Chicago’s Future in the Balance: Architecture Think Tank Explores Great Lakes Megaregion
Symposium and design exhibition unite disciplines to consider architectural community’s role in responding to climate change and income disparity.
Tomorrow’s architecture student, according to Thomas Fisher of the University of Minnesota, is best served when professors, practicing architects, and community members join in the educational process. Fisher, keynote speaker at Legat Architects’ Think Tank 2019: Megaregion, also encouraged a shift in the architectural profession “from a trade that keeps trade secrets to a profession that shares knowledge.”
It was in this spirit of shared knowledge that community members, policymakers, educators, students, and members of the architecture, engineering, planning, and construction industries gathered at Legat’s fifth annual Think Tank. The September 27 symposium and design exhibition was held at 325 North Wells Street in Chicago, the hub of the Great Lakes Megaregion that the event explored.
One track covering design-related issues took place at DIRTT Environmental Solutions’ tenth-floor Green Learning Center; Kimball’s second-floor showroom hosted the other track, which focused on policy. Speakers and panelists included academics, designers, governmental agency representatives, and even a former politician who now practices as an architect.
Though the topics discussed at presentations and panels were diverse, the day revealed a central truth: as cities face major repercussions stemming from climate change and income disparity, the time has come for designers, building owners, and municipalities to work together to reduce dependence on carbon-wasting activities and instead focus on uniting people in walkable neighborhoods with access to public transit.
“Many large American cities have come to a fork in the road,” said Legat President/CEO Patrick Brosnan. “One direction involves doing nothing about the climate and energy threats and awaiting catastrophic results. The Think Tank is all about moving in the other direction by embracing mass transit solutions, pursuing ecological renewal, and empowering sustainable, diverse communities.”
Think Tank partners included Legat Architects, DIRTT, Kimball, K.R. Miller Contractors, and site design group. Keep reading to learn more about speakers and key takeaways from the Chicago Architecture Biennial partner event.
Track A: Design
The first track, which concentrated on design, took place in DIRTT’s Green Learning Center. Speakers included the following:
- María Arquero de Alarcón (MAde Studio, University of Michigan) talked about Detroit’s struggles with gentrification, bridging social and environmental agendas, and low-income neighborhoods stemming from failed infrastructure and policies enacted in the first half of the 20th century.
- Kit McCullough’s (University of Michigan) lecture on urban mobility explored transit discrepancies between high- and low-income communities, problems stemming from baby boomers’ “love affair with the car,” and the “knotty” challenge of creating 20-minute neighborhoods without displacing people.
- The “before” and “after” photos shown by Ernest Wong (site design group) demonstrated the dramatic transformations sparked by revenue-generating “signature plans” of outdoor spaces ranging from parks to streetscapes.
- Dr. Joseph Schwieterman (The Chaddick Institute at DePaul University) brought attendees up to speed with Chicago’s transportation challenges related to high-speed rail, better serving the south side, and connectivity with buses.
The Track A panel, moderated by Alan Frost (Judson University), examined “Regional Infrastructure as a Response to Climate Change and Displacement.” Among the topics covered were large versus small plans, how to uncover neighborhoods assets, urban citizenship, and the role of public/private partnerships. Panelists included:
- María Arquero de Alarcón (MAde Studio, University of Michigan)
- Thomas Fisher (University of Minnesota)
- Kerl LaJeune (Public Building Commission of Chicago, Atelier Azara)
- Joseph Schwieterman (The Chaddick Institute at DePaul University)
Track B: Policy
Kimball’s showroom hosted Track B, which explored policy and its impact on the megaregion. This track also offered a diverse selection of speakers:
- Elizabeth Schuh (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning [CMAP]) drew from her experience developing CMAP’s ON TO 2050 Plan to investigate topics such as housing affordability, transportation infrastructure, and easing the burden on low-income communities.
- Ryan Gann (Ross Barney Architects, associate director for AIA Chicago) covered the role of the river in Chicago’s urban and economic development, including problems with pollution and the current rebirth highlighted by the Chicago Riverwalk.
- As both a former member of the Louisiana House of Representatives and a practicing architect, Stephen J. Ortego (SO/Studio) offered a unique perspective on how policy and architecture converge (or collide) when it comes to climate change, natural disasters, and energy consumption.
- Jen Maigret (University of Michigan, PLY+ Architecture) shared some of the challenges of improving Detroit’s water infrastructure, as well as a Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) landscape project that absorbs stormwater, promotes multiple uses, and extends the “grittiness” of the museum’s image.
Issues ranging from public interface to parking problems came up during the Track B panel “Public Design as a Public Service: Opportunities and Challenges,” moderated by Linda Keane (Studio 1032, School of the Art Institute of Chicago). The panel included the following participants:
- Joel Kerner (Studio Joel Kerner)
- Jen Maigret (University of Michigan, PLY+ Architecture)
- Kit McCullough (University of Michigan)
- Stephen J. Ortego (SO/Studio)
Think Tank Takeaway 1: Low-income Communities Need Empowerment
María Arquero de Alarcón discussed the plight of Detroit’s Poletown East community. In the 1930s, it had a population of nearly 65,000 and was the thriving center of Detroit’s Polish community. By 2010, the population dropped to under 2,000 with an average household income of $42,000. This case study is one of many examples of the market force-driven devolution of numerous urban communities.
Several Think Tank participants delved into the problems disadvantaged communities face. Kit McCullough, for instance, pointed out that the urban transit infrastructure is denser on Chicago’s north side than it is on the south, where lower-income families could benefit from it.
Joel Kerner brought up the generic responses coming from public interface. “We want people to voice their opinions,” he said, “but we’re getting the same opinions whether they’re on the South Side of Chicago or in Houston.” This reality, according to Kerner, drives designers to have an “insular” viewpoint that assumes they know what communities want.
What all contributors agreed upon is the need for cities and designers to undertake renewed efforts to reduce geographic inequalities.
Think Tank Takeaway 2: Mass Transit as Hero
Think Tank speakers stressed the importance of reducing reliance on automobiles. What it takes, according to Elizabeth Schuh, is reimagining spaces between buildings and rethinking the design of streets.
McCollough said, “People are running around like crazy and it’s murder on the parents.” She argued that both parents and children benefit from the 20-minute neighborhood, where everything needed (including access to transit) is within a 20-minute walk. But then there are the problems that come with gentrification.
Though urban planners continue to push for transit-oriented developments in which rail and bus play a prominent role, progress is slow going. Contributing factors, according to Joseph Schwieterman, include political “turf wars” and county resistance, whether it involves connecting the South Side to downtown Chicago or bringing a high-speed rail network to the Midwest. Additionally, he argues that transit isn’t given the prominence it needs. For instance, the Chicago region has undertaken several “mega projects where transit is an afterthought and transit market share is closer to 20 percent than 50 percent.”
But there is hope: Schwieterman cited major multimodal developments underway in Moline and Rockford, Illinois. Moreover, more and more people entering the urban workforce do not own cars and instead rely on the city’s public transportation options. The hope is that public demand will push government action.
Thomas Fisher’s closing presentation revealed that the forthcoming shared autonomous vehicles will not only reduce emissions and promote efficiency, but will also reduce the need for wide roads—what was once impermeable asphalt or concrete will become porous land that absorbs rainwater. Moreover, Fisher predicted that “we’ll be able to use 30% of our land needed to park cars for other uses.”
Think Tank Takeaway 3: Do More with Less
Fisher pointed out the irony of a vacated, heated 40-story office building with a homeless person sitting outside . . . yet cities say they have no room for the homeless.
Such a phenomenon, observable in cities throughout the U.S., is symptomatic of the country’s reluctance to transcend what Fisher calls the “old economy” and its emphasis on capital accumulation, the result of which is that “so few people have so much and so many people have so little.”
“We have to stop building so much, and start being much more creative with the built environment that we already have.” – Thomas Fisher
One of Fisher’s key recommendations for the transition to the “new economy” of abundance and assets is the sharing of resources. “We have to stop building so much,” he said, “and start being much more creative with the built environment that we already have.”
Jen Maigret gave a strong example of a project that promotes multiple uses. Her firm’s project at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit creates a parking lot that also serves as a larger plaza.
In a recent Detroit Free Press article, architect Craig Borum of PLY+ said, “Rather than thinking of it as a parking lot that you can have a summer concert in, we’re thinking of it as a place where you have an event that also sometimes accommodates parking. We’re just trying to flip the equation.”
Think Tank Takeaway 4: Smaller Steps Toward Big Changes
Citing recent large-scale city plans that keep getting pushed back, Alan Frost asked his panel, “Are we making big plans with small changes? Or can we make small plans that could result in big changes?”
Kerl LaJeune said, “Big plans sell books, but the hard work is really small and it’s always been really small. The grassroots level of looking at planning and design only happens when you get people in a room.”
Schwieterman added that, “The stars haven’t aligned for a global master plan.”
One suggestion that repeatedly came up throughout the symposium was the need for designers to drive change (whether large or small) by presenting opportunities, rather than waiting to be approached.
Think Tank Takeaway 5: Cooler Cities
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heat waves cause more deaths in American cities than all other weather-related events combined. Many of the hottest areas are in low-income neighborhoods. Thus, with climate change causing rising temperatures, reducing cities’ surface temperatures is a matter of life and death.
“The city is an ecosystem. It provides a compact habitat for humans and preserves the natural habitat for other species.” – Douglas Kelbaugh
Douglas Kelbaugh cited an urban heat island study that revealed a correlation between temperature and income in Oakland. It showed that wealthier people live in cooler zones, while underprivileged people live in the hottest regions. He also discussed how “urban canyons” (i.e., tall buildings on both sides of a street) contribute to the heat island effect.
Kelbaugh presented actionable steps for making cities cooler, chief among them bringing more shade, which has the greatest effect on comfort. He argued that the best source of shade are trees, “our best friends” that bring many other benefits. Other recommendations for turning down temperatures included whitewashing streets and roofs, as well as lightening pavement and exterior walls.
Think Tank Takeaway 6: Better Connections to Waterways
The industrialization of Chicago degraded the city’s river until it became a near cesspool of sewage and waste. Fortunately, recent preservation efforts have resulted in major improvements. Ryan Gann reported that the number of fish species in the river has risen from seven in the 1970s to over 70 today.
Projects such as Ross Barney Architects’ Chicago Riverwalk have put the spotlight on the renowned waterway and brought Chicagoans and tourists, according to Gann, “as close as we can get to swimming in the river.” There’s even a section with fountains for kids to play in clean, filtered water next to the unfiltered river water.
Think Tank Takeaway 7: City as Ecosystem Via Density
Environmentalists and urbanists alike suggest that density is key for the progress of the city. Kelbaugh compared the ideal city to an ecosystem that “provides a compact habitat for humans and preserves the natural habitat for other species.”
Kerner said density starts with taking up a smaller footprint. His firm developed a concept that fits a Cornell University satellite campus into a small footprint within the allotted site and “gives the rest back to ecological space.”
“It’s ridiculous for us to continue to plan for car parking and storage in a way that we have for decades.” – Joel Kerner
Kerner also advocates layering to reduce “surface redundancies.” This not only promotes density, but also reduces the heat island effect. The concept involves stacking different functions to occupy a smaller footprint. Why not, suggested Kerner, add parks, homes, or other functions atop the wide-open roofs of big box stores?
Participants also spoke extensively about the challenges with parking in the coming years. Kerner envisions a future where autonomous vehicles drop off people, then “go stack themselves at a more compact garage . . . no longer on the core, but somewhere on the periphery. It’s ridiculous for us to continue to plan for car parking and storage in a way that we have for decades where people are parking in structures with wide aisles and high ceilings.”
Ortego added that high rents in metropolises like Chicago are driving people to smaller, more affordable cities that still have an urban/downtown feel. The key for these mid-sized cities, according to Ortego, is to “get into the parking business” to stimulate density. He argued that when such cities invest in parking structures, it attracts developers to develop the surface parking that is freed as a result. McCullough added that once cities hit “peak car” (i.e., when automobile distance traveled per capita peaks and starts to fall), the garages can be knocked down and redeveloped.
“Why should always be a question when trying to impact public policy.” – Kerl LaJeune
Think Tank Takeaway 8: Public/Private Cooperation and the Power of “Why?”
One theme that emerged in several Think Tank presentations and panels was antiquated codes and regulations preventing the advancement of sustainable cities. Maigret, for example, revealed that outdated Michigan codes prevent rather than advocate for the recovery of rainwater.
Kerner said, “If the regulatory environment is more stringent in terms of energy demands or less parking, but looser in terms of form-based codes, we can really start to push change rapidly.”
Architects and engineers, therefore, have the responsibility of educating clients, cities, and the public about the need for innovation. One of the keys ways of overcoming obstacles to change, according to Fisher, is asking “why” certain policies are enacted. “If you ask why they do it that way and they come up with ‘We don’t know’ or ‘That’s the way it’s always been done,’ that’s the opening of innovation.”
LaJeune, having overseen many public projects in Chicago, said, “Because it’s public, the automatic assumption is that it’s supposed to be simple and not innovative when in fact my goal is to push the pressure of why every time. Why should always be a question when trying to impact public policy.”
Several Think Tank participants also commented on the growing need for public-private partnerships (PPPs) to increase the densification of cities. In this scenario, government agencies work with private entities that help fund, build, and operate projects.
LaJeune pointed out the PPP successes the University of Illinois at Chicago has had in the last decade, but also brought up a major impediment when it comes to PPPs: finding a way to activate projects like community centers or parks that have no revenue.
Design Exhibition: Chicago Megaregion 2050
The Ellis/Lake Park station has sat vacant and deteriorating in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood for more than 60 years. The station, once a thriving stop along the Chicago Transit Authority’s Kenwood branch that was decommissioned in 1957, exemplifies the missed opportunities that Think Tank contributors identified.
Carson Reynolds, however, sees an opportunity to transform the station and the entire Kenwood branch from a “community nuisance” to a “point of community pride and a hallmark of neighborhood identity.” His “Kenwood Connection,” one of 11 concepts in the Think Tank design exhibition, reimagines the branch as a park that promotes fitness, education, socialization, food production, and entertainment all while avoiding displacement of existing residents. Reynolds’s willingness to reuse existing structures and create more green space earned his concept the “Most Sustainable Work” and “Best Student Work” awards in the Think Tank’s design exhibition.
Titled Chicago Megaregion 2050, the exhibition challenged designers to select one of four key obstacles (i.e., housing and homelessness, rivers and watersheds, green spaces, transportation and mobility) that Chicago faces, then develop a solution and show how it will affect the city in the year 2050.
“While we expected conceptual responses to the four challenge areas outlined in the design brief, we were stunned by the specificity and quality of the solutions presented by this year’s entrants,” said event coordinator Justin Banda. “Whether they focused on transforming decaying infrastructure or creating volunteer-assembled cold shelters for the homeless, the concepts pulled no punches—from rethinking the missing middle in Chicago’s housing stock to re-evaluating the way our region handles water and sewage overflow, each board had something to say about the existential issues that we face as a city and as a multistate megaregion.”
Urban designer Adrien Logeay, winner of the “Most Resilient Work” award, set his sights on another long-overlooked territory: the “outdated industrial corridors [that] continue to fracture Chicago’s urban fabric.” His “(RE)think the Industrial Corridors” concept proposes ways of reinvigorating Chicago’s underused post-industrial infrastructure, like that in the Pilsen Corridor, to promote economic and social growth. Logeay’s ideas range from redeveloping the river edge as a public plaza to transforming an old plant into a public museum.
Winners in each category received a $100 gift card:
- Audience Award: Tyler Wade and Andrew Witek for “Transitional Housing”
- Best Student Work: Carson Reynolds for “Kenwood Connection”
- Best Visualization: Steve Blye for “Critically Cold Shelter”
- Most Educational Work: Adam Quigley for “Housing & Homelessness”
- Most Innovative Work: Jess Carlson and Audrey Blankenship for “Reimagining Site Retention”
- Most Pragmatic Work: Steve Blye for “Critically Cold Shelter”
- Most Resilient Work: Adrien Logeay for “(RE)think the Industrial Corridors”
- Most Sustainable Work: Carson Reynolds for “Kenwood Connection”
- Promotes Health & Wellness: Tianye Zhou for “Oasis in Chicago”
Peering into the Lens of Urban Citizenship
Schwieterman noted that in the ’80s, Chicago-area suburbanites would tell out-of-staters that they were from Des Plaines, Naperville, or whatever city or village they lived in. Today, however, he’s noticed that people living in these same communities say that they’re from Chicago. “People in suburbs identify with Chicago. They want connections to a global city that makes them a part of something bigger, more cosmopolitan, and more creative . . . and we don’t have that city/suburban tension we used to have.”
This change illustrates Alan Frost’s observation about “reframing local, national, and immigrant identities through the lens of urban citizenship . . . to create a more inclusive and diverse definition of citizen.”
What is at the crux of this shift to inclusiveness and environmental responsibility when it comes to the Great Lakes Megaregion (and the U.S.’s other megaregions)? The answer, based on the knowledge shared at Think Tank 2019, is design.
“Design is a leadership skill desperately needed in the world,” said Fisher. “Designers need to engage more broadly than just the built environment. They need to see we have a way of reframing issues and asking questions that those in other spheres aren’t asking.”
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