The overuse and subsequent decline of urban environments is a common problem in many midsize cities across the United States. Through the exploitation of industrial, social, or ecological resources, cities shrink, production centers fade, and environmental resources are tapped leaving foreclosed homes, abandoned structures, and unclaimed land behind as tarnished territories desperate for repurposing.
These contaminated sites, once definitive of a city’s development, now stand as the visual manifestation of urban exhaustion, permeating the city fabric and breeding anxiety about a community’s future. In these locations, opportunity and a cultural armature can intertwine with the social, political, and economic mechanisms of the city to realize a new potential. We know that American cities are struggling: but what, exactly is the contemporary American condition? What is the state of our current cities and our culture, right now? What social, political, and cultural systems define our cities today?
This past year Thom Mayne, Design Director of Morphosis, Karen Lohrmann, and a group of advisors led a team of fourteen architecture and urban design graduate students at UCLA in an analytical, evidence-based studio searching for answers to these questions. We are unwilling to concede to the current economic climate and the resulting decline of creative capital, both of which have triggered demographic and cultural slippage. We seek to launch the necessary dialogue about the nature of arts and culture in the American city. Through this studio investigation and beyond, our goal is to advance this conversation throughout society and institutions, to study the significance of the arts to this country and to the identity of our cities.
The result: the Culture Now Project, an ongoing inquiry about the dynamics of culture across eight American cities. Perhaps the best way to move forward in design is to document the existing patterns so we can understand and build from our current set of parameters. At the core of the Culture Now Project is a critical dialogue regarding the nature of art and culture in the American city.
An Investigation in Midsize America: 8 Cities
As the principal starting point for the study, we identified midsized cities outside of major metropolitan areas with a population size of less than 400,000 as representative of the changing U.S. urban landscape. At this scale, these cities are facing an impending fork: they either grow into connective nodes between major cities or diminish into irrelevance. Over the past year, Culture Now worked in eight cities: Atlantic City, Cleveland, Flint, Merced, Mobile, New Orleans, Toledo, and Tucson.
The project is an immersive investigation of the intersections of public policy and urban design, of contemporary culture and its spatial manifestations. Encouraged by international initiatives and intended as a critical extension of existing programs in the U.S., the studio’s aim was to stimulate transformation in struggling U.S. cities by identifying and utilizing existing networks that promote spatial, economic, and ecological change—as a catalyst for addressing urban problems nationally via a series of localized, generative events. Across each investigation, themes and assumptions emerged to frame the conversation about our cities.
Culture as a Medium
Urban studies all too often suffer from overreach: attempting the almost impossible task of understanding all the forces behind the formation of contemporary cities. And yet many urban proposals rarely address the major issues that they purport to solve. The Culture Now Project offers an alternative approach to leverage the impact of urban initiatives and improve the vitality of a city. We see culture as the most prominent factor driving urban form and seek to broaden and make explicit its role in cities. Through a careful examination of urban culture, we can begin to record the complex systems and phenomena of cities. We can create then a cultural connective tissue between federal agencies, civic leaders, local cultural producers, and the public.
The greatest potential for change exists in the overlap of urban form, public life, and civic agencies. The Culture Now Project found opportunities to examine these intersections and propose hybridized solutions. Connecting discrete problems to broad circumstantial situations is a fruitful approach. The Culture Now Project draws together the efforts of national, top-down government agencies and local, bottom-up activists to establish new urban visions anchored with strategic purpose.
In particular, the project builds a repertoire of opportunities specific to each study, providing a framework for analysis and recommendations responsive to the American condition. While studying these American cities, the studio framed the issues of culture and civic life within particular geographies and locations.
The following assumptions formed the basis for our investigation and analysis:
Growth/Decline: Cities evolve. Today’s center of growth may become tomorrow’s incubator of decline. We must detach from the notion that a shrinking city is a dying city and that a growing city is a healthy city. Both trends provide opportunities for urban transformation.
Monoculture: Culture is not a passive, decorative act projected onto a city, but an active participant in shaping urban fabric. The propagation of one dominant culture produces one way of life—a homogenous cityscape. The contemporary city is dynamic and constantly shifting. The culture it embraces and produces must respond accordingly.
Scorched Earth: The American landscape is exhausted. Through the exploitation of political, social, and economic resources, the physical environment has been consumed and discarded in the perpetual search for the new. Buildings, plots of land, and entire cities lie abandoned. City development must focus the purpose-poor, but utility-rich sites as the next urban frontier. Our most available resource is also our most valuable asset.
Waste: Demand has surpassed supply. America’s consume-and-discard mentality strains its natural resources and reserves. The rapid consumption of material—both physical and ecological—encourages a dependency on detrimental practices, placing the contemporary city on support beyond what it can self-sustain.
Fragmented Communities: The landscape is inhabited by migrating populations and shifting demographics. The physical city is only as strong as its populace. Civic engagement, with its ancillary social and political effects, is a catalyst to repositioning culture’s role in the contemporary American city.
What’s Next: Project Proposals and Future Investigations
Four of the eight proposals are featured in depth on this site, showcasing the work and strategies produced by the 2011 studio. 100 Points of Public Space, by Clayton Taylor and Jai Kumaran, locates a network of cultural public space opportunities within the post-industrial city of Cleveland, Ohio. In Empower the Periphery, Grady Gillies looks at the rapid expansion of Tucson, Arizona and re-imagines the peripheral suburban landscape as an opportunity for energy generation. High Speed Small Town, by Dylan Barlow, Wayne Ko, and Sepa Sama tells the story of a once-rural town in Central California, and the impact that a high speed rail and a state university will have on the culture and geography of Merced. Finally, Productive Landscapes, by Layton Petersen, focuses on Flint, Michigan, a city that has been slowly vacated and has an excess of crime, blight, and now-vacant urban land. In this proposal, saving Flint requires re-imagining the vacant landscape as a city-wide resource for agricultural productivity.
The work of the studio was done by the following students: Dylan Barlow, Emily Cheng, Grady Gillies, Cheng Ha, Christopher Harris, Matthew Kendall, Wayne Ko, Jai Kumaran, Layton Petersen, Stacey Rigley, Clayton Taylor, Bryan Tranbarger, Sepa Sama, and Yang Wang.
Beyond the studio’s work, thirteen universities have adopted the Culture Now project and will continue to document and detail current urban conditions. At the heart of the project is the aim to create an extensive and inclusive discussion about contemporary culture and the nature of American cities. To stay apprised of the project’s evolution, and to see all eight projects from the spring studio, visit the suprastudio website.