McClain Clutter Radical Railbanking
Master of None Radical railbanking map of Detroit 

By drawing on the practice of railbanking—the repurposing of abandoned rail corridors into recreational trails—McLain Clutter, director of the Ann Arbor, Mich.–based design and research practice Master of None, hopes to end the notion of living on the wrong side of the tracks. Clutter, also an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and his research assistant Sehee Kim are using geographic information systems (GIS) to manipulate and repackage geodemographic data in an effort to transform Detroit’s rail corridors into public spaces that bring together residents with different socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds. “This project points toward the use of data as a design medium for designers ... to instigate the possibility of new kinds of collectives in the city,” Clutter says.

McClain Clutter Radical Railbanking
Master of None The project looks at neighborhoods divided by several lengths of active railways in Metro Detroit.

Historically, Eastern European communities and African American communities in Detroit have developed on opposite sides of the rails. As the city’s industrial activity declined, the sprawling lots of former factories that once lined these tracks have further segregated the neighborhoods.

McClain Clutter Radical Railbanking
Master of None Working data set

When considering how to address these and other developable properties across the country, real-estate investors are increasingly examining geodemographic data using GIS. But their approach, Clutter says, often reinforces stereotypes about race, ethnicity, religion, and income level and thus deepens divisions between communities. For instance, he says, they might add a Walmart in a location based on preconceived notions about socioeconomics and race. Though the international chain retailer is likely looking for "a sophisticated and 'designed' mix of demographics" when considering a site, he adds, "we can probably assume that relatively low-income consumers within the catchment are desired, and that those consumers are sometimes minorities."

Instead, Clutter appropriates the data imaging tools that city planners typically use to implement zoning policy from Esri, the world’s largest producer of GIS software, and mixes in demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other public sources. He applies his own scripts and models to re-cut the data and find the areas with the most intense population-density values. These regions are isolated and re-grafted to serve as the basis for a second set of models, interpolating a series of demographic values. Through continued analysis, these second-generation models isolate the most intense slope values, which represent the areas with the greatest potential for change. These subsequent maps are by nature graphic and visually illustrate new types of urban environments in these areas, whereas more conventionally constructed maps simply depict existing geodemographic data.

McClain Clutter Radical Railbanking
Master of None A zoning map produced through radical railbanking.

For example, when evaluating how to develop the sprawling lots where mortar production factories once stood along the railway in the northwest Detroit neighborhood of Conner Creek, a Radical Railbanking zoning map recommends introducing religious institutions, production centers, civic infrastructure, a transit center, and parks to create a commons that causes existing enclaves and neighborhood populations to intermingle.

Juror Joyce Hwang said she enjoyed the way Clutter “misused” existing technology and data to develop the maps. “This project uses GIS in a thought-provoking, unconventional, and almost delirious kind of way,” she said.

McClain Clutter Radical Railbanking
Master of None Snapshots of a complex workflow that begins by processing publicly available data in ArcGIS, combining it with demographic data from the U.S. Census, and creating a triangular interpolated network (TIN) using population-density statistics as the height source. The high-slope regions are grafted back onto the city map, creating polygons that form a new type of zoning map.
McClain Clutter Radical Railbanking
Master of None The profiles of selected railways are offset 0.5 mile from each side to form the corridor used for projecting a TIN model. The TINs image relationships that clarify the conventional demographic categories. The peak values of the TIN model that cross selected portions of the railway are isolated and shown as pink line segments. They represent potential high population-density areas.
McClain Clutter Radical Railbanking
Master of None The lines representing peak population-density values are grafted back onto the city map and used as the geometric basis for a series of second-generation TIN models.
McClain Clutter Radical Railbanking
Master of None Isolating the most intense slope values in the 2G TIN models. These high-slope faces represent the areas with the greatest potential for change.
McClain Clutter Radical Railbanking
Master of None Conner Creek plan view

See all the 2015 R+D Award winners here.

Project Credits

Project: Radical Railbanking, Detroit
Design Team: Master of None, Ann Arbor, Mich.—McLain Clutter (project adviser); Sehee Kim (student research assistant)
Funding: University of Michigan Office of Research, funding for Artistic Productions and Performances, 2011; University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

Special Thanks: Syracuse University School of Architecture—Mark Linder