What kind of city will we be?

This is the key question facing Windsor currently and it really is not being addressed. In a previous post  I referred to a concept I called The City of Opportunity. I will elaborate on this concept, through example, in this post. One thing we need to do is look beyond our borders to what is and is not working in the realm of re-envisioning cities.

A current interest of mine is the effect that population size as well as physical size has on determining the proper direction of redevelopment in a city. Windsor is unique in that it physically, as well as population-wise is more on par with Toledo, Ohio, and yet it shares economic similarities with larger North American cities such as Cleveland and Detroit. While at a vastly different scale and degree of intensity than what Windsor is facing, the rethinking happening in Detroit is based on an acceptance of the city as it is, realizing that it won’t be the city it once was, and looking optimistically at the potential of the city for the future.

The current philosophy in Detroit has been shaped by two urban redevelopment theories, the Shrinking Cities Movement and the Urban Agriculture movement. Shrinking Cities strategies have been successful in European cities such as Turin, Italy and the Ruhr Valley, Germany where abandoned factories were re-imagined as recreational and cultural facilities. Urban Agriculture has taken the form of small scale gardens and large scale commercial farm proposals.

Shrinking Cities strategies have had less stellar results thus far in North America. Youngstown, Ohio, for example, recently declared their shrinking city strategy failed. The process of relocating residents became too daunting. The same thing happened in Flint, Michigan. Maybe it is less about the physical restructuring of the city than it is about the demographic and economic repositioning?
Can population declines possibly be used to positive effects?

Although Detroit proper has shrunk, the metro area has remained relatively stable. In 2000 the metro population was 4,441,551. It currently stands at 4,403,437. The “purchasing power” of the metro area remains the same. This makes the challenge for that city a physical one. What do you do with abandoned lands? The challenge is also an opportunity.

What are the implications for Windsor? What truly is scaling down? Is it “right-sizing”?
The difference between Detroit and Windsor in regards to redevelopment is that Windsor does not have the vast areas of abandonment seen in our neighbor to the south. In Windsor there are localized abandoned sites that need to be re-imagined. Can we, though, inject some of these theoretical concepts into our vision of what Windsor could be, learning from the successes as well as the failures? Then, rather than worrying about our neighbor’s reputation’s effect on us, we can address our own reputation within Canada.

The current large-scale redevelopment issue in Windsor is the new proposal for the Western Super Anchor site. Before evaluating the approved development we need to ask “What should it be?”. With the establishment of the WFCU center on the outskirts of the city, one can see that the “big box-ification” of city amenities may have a negative effect on city neighborhoods. What has happened to the closed facilities that were consolidated into the new center? Yes, operating expenses may go down through economies of scale, but at the cost of creating scattered, underutilized and underproducing properties throughout the city.

The issue that we should be cognizant of regarding the proposed aquatic center is the aftermath of the closing of existing facilities. Will these properties become draining blights on the spirit of their communities? Also, is that location best suited for a prominent civic facility such as the main library? Would a better use have been to position that land as a model neighborhood development for the future?
At the same time, we should not close our minds to unique, new models of urbanity.
One example of an ad hoc reuse of a vacated property is the Science Center on Marion street. Formerly a school, the facility now lives on as a destination within the neighborhood. Many may question the location, but in a city taking advantage of what it is presented with, it becomes an example of possibilities.

Locating these pubic/ cultural amenities in neighborhoods is a risky proposition. What you lose is the “critical mass” that has been seen as a fundamental aspect of urban redevelopment when these cultural institutions are clustered. This principle holds that focusing all your cultural resources into a “cultural district can create a tourist destination that can be beneficial for the city. What if, though, a dispersal of these pieces into different areas of the city could create a city of neighborhoods, each with their own identity.

The city government can become a major force in the repositioning of the vacant properties of the city into local assets. the solution in each area may not be a civic function. Some areas may benefit from a private venture or grass roots initiative. The determination will take a defined strategy and an incisive approach.

As I write this the latest downtown development has been announced, the relocation of three of the University of Windsor’s schools to the core, revitalizing a couple of historic properties, the Windsor Armoury and the Windsor Star Building. Again, the way to look at these moves is as pieces of a very complex redevelopment strategy. This strategy is reactive and counterintuitive, but that may be what we need to really affect change. The strategy takes advantage of opportunities as they are presented and course corrects along the way. They key is to realize that none of the moves is a silver bullet. Both the pro and anti development groups are guilty of this absolutist line of reasoning.

This manner of looking at the city takes a very deft hand to guide the vision of the community. When pursuing the City of Opportunity one can not blindly accept every proposal that comes forth. Conversely, one can not summarily reject new proposals because they are different.

We can’t afford to think that way. Windsor is overlooked in Canada. One would think, given that it is an international border, that it would have more importance. Traditionally, though, border cities do not have great reputations (think Tiajuana). Perhaps the re-imagining of Windsor begins with thinking of it as an Immigration Hub as opposed to a border city.

Immigration is a key component for reestablishment for North American cities. The cities that are growing, such as Toronto and Vancouver, are doing it through immigration. Windsor has a good track record with immigration. It needs to celebrate this more, as well as expand the opportunities.

Rather than trying to guess what the next hot industry will be, we should be making the city focused on productive immigration (not just accepting of immigration but being active in its desired outcome) at a national level, business relocations in general, and small start up entrepreneurs specifically. This kind of initiative could be key in rethinking abandoned storefronts and commercial areas, by unleashing the creative, entrepreneurial spirit of new comers.

The City of Opportunity.

Dorian Moore has been involved in a wide range of architecture and urban planning projects. Recently, Mr. Moore was among a select group of architects and planners invited to Mississippi as part of the Governor’s Renewal Forum. Mr. Moore spent a week as a member of the charrette planning team for 11 cities along the Gulf Coast that were ravaged by hurricane Katrina. Mr. Moore was also part of an international team of designers assembled to provide a vision plan for Toronto’s former Port Lands lakefront area.

Mr. Moore was featured on the public affairs television programs Spotlight on the News and Back to Back discussing architecture and urban design in Detroit. He has also lectured at the University of Toronto campus to the Congress for the New Urbanism and at the University of Michigan on the urban environment.

Mr. Moore has taught architecture and urbanism at University of Detroit-Mercy, Lawrence Technological University, Wayne State University and the University of Windsor.

Mr. Moore was educated at the University of Michigan and the Technical University, Vienna, Austria. He was selected AIA Detroit Young Architect 2002.  Mr. Moore and his family currently reside in Walkerville.

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