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Urban Fabric: What happens when you let innovation lead

For many of us, graduating can often appear to be the end of romanticism and the beginning of practicality. After experiencing a period of enlightenment and conceptual thinking in school, we hang up our proverbial thinking caps and enter the working world, which seems, for the most part, cloaked in banal monotony. As we take our first steps toward professional practice, we sometimes leave our intellectual half unfulfilled and neglected, and often yearn for richer, more provocative experiences. Upon graduating from Harvard’s GSD and beginning work at Sasaki Associates in the summer of 2010, Alexis Canter and Eamonn Hutton took a conscious step to integrate these two seemingly distant worlds.

In October, after working full time for a few months, Canter and Hutton approached Gina Ford, a landscape principal at Sasaki, with the idea to conduct a research project that would investigate the declining quality of life in the American industrial city. Ford was highly receptive to their exploration and proposed that the firm play a strong supportive role in their research development and execution. In addition to their regularly scheduled workweek, Canter and Hutton spent countless hours conducting research, collecting data, meeting city officials and rigorously compiling information. They met monthly with principals and associates, all of whom contributed to the project’s ideas and research methods. Sasaki’s encouragement was not only crucial in the development of Canter and Hutton’s research but also critical in funding site visits, providing office resources and marketing the project. This collaborative effort and supportive environment created the opportunity for their research to evolve into what it has become to date—an exhibition and lecture series titled Urban Fabric: Strategies for American Cities.

Urban Fabric culminated into an investigative-research effort that closely examines three carefully chosen American industrial cities: Fall River, Massachusetts; Mobile, Alabama; and Newark, New Jersey. Each largely relied on one industry, textiles, to function. The initial investigation began as a means to discover the reason these once-thriving cities have become degraded and neglected. The exhibition profiles in great detail the political, social, cultural and economic characteristics of each city, presented in beautiful graphics and eloquent text.

During their travels, Canter and Hutton collected street interviews from the locals, providing emotional viewpoints to supplement the quantitative research. Listening to the personal accounts of life in American industrial “middle-cities” created a true understanding of the suppression the citizens living there felt.

After one of the Urban Fabric presentations, Ford explained the misconception that many people share, which is that the city is a self-healing entity and that, over time, things will recover. This simply is not true and has been proven through Canter and Hutton’s findings. They examined a large number of urban precedents, including the Five Borough Farm in Brooklyn, New York, by the Design Trust for Public Space, which begins to inform the elements of successful urbanism through inclusion and activation in once-stressed environments. Projects such as these offer insight into the possible design strategies that can be explored in the future. In their study of Fall River, for example, Canter and Hutton examined the effects on the city after local production had left and many of the residents and workers remained, regardless of the lack of work and uncertain economic growth. They began to question how the absence of industry continued to shape the city and contribute to its economics, politics and culture, and then how intervention could revitalize the afflicted area. They found that as a result of a rise in overseas production, many of Fall River’s mills became abandoned, leaving more than 10 million gross square feet of residual mill space within the city. They composed studies of realized mill renovation strategies that have contributed to the revitalization of inactivated sites around the country to begin discussion of how to move forward in these conflicted areas. Over the next several months, Canter, Hutton and the rest of Sasaki will continue to study and explore possibilities within these middle cities, most of which have lost their identities.

In addition to the exhibit, Sasaki has invited several landscape architects, research professionals and urbanists to give lectures and lead discussions every Wednesday and Friday, now until the beginning of May 2011. These lectures, coupled with Canter and Hunter’s research, have created a massive think-tank environment at Sasaki that has opened up discussion of how to cure these midtier cities from their economic demise.

With Canter and Hunter’s efforts and Sasaki’s support, provocative thought and practicality are harmonious, and academia has been successfully stitched with professionalism to create a brilliant thought-stimulating environment that nurtures progression.

Read more on “gateway cities” in ArchitectureBoston magazine.

Michael Paganetti received his MArch from Wentworth Institute of Technology in May 2010. He is currently working at DiMella Shaffer as an architectural intern and is aspiring to become licensed through the firm’s Intern Development Program. In addition to working, Paganetti enjoys traveling and visiting historic urban spaces and structures around the world.

Photo credit for exhibition triptych: Mary Lewey, Sasaki Associates.