and Goose Island, Chicago, view at 1000 ft

Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn, New York City, 1000 ft

Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn, New York City, 1000 ft

More interesting than their shared history and layout, however, is their possibly shared future – specifically, the degree to which the changes in Clybourn portend how Gowanus will develop as the Superfund cleanup moves forward.  Both already have a large Home Depot, both will soon have a large Whole Foods with several yuppie-friendly gimmicks:  the Chicago store has a lovely riverside patio, a huge food court, and a demonstration kitchen which gets regular use.  The Brooklyn store will have a rooftop garden for ultra-local produce, possibly waterfront access, and likely many WF amenities which are possible when building on such a large lot.  Both also have a kayaking presence, though the Gowanus Dredgers certainly take on more risk than the rental places along the Chicago River!

While neither area had a large residential community per se, both were home to many industrial jobs, probably for over a century in both cases.  And both have those who have some degree of fondness, or at least tolerance, for the messy, smelly, bustling, “wild west” they used to be.  In Chicago’s case, the legacy of shady activity along Weed Street comes to mind; in Gowanus’ case, the area still struggles with some drug activity and prostitution, though probably not the “roving gangs of hookers and drug dealers” claimed to exist by one resident.  The influx of trendy stores and office lofts represents real change, however, and what Clybourn is now, Gowanus likely will be.

What lessons for Gowanus can be drawn from Clybourn?

First, that change is inevitable – even its reputation as one of the most polluted sites in America will, with the help of the federal cleanup, likely not stop development in the long run.  The recession has slowed development city-wide, but New York is an aggressive real estate market, to put it mildly.

Second, that unless told otherwise, developers will probably bring big-box retail as the natural successor to large industrial spaces.  While Clybourn is now cleaner and probably safer, it is not very walkable – big parking lots separate building from street, and North Avenue has narrow sidewalks and fast-moving cars (when they aren’t clogged with traffic).  Given Gowanus’ proximity to dense and growing Brooklyn residential neighborhoods, more work should be done to make it a natural bridge between the two, not a barrier, by keeping some of the large-format stores from building replicas of what we have in the suburbs.

Third, that it is possible to keep some vestiges of the area’s past life, if only symbolic.  Chicago recently finished restoring a small railroad bridge which connects North Avenue with Goose Island, now a pedestrian walking path (but with “Live Rail” signs, which I’m not sure actually mean anything).  The Whole Foods and kayak rental places allow access to the water, but the height of the bank makes it clear that this is not another North Avenue Beach.  The Goose Island brewery, Smith & Hawken, and several other stores occupy old industrial warehouses which have been retrofitted, though many of the retail buildings (and certainly the NoHo residential tower) are new.  Although most of Gowanus’ old industrial buildings might not be worth saving for public health or financial reasons, keeping as much as possible of the old brick and stone buildings can at least maintain the area’s character, which is what has attracted much of the new activity in the first place.

The planner is, of course, going to conclude that Gowanus needs better planning.  But in this case, and based on what has already happened along the Clybourn Corridor in Chicago, it seems to be true.  Change will happen, and the area will likely not remain industrial, except perhaps at its south end toward the Gowanus Bay.  Once the Canal itself becomes a water amenity rather than an environmental liability, it will become a desirable place to be; the large, underused lots are rare in New York and will become prime locations for suburban-style retail, unless more guidelines are put into place ahead of time to create denser, more walkable development which benefits the neighborhood.  Taking the good aspects of Clybourn and learning from the bad, Gowanus can perhaps become the same, only better.

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This post will actually be considerably less topical (read:  about Haiti) than its title implies.  It concerns two types of planning:  planning “before,” actions taken in preparation for or the prevention of a crisis; and planning “after,” the coordinated action we take to clean up the mess and build better than before.

The introduction to Nolon and Salkin’s Land Use in a Nutshell set me thinking about this:

The great fire of 1666 in London led to the adoption of municipal building construction laws that required brick exteriors, wider streets, and open space along the Thames River for access to water for firefighting. . . .  These early land use rules were . . . formalized by the Act for the Rebuilding of London adopted by Parliament in 1667.  The Act gave the municipality the power to regulate the construction of buildings:  their size, height, and placement on the lot, and the materials used (2).

Other examples of dramatic renewal and growth came to my mind:  Chicago, following the 1871 fire; San Francisco, following the 1906 earthquake; the many destroyed villages of northern France and Belgium, reconstructed after the First World War; the bombed cities of Japan and Germany after the Second World War; (a plan f0r) the town of Greensburg, Kansas, after being levelled by a tornado in 2007.

This is not to say that renewal will inevitably follow a crisis, but in each case listed, the devastating losses caused by natural or man-made disasters became an opportunity to reinvent the form of the city.  London, already one of the most important cities in Europe by the 17th century, was rebuilt to become the economic and political center for much of the world, its grand new architecture the manifestation of its wealth and power.   Chicago, its urban core cleared of its old wooden buildings and boarded walkways, had valuable land available to build its new downtown of skyscrapers, paved streets, and rail lines.  Albert, a small city in France, was completely levelled by 1918 and rebuilt by the late 1920s, not a replica of its original form, but with modern infrastructure, wider streets, and a reorientation of the city’s main axes to better locate its new industrial sites in appropriate areas.  Tokyo, with most of its wooden structures burned away in Allied firebombing by 1945, had by the end of the twentieth century become perhaps the most modern city in the world.

The idea that “an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure” is central to urban planning:  we can make choices today with tomorrow in mind, guiding our next steps, procedures in hand for when something goes wrong.  But even with all our precedent cases, forecast models, and good intentions, can we ever really do anything but react to the events we can’t control?

I’m not suggesting we should despair because we can’t prevent the unpredictable.  Much of our knowledge of good city design is thanks to the lessons we’ve wisely learned from past mistakes, or at least from close observation of what went wrong.  My question is whether we can do anything more forward-looking than error correction, and I’m not sure that the answer is “yes.”

There always exist a handful of brilliantly insightful people who can foresee possibilities far into our future, and many more who can make reasonable guesses about where we might be headed.   However, the complicated tangle of culture, politics, and logistical constraints we call modern life often makes it inordinately difficult to take more than a single step forward.  The one redeeming value of catastrophes seems to be their ability to force us into drastic action.  In their most extreme form, disasters can “wipe the slate clean” and challenge us to make new choices:  in the example of city form, to use physical loss as an opportunity to build new and better.  We can return to the status quo ante, but it is no longer a given that we should do so.

So how should we move forward?  I think we need to spend more time looking thoughtfully backward:  more careful assessment of successes and failures in disaster recovery, particularly where planners (or private developers) chose to rethink and redesign their city.  Evaluate what worked and which actors and circumstances allowed those changes to take place.  Identify which examples have the best analogues to current cities, and where those successful strategies might be employed in the wake of future crises.

To go a step further:  what if cities wrote into their comprehensive plans a “disaster renewal” section, in which they would identify locations which are most vulnerable, locations (or networks) which are most in need of change, and steps to take in order to foster successful redevelopment following a crisis?  No doubt this suggestion would be met by many, most notably city councils, as a morbid hypothetical exercise.  Consider, however:

  • More and more of our global population is living in cities.
  • In the United States, our infrastructure is aging; in many other parts of the world, city infrastructure is inadequate or non-existent.
  • Cities tend to locate on flat land near water.
  • The incidence of major weather-related disasters has been increasing in recent years, and there is little reason to believe this trend will reverse.
  • Even where disaster recovery plans have been written, they are notoriously difficult to execute.
  • Even where short-term disaster relief and recovery are administered, the monumental task of long-term recovery suffers from lack of organization, collaboration, and vision.

We can’t stop disasters in our cities, much as we try to mitigate, but time and again we’ve found opportunity in our losses well outside the scope of everyday planning processes.  If we can only really organize ourselves to make big changes in the wake of crisis, shouldn’t we be better students of our own past disasters?