Privatopolis: Sauget Shrinking City Urban Design Studio

The Spring 2012 shrinking cities studio examined the “privatopolis” of Sauget, Illinois.

The American metropolis is characterized by extremes. It is simultaneously endless and fragmented, centerless and multipolar, pastoral and polluted. It is also characterized by extremes of ownership, income, and social divisions. Together these conflicting forces generate a metropolitan condition that is unique in its challenges for designers. Directly across the Mississippi River from Eero Saarinen’s St. Louis Arch, Sauget embodies the multiple paradoxes of American urbanism: a municipality with only 300 people, ruled and mostly owned by a single family – the Saugets –  made wealthy by housing St. Louis’s unwanted uses and activities, from recycling plants to nightclubs, and adjoining Illinois’s poorest city, East St. Louis, whose population has dropped from 80,000 to 30,000 since 1950. 

Sponsored by Exxon-Mobil Environmental Services Division, PRIVATOPOLIS examines, interrogates, and responds to the paradoxical urbanism of Sauget through the development of reuse scenarios for four parcels of post-industrial land formerly housing a petroleum refinery and storage tanks. Ordinarily considered a ‘brownfield’, these parcels are perversely valuable to Sauget given the town’s role as a collector of the unwanted. In Sauget, the ordinary is forbidden and the extreme is welcomed, setting new boundaries and challenges for urban design. PRIVATOPOLIS  is third in a series of urban design studios to examine the shrinking city as a condition of American urbanism. The first studio, Shrinking Cities Buffalo, examined new neighborhood strategies in Buffalo, NY in Spring of 2010. In Spring 2011, Aftercity: Baltimore took scale as the generative element for urban design strategies that considered Baltimore within the context of its rapidly growing region.

Sauget is a different condition than either of these previous cities. Not a shrinking city itself, it is nevertheless enveloped within the context of deindustrialization that is still driving urban change in the St Louis area. Sauget is a demonstration of how urban growth can occur both directly adjacent to, and remain dependent upon, drastically shrinking cities. Sauget embodies the urbanity of the St Louis area even as it rejects it. PRIVATOPOLIS projects future possibilities for this provocative condition.

PRIVATOPOLIS was paired with STRATEGIES FOR SHRINKAGE, a City Design and Development Forum lecture series that brought practitioners in different disciplines, from landscape to photography, to discuss ideas for action in the shrinking city.