A Design to Save American cities

When Brent Ryan started doing academic research on Detroit, in the 1990s, he was immediately taken aback by the city's plight: derelict commercial buildings, burnt-out homes and whole neighborhoods being abandoned. "I was really struck by the amount of physical decay I saw there," says Ryan, the Linde Career Development Assistant Professor of Urban Design and Public Policy in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. "It was incredibly troubling to see a huge city laid to waste like that, and we didn't seem as a society to be doing anything about it." And that was during a decade when the economy and auto industry were rolling along nicely. Then, between 2000 and 2010, Detroit's population fell a further 25 percent to 714,000, the lowest it has been in a century; Time magazine has dubbed Detroit the "vanishing city." It is easy to write off such places as basket cases belonging to a bygone industrial era too easy, in the view of Ryan. "We can't totally reverse the problems afflicting these places, but there is nothing lost by trying to improve matters with positive programs, rather than just demolishing more homes," he says. In this vein, Ryan has written a new book, Design After Decline: How America Rebuilds Shrinking Cities, published this spring by the University of Pennsylvania Press, that is a call to action for reviving troubled metropolises through a combination of better urban planning and innovative architecture. In his book, which uses Detroit and Philadelphia as case studies, Ryan argues against the architectural "suburbanization" of cities, maintaining that bolder, more distinctive civic projects can enhance the comparative advantages of cities as dense, diverse, lively places to live. "Not every person in a shrinking city can relocate to a place with a better economy," Ryan writes, adding that local officials must therefore find new ways to make "the lives of their constituents better." (Excerpted from MIT News; for more on this story, see image: Albert duce (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons)