Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How to revitalize a neighborhood—The Congo Street Green Initiative

In the Congo Street Green Initiative the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP (founded and run by my friend Brent Brown) pioneered a new approach to revitalizating distressed urban neighborhood. Prior revitalization efforts relied on one of two approaches:

1. Slum clearance—The slum clearance approach, now largely outdated and abandoned, treated entire neighborhoods as a blight, acquired relatively large tracts (often through eminent domain), which were then cleared of all existing structures, and attempted to create a new neighborhood on the old site. While there was some value in the comprehensiveness of this approach, it failed to value the existing social and built structure of the neighborhood. It treated people and social structures as fungible. Even when successful in creating a new neighborhood, those neighborhoods often did not include the former residents of the site and the new neighborhoods often had little or no social cohesion and as a result suffered from high crime rates and an entire lack of social cohesion. Think Cabrini Green.

2. Urban Infill—The urban infill approach emerged as a reaction to slum clearance. In this approach vacant lots or houses in need of demolition are filled with new construction, one home at a time. This approach respects the integrity of the neighborhood and its existing physical and social structures. Sometimes this approach is couple with efforts to improve or repair existing homes. The problem with the urban infill approach is its lack of comprehensiveness. One new house does little to reclaim the neighborhood (and may be difficult to sell) if it is located between two decaying structures. In many cases the rate of construction of new homes fails to exceed the rate of decay of existing structures, and the neighborhood as a whole fails to improve.
3. A new Approach: The Congo Street Green Initiative—Working in partnership with residents of Congo Street in South Dallas, the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP has developed a new idea for neighborhood revitalization based on the concept of the “Holding House”. The Holding House is a new infill home built in the neighborhood, but rather than being sold to a new or existing residence, the Holding House is used as a temporary residence within the neighborhood for neighbors to live in while their home undergoes repair or replacement. After a two or three month stay in the Holding House, the neighbor will return to their own, newly refurbished home and the next neighbor will move into the Holding House while work is done on their home.This strategy combines the best features of the two previous methods. It is comprehensive, although its strategy to become comprehensive is temporal rather than spatial. It keeps neighbors in their own neighborhood, retains social cohesion, makes as much use of the existing physical structure as is feasible, and benefits the current residents of the neighborhood, not some hypothetical new residents.

In short, it’s the first promising new idea to revitalize distressed urban neighborhoods in many years. We are now working with Habitat for Humanity, Central Dallas Ministries and, of course, the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP to bring this idea to scale. If the is as promising as it first appears, then Dallas will become the new thought center of urban revitalization.

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