Students with the CUDC’s design/REbuild project help renovate a vacant house
Helen Liggett Students with the CUDC’s design/REbuild project help renovate a vacant house

In a seminar room overlooking Cleveland’s Playhouse Square one day last winter, a dozen graduate students of architecture and urban design trained their attention on a screen. A guest lecturer, Kassie Hilgert, was joining them by video from Bethlehem, Pa. The director of a nonprofit called ArtsQuest, Hilgert described how her group had worked to transform part of a historic, disused steelworks complex into a busy arts-and-culture campus. The students jotted down notes as she emphasized the importance of tapping into authentic local traditions, getting government buy-in, and making public spaces as flexible as possible.

Adaptive reuse of rusting blast furnaces may not be a typical lesson for design students, but Cleveland is “not a place you come and spit out typical urban-design plans,” says Jeffrey Kruth. He’s a senior urban designer at the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC), a nonprofit community-design center that is part of Kent State’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design; the center shares space with the university’s graduate programs on Euclid Avenue downtown. Most members of CUDC’s staff also teach, and it hires students to work on its professional projects. In other words, the studio—spread over the loft-like second story of the historic Cowell & Hubbard building, once home to a jewelry store—blends teaching, research, and the practice of social-impact design.

An aerial of the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood on Cleveland's east side, where the CUDC's design/REbuild project renovated its first house
An aerial of the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood on Cleveland's east side, where the CUDC's design/REbuild project renovated its first house

Kruth, who used to work at the Yale Urban Design Workshop, remembers that the studios there featured heady schemes for megacities like Shanghai that assumed rampant economic and urban growth. As for Cleveland, well, it has lost more than half of its population since 1950 and now struggles with one of the highest urban-poverty rates in the country. Being there “forces you to think in a different way,” says Kruth, who has taught studios on urban systems, tactical urbanism, and Cleveland’s Opportunity Corridor, a major transportation and economic development project.

As Terry Schwarz, the urban planner who leads the CUDC, puts it: “Students tap into the idea that when you’re here, there are things that need fixing.”

The CUDC design/REbuild house in St. Clair–Superior pre-renovation
Yuanshuai Si The CUDC design/REbuild house in St. Clair–Superior pre-renovation


Part of the Local Brain Trust
Hands on, community-focused design has been part of American architectural education since Charles Moore set up the Yale Building Project in 1967. But for students now enrolled in Rust Belt architecture schools, there’s a place-based difference. Cleveland, Buffalo, and Detroit roared to life during the 19th century to become some of the country’s biggest and most prosperous cities. But the decline of industries like car- and steelmaking led to population shrinkage and social and economic problems, often couched by the media in a simplistic narrative of “dying cities.” In fact, Rust Belt or “legacy” cities have much to inspire students of urbanism. The architectural fabric is rich, there are plenty of sites waiting for new uses, and the heritage of industry (good and bad) is omnipresent.

Because architects tend to be relatively scarce and the challenges are abundant, student and faculty designers at many Rust Belt architecture schools have put down deep roots in the community, becoming part of a local brain trust of officials, nonprofit leaders, and citizens working on high-profile issues and projects. These students and designers tend to recast blight as vacancy, and vacancy as opportunity. They often think at the scale of the neighborhood or ecosystem rather than the individual building. “Design centers in cities like Detroit have been a tremendous resource,” says Wendy Lewis Jackson, the interim co-managing director for the Detroit Program at the Kresge Foundation. “They’re developing leaders who can go on in their careers to provide support for their local communities.”

Quad Space, a thesis project for several Buffalo students who transformed a dilapidated house into a stylish 650-square-foot tiny home
Quad Space, a thesis project for several Buffalo students who transformed a dilapidated house into a stylish 650-square-foot tiny home
Ang Li, a University of Buffalo fellow, unveils her exhibit "No Frills" at the Echo Art Fair, which was curated by a Buffalo professor.
Ang Li, a University of Buffalo fellow, unveils her exhibit "No Frills" at the Echo Art Fair, which was curated by a Buffalo professor.


Ask Robert Shibley, FAIA, the dean of the University of Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning, if being in a “legacy” city influences design education at his institution, and he doesn’t hesitate: “You bet. We’re a consulting firm that never goes home when the job’s done,” he says. “You’ve got the cheapest lab in the world, which is right outside your door. You have to imagine ways of building value into it.”

Perhaps no other American architecture school has done that as much as Buffalo’s has. In 1990, Shibley established an urban-design center within the school that created a comprehensive city plan as well as a set of strategic plans for downtown, waterfront, and Frederick Law Olmsted–designed parks. In 2011, the year Shibley became dean, the center became the UB Regional Institute. It has joined teams that worked on a federally funded roadmap for sustainable development in the Buffalo region and the Buffalo Billion plan, which guides Governor Andrew Cuomo’s investment of $1 billion in the area’s economy.

The institute established a Citizen Planning School—a free program in key planning issues and tactics for any resident of Erie or Niagara counties—to foster broad, informed public engagement in local planning. It also helped rewrite the city’s building and zoning codes. “The advantage of being in a Rust Belt city is, you’re invited,” Shibley says. “I’m on a first-name basis with most of the politicians in town. They know our programs and [our] work.”

Not all of the work coming out of Buffalo is wonky plans—much of it is hands-on. As a thesis project several years ago, four students bought a dilapidated house for $6,500, transformed it into a stylish 650-square-foot tiny home, and moved in. Current students work with Boston Valley, a local manufacturer of architectural terra-cotta, on developing new digital fabrication tools for the traditional craft. An architecture professor, Nicholas Rajkovich, recently created a bicycle-mounted weather station and gathered heat-island microclimate data as he rode through Cleveland one summer; he plans to partner with the CUDC to expand the project and outfit more bikes.

The 2016 Winner of the CUDC's Coldscapes Competition

The CUDC, for its part, has led charrettes, drawn up neighborhood revitalization plans and a master plan for nearby Cleveland State University, and promoted the design of public spaces for cold climates, or “coldscapes.” The center is helping the Cleveland Public Library rethink its mission for the digital age. In a city with about 20,000 empty lots, the CUDC has become known for its strategic approaches to vacancy.

For instance, the 1918 Detroit-Superior Bridge (now called the Veterans Memorial Bridge), which spans the Cuyahoga River downtown, has a lower deck once used by streetcars. It is now closed to the public, but in 2009, students from Kent State, working with teens from a local high school, filled it with benches, a bike path, hammocks, and lounge and picnic areas for a one-time public opening. Over two days, the bridge drew 8,000 visitors.

Benches designed by Kent State student Travis Logsdon for the Detroit-Superior Bridge project
Benches designed by Kent State student Travis Logsdon for the Detroit-Superior Bridge project
Plan for the bridge project
Plan for the bridge project

The center also teamed up with the City of Cleveland and other partners on a major initiative encouraging alternative uses of urban land, such as for agriculture and ecosystem repair. Grants totaling $600,000 funded almost 60 demonstration projects. “Re-imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland” won a national award from the American Planning Association in 2012.

The CUDC recently completed its first design/REbuild project, the rehabilitation of a historic house next to a grassy lot in the St. Clair–Superior neighborhood. “Talk about something you can do in Cleveland and not in other places,” Schwarz says. “There are houses everywhere.” After two years of student labor, the house recently went on the market and is expected to sell for between $40,000 and $50,000. Thirty-thousand dollars of the proceeds will go to Kent State, and the remainder to the St. Clair Superior Community Development Corp., which owns the house. Next up is the rehabilitation of a rowhouse nearby.

Schwarz notes that prospective students are attracted to the program for different reasons, and faculty members don’t emphasize shrinking-cities work over other areas. But the appeal it holds for some students is strong. Conner Karakul, an MLA candidate from Ohio who attended Kenyon College, considered leaving the region for graduate school, but thought that landscape architecture was important to Rust Belt cities. One of Karakul’s projects was a dredge study undertaken with the Cleveland–Cuyahoga County Port Authority. Kent State, he says, “delves into things traditional landscape-architecture programs don’t.”

The DCDC’s TAP, which turned vacant lots into a graffiti art gallery
Courtesy Knight Foundation The DCDC’s TAP, which turned vacant lots into a graffiti art gallery
The DCDC's Bloody Run Creek Greenway Redevelopment Project, a plan for the city's east side
courtesy Detroit Collective Design Center The DCDC's Bloody Run Creek Greenway Redevelopment Project, a plan for the city's east side


“It’s Not Just About Building Buildings”
The Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) has operated out of the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM) for 22 years. Like the CUDC, it’s a professional design firm, but instead of hiring students on a project basis, it trains UDM student interns as part of the school’s co-op program—if they can get a spot. Admission is very competitive, says Dan Pitera, FAIA, the executive director. “There are so few [similar programs] in the country,” he says, citing a residency program by Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati as another. “There’s interest overall—not just in Detroit, but cities like Detroit: the Gary, Indianas; the Clevelands. [There is an] intensity of desire of students to work there.”

The DCDC has turned the remains of a derelict house into a band shell, and is now turning another set of house remains into a set of pavilions (neighbors call it “the open-air building”). “Architects are just beginning—if I can say this without sounding cruel—to understand it’s not just about building buildings,” Pitera says. “When you have 23.5 square miles of open space, unused buildable space, you’re not going to build your way out of this in a traditional way.”

The Warehouse in downtown Syracuse, renovated by Gluckman Tang in 2006 as a temporary home for the university's school of architecture
David Heald The Warehouse in downtown Syracuse, renovated by Gluckman Tang in 2006 as a temporary home for the university's school of architecture
Interior image from the Warehouse
David Heald Interior image from the Warehouse

Syracuse’s Retreat
Not every architecture school in the region has made local revitalization a lasting focus of its program, however. Some years ago, under then-dean Mark Robbins, the Syracuse University School of Architecture moved to a warehouse downtown rehabbed by Richard Gluckman, FAIA. Imaginative new houses by up-and-coming architects popped up in city neighborhoods, and Toshiko Mori, FAIA, designed a new university building, the Center of Excellence, off-campus. There were excited headlines in the press about Syracuse’s revival through architecture.

Today, after what some design educators call a formalist turn in the curriculum, Syracuse’s students are back on campus and helping frame a new campus plan, not a new downtown. The school has also expanded its program in New York City, where students can learn about community design by doing a housing project with a local nonprofit. “This kind of work is of great interest to us, it’s just that we have another facility [in New York] that is better suited to our ambitions to send students out into the world,” says Michael Speaks, the dean of the school since 2013.

Indeed, a design school’s identity can be shaped as much by its parent institution or combination of disciplines and programs as by its location. Syracuse is a private university with a stand-alone architecture school (ranked among the nation’s best); Buffalo, part of the SUNY system, has architecture and planning under one roof, and emphasizes applied research. UDM is Catholic and offers a Master of Community Development through its architecture school.

Toshiko Mori's Center of Excellence at Syracuse University
Iwan Baan Toshiko Mori's Center of Excellence at Syracuse University

Counterintuitively, perhaps, Shibley and Pitera have found that hyperlocal success is what unlocks opportunities farther afield. This past March, Kent State students traveled to Cuba to study the Nico Lopez oil refinery site on Havana Bay and consider possible scenarios for its future. In April, two Havana-based architects, Ernesto Jiménez and Sofía Márquez Aguiar, made the reverse trip, flying to Cleveland to assess the site of a coal plant on Lake Erie that may soon be demolished. After Pitera lectured in Portugal about the DCDC’s The Alley Project (TAP), which turned an alley in southwest Detroit into a graffiti gallery, two Detroit street artists were invited to visit Lisbon. Shibley spoke about Buffalo’s regeneration efforts at a conference in South Korea, and now three Buffalo faculty members are doing work there. He sums up his philosophy this way: “Stay home, do something really well, promote it, get the very best return from it, and it will take you other places.”

Re-imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland, an initiative led in part by the CUDC

The Hip Factor
Maybe it’s time to stop thinking of Rust Belt cities as outliers. The bristling skylines of London, New York, and Hong Kong notwithstanding, untrammeled growth is not the sole urban operating principle. Cities contract and neighborhoods fade. Municipal budgets erode. Every city has to contend with at least one of these conditions at some time or another.

Meanwhile, many legacy cities are becoming hip. Since 2000, downtown Cleveland has seen a 76-percent increase in residents aged 25 to 34. In Buffalo, that cohort grew by 22 percent between 2007 and 2014. Detroit’s Millennial population has risen modestly, too. Schwarz and Shibley talk about young designers sticking around after graduation. The cost of living is low and opportunities abound—although not necessarily the conventional kind.

How long will this continue? And how will educators respond if the city is no longer a lab wide-open to them, but prized real estate? Shibley says his school is already positioning itself to tap into emerging industries in Buffalo, like robotics. But realistically, it’s unlikely that the surplus land and buildings in these cities—and chances for committed designers to improve the lives of residents—will run out any time soon. “I came to Buffalo in 1982. I thought maybe it was a five-year gig,” Shibley recalls. “I don’t think I’d been here more than two years before it was perfectly clear to me that I loved this place. It had every [issue] in the world that I ever wanted to study, but I could get my arms around it. That’s infectious.”