Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Rebuilding Cities with Community in Mind

I'm in Colorado this week, working with a half a dozen people under the direction of Bob Berkebile and his Kansas City architectural firm, BNIM, to conceptualize how best to use decommissioned schools in Kansas City as an opportunity to enhance the quality of urban life. It's a big project.

While other team members are architects, designers, and developers, I've been invited to participate because Bob wants community to be an intentional part of each development. The overall context is sustainability—making our cities more livable and less fragmented, and the team is targeting unused facilities in marginal neighborhoods.

One the key challenges is coming up with a viable financial model for how the properties can be purchased, rehabbed, and kept affordable (so that the overhauled schools don't inadvertently become engines for neighborhood gentrification that drives out the diversity the team means to protect and support). Tricky.

Add to that the sure knowledge that community is not built by architects—it's built (in the social sense) by the residents. To be sure, good design can make a positive contribution; it's just not determinant. Thus, if part of the goal is to build vibrant communities, then the team has to anticipate the need for resident input and having control of their own destiny. Community is not something done to you; it's something done by you—with a little help from your friends. 

That translates, I think, into not going too far down the road of project design until some thorough spade work has been done to discern where the juice is among the putative residents. "Build it and they will come" is not quite right with community; it's more the case that they will come if you build what they want.

Because of the focus on sustainability, the team is striving to create a model for how to retrofit existing, underused facilities that will promote local resilience—where employment, education, food, health care, recreation, and artistic expression are all happening within biking distance.

While it's way too early to tell how far these plans will get, isn't it great that someone is trying? 

I'll keep you posted on developments.

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