To imagine a city’s future, we must first reconsider its past. Urban renewal’s impact across 1,170 American cities during the 1960s and 70s reminds us that design is never neutral. Originally packaged as anti-poverty initiatives, urban renewal programs applied top-down, one-size-fits-all ideas about urbanism, often exacerbating existing problems, reinforcing segregation by leveling neighborhoods and building highways through downtown cores.
While many large cities rebounded from this social and spatial upheaval, over 90% of cities that received funding were under 150,000 people. Many of these smaller cities, like Poughkeepsie, struggled to rebuild in the decades following, which coincided with the decline in domestic manufacturing. Since then, decades of disinvestment and inaction have left these cities lingering at an inflection point. Today, residents are understandably wary of large-scale development funded from afar, but have the greatest need for sustained investment. At MASS, we refer to these as “Fringe Cities.”
Despite their historic challenges, Fringe Cities offer unique opportunities to address the growing social and environmental issues facing our nation. While some may view cities such as Poughkeepsie as a relic of post-industrial decline, we see them as places full of potential; they are an opportunity to model an inclusive and regenerative city for tomorrow. In 2017, we opened an office in a storefront on Main Street. With a dozen committed professionals, our purpose is to listen to community needs and transform obsolete infrastructure and buildings into interconnected community-owned anchors. Here is what we have learned so far:
1. Prepare for Climate-Driven Immigration
Fringe Cities are predominantly situated in regions less threatened by sea-level rise, drought, and forest fire, including Appalachia, the Great Lakes, and the Hudson Valley. Their oversized roadways, built during urban renewal for an influx of people that never arrived, make them well suited to accommodate increasing numbers of climate migrants. In Poughkeepsie we have advocated alongside the public for the city to rewrite the zoning code to increase density and reduce burdensome parking requirements to transform the arterials from pedestrian barriers into active walkable streets.
2. Daylight the Waterways
Ninety-eight percent of Fringe Cities were originally established around creeks that once fueled manufacturing. Waterways were channelized in the 70s, but today have the potential to heal urban renewal wounds. In Poughkeepsie, our work began with a community walk through the waters of the Fall Kill (Dutch for Creek with a Waterfall), revealing its potential to bridge communities divided by roadways, foster urban biodiversity, and reduce flooding. This helped transform public perception of the creek from a liability into an asset, leading to a partnership with environmental conservation organization, Scenic Hudson. Today MASS is collaborating with public and private stakeholders to activate key nodes along the waterway.
3. Transform Vacant Buildings
Fringe Cities possess a surplus of underutilized, often vacant, buildings with already-offset embodied carbon costs, poised for transformation. In an industry with outsized contribution to global carbon emissions, architects must prioritize adaptive reuse over new construction. The Northside Hub project, another collaboration with Scenic Hudson, is a brownfield remediation, historic preservation, and carbon-positive transformation of the Historic Standard Gage Factory. It will include workspaces, an auditorium, and outdoor park space for gatherings and educational activities. The design leverages the building’s existing passive environmental strategies to enhance natural ventilation and daylighting, offering a model for pandemic-resilient design.
4. Celebrate Regional Assets
The majority of Fringe Cities are county seats in close proximity to regional amenities and attractions. In Poughkeepsie, the Walkway Over the Hudson draws over 500,000 visitors a year – the majority of whom do not engage with the downtown. Sandwiched between the Walkway and Main Street, lies the underutilized College Hill Park, home to the municipal water supply. An underground cistern built in 1923 was recently emptied and replaced by above-ground tanks. The cistern’s unique acoustic properties were showcased through pilot sound installations in partnership with Samuel Stubblefield and the Metropolitan Opera, which revealed its potential as a flexible use performing arts venue. If developed in dialogue with the surrounding Northside neighborhood, it would become a critical connection to the downtown.
5. Create Projects with your Neighbors
The residents of Fringe Cities possess the clearest insights into their pressing needs and aspirations for the future. Architects play an instrumental role in realizing these visions by using their unique tools to help build consensus and magnify these local aspirations. For instance, after the YMCA, a key community pillar, ceased operations, MASS rallied a group comprising various local youth organizations. Together, we envisaged a renewed purpose for the space. This collective action persuaded the City of Poughkeepsie to transfer the land to Dutchess County for a symbolic price of $10. A public Request For Proposal was issued, and MASS was chosen as the design architect. The upcoming Youth Opportunity Union (YOU) will be the most significant public investment in downtown Poughkeepsie beyond the county jail since the era of urban renewal.
The Project is the People, Process and Place
With over 20 active projects across scales within a one-mile radius, our combined initiatives yield results more impactful than any individual effort. Our work catalyzes connections that might not otherwise occur – between the public and private sectors, between people and planet, and between the past and the future. Urban renewal was a cautionary tale that we must learn from as we prepare to deploy the recent federal infrastructure bill in ways that meet the unique needs of specific communities. As designers, we must engage Fringe City communities today to envision a place-based, inclusive and regenerative future for their abundant existing assets. The time is now, as decades of past inaction converge with our climate future.