Category Archives: region

John Yeon: Modern Architecture and Conservation in the Pacific Northwest

Those not hailing from the Pacific Northwest may be less familiar with John Yeon, one of the influential figures in architecture and conservation and the development of a unique brand of regional modernism.  If you don’t know Yeon, or you want to learn more, you will be pleasantly satisfied with the recent volume from Oro Editions by Marc Treib, “John Yeon: Modern Architecture and Conservation in the Pacific Northwest”  The life and arc of Yeon’s career is carefully documented with many images and illustrations spanning his diverse and influential career.  And while I knew of and about much of his work, the detail unlocked a greater understanding of the key themes of regionalism, materiality, landscape, and conservation that are just as resonant and relevant today.

As introduced by Treib, Yeon is best know for his residential design, embodying the concept of ‘regional modern architecture’ and designs shaped by “sensitive siting, planning, masses, use of wood, and accommodation of contemporary living” the epitomy of which is the Watzek House completed early in his career in Portland in 1937.  This style “set the bar for many of the region’s houses that followed in its wake.”  The exterior rooflines juxtaposed with Mount Hood in the background, and the amazing interior wood detailing ground this as a touchstone worthy of exploration.

Beyond being a residential designer, Yeon, who was largely self-taught, brought a passion for many causes surrounding conservation and planning throughout his career, becoming a vocal advocate for landscape preservation, sensitive roadway design, scenic areas, all stemming from his regionalism of a different sort, his roots in his home place.  As Treib mentions,

“John Yeon lived in the present, held a deep appreciation for the past, but was always concerned with the future.  He understood and was troubled by the threats that development posed to the Oregon landscape and actively sought to confront and mitigate the problems they caused.”

This included work in the Columbia River Gorge, now an officially designated Scenic Area, and his purchase of land now known as The Shire, which “became a test ground, a playground, a retreat for the architect, and a tool to inspire key activists and funders of his preservation efforts.”

The area is now the John Yeon Center for Architecture and the Landscape, operated by University of Oregon and providing a legacy appropriate to Yeon’s passion for study and education specific to the region.  “The Shire is a center for Pacific Northwest landscape studies while being preserved as an example of landscape design. It provides an educational site for the study of landscape preservation, design, ecology, and management creating opportunities for individuals and study groups to engage in research and discussion of landscape architecture, planning, conservation and preservation issues associated with the Columbia River Gorge, the Pacific Northwest region, and the nation.”

The book explores in detail many of these topics, and provides lots of in depth discussion on Yeon’s self-taught architectural vocabulary, his innovative use of materials, his advocacy and conservation efforts, as well as his life-long love of art and collecting.  It also focuses on his pursuit of architecture as a relatively solitary endeavor, and his eschewing both formal education and working for larger firms to pursue his own path. Coming from an affluent family, he had perhaps some unique opportunities to travel at a young age,  which influenced his thinking around architecture, and access to some clients that gave him opportunities beyond his age and experience.

That said, his intuition as a designer, along with his evolution among established Portland architects like A.E. Doyle (whose office Yeon worked briefly) and contemporaries such as emerging talents like Pietro Belluschi offered some structure and assistance on projects.  As Treib mentions, “It is evident that in the early stages of their training, an exchange of ideas and influences passed between Yeon and Belluschi”.

The interior and exterior relationship of Watzek house is thoroughly modern, and Yeon’s feel for exterior environment is deft.  The courtyard and pool engaged the house on all sides, as Treib outlines:

“The Watzek house and landscape were conceived as an interrelated unit, but within that unity, Yeon played an intensified landscape of native species against areas — such as the courtyard and the zone outside the living room — that stood out as designed spaces.”

The use of the borrowed native Pacific Northwest landscape seemed to fit the design more than the actual design plantings, which in a residential context makes sense, with some plantings strategically employed for functions like screening and directing views, or to create and reinforce outdoor rooms.  The strong connection of architecture and landscape influences my design aesthetic, embodied in the formalism of the Watzek house portico, where Yeon “projected the interval between the portico posts as lines of paving stones set within the lawn, in effect, using rows of stones to echo the rhythm of the house architecture in the softest of voices.”

These concepts were not unique to Yeon, but still define much of regional modern design today, and at the time, much like his architectural style, were fresh and new.  Architects will also appreciate his experimentation with ‘ventilators’ which allow for user control of interior environments.  I also appreciated the deep dive into the Watzek house, as well as some of his subsequent work with the use of plywood as a building material, and the experimentation with modular designs strategies, all of which referenced his favorite and most regional of material, wood, but showcased the level of design detailing Yeon became famous for, using 1:1 drawings to investigate specific joints and interfaces of materials for functional and aesthetic reasons.  The sophistication of this is seen, for instance in the Cottrell House (below).

Also significant were the other plywood houses were the epitome of regional style, 9 of which were built in the Portland metro areas, like this super simple Speculative House in North Portland, built in 1939.

This also started sporting the Yeon blue-green paint he became famous for, most visibly applied to the 1948 Visitors Information Center located along Waterfront Park.

Yeon did venture beyond Portland to build a few houses in California, which is documented in the book, and he did live and work on the Oregon Coast (along with but most of his work was close to home and predominately residential.  And while he was known early for Watzek house, Treib posits that “the Swan house could claim first place as the most cohesive representation of Pacific Northwest regional modernism”

The book moves from residential architecture and design to art collecting and museum work which occupied much of his later life, along with the active conservation work mentioned previously.  This aspect will be enjoyable to those passionate about and interested in the history of Northwest environmentalism, as Yeon was a heroic figure in many of the fights for beautiful and ecologically significant places we enjoy today.  Chapter 7 highlights much of the work on the Oregon Coast, and the Columbia River Gorge, where Yeon served by appointment on the State Parks Commission at the age of 21 and fervently fought even then, using his own funds to buy land that was threatened, again owing to his not small amount of privilege.

He wrote letters on scenic beautification of highways, making cogent arguments on the impact of road designs that did not follow the contours of the land, and the need to plant wide enough areas to allow for visual impact and survivability.  As Treib points out “This knowledge of forestry and road design for a twenty-one year old is impressive, as is the young man’s confidence in lecturing men with decades of experience beyond his own.”

The early work on sensitive siting of roadways, such as the alignment of Highway 101 on the Oregon coast in the 1940s, evolved through the work in the 1960s dovetailed with larger interest in roadside beautification with work from designers and advocates alike striving for a more beautiful landscape experience and a more sensitive approach to road design, perhaps harkening back to the approach that Frederick Law Olmsted took a century before.  Yeon’s work focused this larger trend, with an eye towards the particular landscape experience, as Treib summarizes:

“Yeon was an evangelist for the Oregon landscape.”

The Shire was the major reflection of this trend, where Yeon fought against the wind and elements of the Gorge to shape a partly natural and partly designed space.  “Yeon’s design for the landscape, developed over decades, lovingly integrated land and water.  The tightly mown, and level-edged paths played effectively against the high grasses that blanketed most horizontal surfaces.  Paths traversed meadows, climbed outcroppings, and skirted the river — all aesthetically considered.”

The final chapter sums his focus on spending more time on projects benefiting the social good, and while he still did some residential work.  He fought for more scenic highways near Multnomah Falls, and championed designs for the Portland Waterfront Park, as well as holding the torch for a Pacific Northwest modern style that influenced architecture today.  It’s interesting reading the last chapter on how Yeon grappled with the concept of regionalism, and his role in defining it.  While the Watzek house and other residential designs were regional in form and material, he still presented that “the very existence of “a Northwest regional style of architecture is debatable”.  The connection to the land is an important factor, as well as the connections between folk architecture.

“We like to think that the visual character of the landscape shaped the vision of its inhabitants so that they conjured up [and] translated the spirit of the place into forms which were habitable.  Possibly people and landscapes have so modified each other that it is impossible to tell from the resulting composite regionalist landscape which influence is the primary one.  When we see this … phenomenon from the past, it is perhaps strongest where the inhabitants were unsophisticated — for knowledge of a broader world caused a seepage of alien influences which diluted the special regional flavor.” (251)

This concept of regionalism is perhaps the most compelling part of the narrative of the book and the life of John Yeon.  Regionalism as a stylistic element, but also regionalism as a way of living and loving the place you inhabit.  An amazing life makes for good reading, and Treib does a great job packing a lot of diversity into an easy to absorb story.  As a man with that took a unique path, John Yeon benefited much from his privilege to have the freedom to pursue his passions in a less formal way could have become a path of self-indulgence.  He was an artist, but his passion for the Oregon landscape and his life-long pursuit of it’s protection made him a true, regional hero.



Urban Ecology

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Urban Ecology: Science of Cities by Richard T.T. Forman (Cambridge University Press, 2014).  Since arrival a couple of days ago, i have not been disappointed, and this shapes up to be one of the most up to date resources for ecological principals applied to urban areas to date.


Forman needs no introduction to anyone who has engaged in landscape ecology, which his seminal writings such as ‘Landscape Ecology’ (with Godron, 1986), ‘Land Mosaics: The Ecology of Landscapes and Regions’ (1995), more recent ‘Urban Regions: Ecology and Planning Beyond the City’ (2008).  He also was involved in one the most accessible handbooks that should be on every designers shelf, ‘Landscape Ecology Principles in Landscape Architecture and Land-Use Planning’ (with Dramstad & Olson – 1996).  That is merely a snapshot of the multitude of papers and books he has been involved in.  The connection to urban areas i think is notable, and perhaps due to a long standing appointment teaching urban ecology through the Harvard Graduate School of Design, there is a connection to design and planning in a way that is not captured in typical ecological literature.  As we expand cities and continue to look for ways to connect design and planning with science, it becomes more and more vital for these elements to work in tandem.

In the books Foreward, Mark J. McDonnell elucidates this point in reaching our goal, by “incorporation of ecological knowledge and principles into the management and creation of cities in order to develop healthy, livable, sustainable, and resilient urban ecosystems.” (ix).  He goes further in explaining the disconnect:

“…there has been a mismatch between the questions that planners, designers, and decision-makers are asking urban ecologists, and the questions that urban ecologists are asking to advance the science of urban ecology.” (x)

To achieve this, we need to get on the same page, or more concisely, to align the questions practitioners need answered with the research that is being conducted.  While it is inevitable that reductive techniques will continue to guide science by definition, creating small snapshots of data, there needs to be a middle ground where funding is available for applied research, and holistic study.  At the very least, better channels of communication are the key, as McDonnell mentions:  “Recently, there have been calls within the discipline of urban ecology to bridge the gap between basic and applied urban ecology research by increasing the interactions between scientists and practitioners, by adopting a comparative approach to the study of cities and towns, and by identifying more general principles regarding the effects of urbanization on ecological patterns and processes.” (x)

In the Preface, Forman continues this line of thinking, mentioning the needs for our now fully urban “Homo sapiens urbanus” develop applied theory, and to “catalyze urban ecology as accessible and appealing” (xiii).  Urban Ecology is the framework, building on the essential aspects of interactions with organisms and their environment to a more expansive concept of urban ecology (xii):

… Interactions of organisms, built structures, and the physical environment, where people are concentrated.

He mentions in this context the connection to the scholarship and history of landscape ecology at the core, and much as the nascent theories of Landscape Urbanism and Ecological Urbanism called for – applications beyond just parks and green spaces, but to “…ecologically explore the entire urban area – streets, walls, lawns, industrial sites, sewer systems, artifact-rich soil, aerial components, roofs, commercial centers, parks, dumps and much more.” (xii-xiii)  This more expansive ‘urban nature’ is instructive, a point of which seemed to mystify those whom didn’t understand the central tenets Landscape Urbanism, into thinking that landscape = green space, which of course meant modernist ‘towers in the park’ and green space at the expense of urban vitality.  Perhaps the use of urban ecology in place of landscape urbanism gives a more scientifically grounded and less apt to misinterpretation, but to me they are part of the same family, as they are derived from flexibilty, change, and understanding of complexity.

It also allows us to connect to scale, as the interconnectivity of issues and opportunities changes with grain size and resolution, and incorporate mechanisms of growing, shrinking, and polycentrism with “perspective from city to urban region” (xiii) which Forman explored in ‘Urban Regions’, and now moves into a smaller scale.  This is explained as:

“…peeling back our familiar human layer reveals the fundamental natural and built patterns of a city, how it works, and how it changes.  Lots of lucid patterns and processes appear.  The world of eternal flow, especially in urban networks, emerges.” (xiii).

The book offers some hope to reconciling this disconnect and opportunity of a urban focuses ecology that is interdisciplinary in order to better approach our current complexity of the modern city.  More on this as i delve into the chapters in depth.

Islands of Seattle

This map of Seattle by UW Planner Jeffrey Linn via a post on The Whole U, features a speculation on sea level change in the Seattle region. The result is dramatic when taken to the level of complete world ice-sheets melting resulting in a 240′ sea level rise.  Particularly is you live in certain parts of town.  I think we’re all gonna need a bigger boat.


While obviously turning the volume up to 11 on the flood potential (a total rise of 240 feet), it interesting is this city of hills to see the sort of archipelago-like flavor to the region.   As Linn mentions:

“This map is based on real-world information—I created the Seattle sea levels from publicly-available LiDAR data, rendering the rise of the seas in 10-foot increments for the animation, starting at the current shoreline, and ending with the 240-foot level. The Islands of Seattle poster was rendered at 240 feet of rise, which is roughly what would happen if all the world’s ice sheets melted”

The animation and a closeup detail.

islandsofseattle_smaller2   20140104detail3_streets

See more details, see the animation, buy posters? and check out Linn’s very new blog Spatialities for more. One thing I didn’t realize until i looked at the comments on his blog, was that some of the taller downtown buildings above the water would be sticking out, such as a half-submerged Space Needle perhaps?  I’d love to see this rendered over some aerial shots to get the full potential, and identify some current upland property that might be a nice shoreline property someday in the distant future.

While the references to the horror of “The Road or Blade Runner or Metropolis.” are evoked, i’d say it’s indicative of a much worse post-apocalyptic vision.  Enjoy.

Watershed Moments

The previous post outlining the “River Maps” (01.10.14) got me thinking about watersheds and the differences between natural boundary delineation vs. political boundaries.  Long-time readers will note the recurrence of the Powell map on Landscape+Urbanism “Natural Boundary/Political Boundary” (11.24.10), which has gotten some more attention lately.


Powell’s map is derived from observation, as mentioned in Strange Maps:

“Powell was convinced that only a small fraction of the American West was suitable for agriculture (3). His Report proposed irrigation systems fed by a multitude of small dams (instead of the few huge ones in operation today) and state borders based on watershed areas. The bulk of the arid regions should be reserved for conservation and low-intensity grazing. But other interests were at work; the railway companies lobbied for large-scale settlement and agricultural development.”

It’s also a counterpoint to the prevalence of the Jeffersonian grid as realized through the through the Public Land Survey System (with a good primer and online tool here – National Atlas).  This resulted in the very square patterning of our current state boundaries that we’re all familiar with today.


A new map from John Lavey at the Sonoran Institute “The United (Watershed) States of America” takes Powell’s mapping exercise for the west to it’s logical conclusion and re-drew the boundaries within the framework of the continental US states.  As mentioned on the site:

Which gets me to my “what if”: What if the Western states were formed around watershed as Powell envisioned? What would that look like and could we speculate on what that might mean for the functioning of modern communities? And since we’re going down that road, let’s ask another what if: What if all of the American states were based around principal watershed, from coast to coast – something even Powell didn’t consider.


The comments on the map are pretty interesting as well – skewering some of the map choices like the Oregon coast being part of Washington, or quibbling over some details.  The point is, it’s a much different conversation that you have when you consider natural features as markers of ‘place’.  It also flips many boundary notions on their heads, as rivers no longer act as dividers between states and co-managed fringes, but rather become central to the places they inhabit… the central spines of districts.

There are obviously innate watershed boundaries that exist already, governed by the size of the catchment area.  The ‘Watershed Boundary Dataset‘ shows the United States map with these Hydrologic Unit Codes (HUC) areas delineated for each basin.


And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t delve right into the scalar nature of watersheds, and the nested qualities of their subsequent subdivisions, as the real brilliance to this scheme – imagining the next level down of states as shown on Pacific Northwest Hydrologic Region (HUC 17) below, the subregion, basin, subbasin, watershed and subwatershed.


Eventually, at a certain scale, the subwatershed hits the sweet spot of the NeighborShed, a neighborhood scale basin, which has been on my mind since the ASLA National Conference talk in 2006 and also infused the thinking behind the Open Space Seattle 2100 processes here.

It all seems to come back here… perhaps it’s time to take this to the next level.

Get Shaking

One thing of note in Seattle is that it is a city of varied topography, and that this obviously guided the evolution of where settlement occurred, while creating districts and landmark areas (many ending with ‘Hill’).  An interesting post related to this topographic urbanism is the seismic stability of my new city.  From the Seattle Times, ‘When Seattle shakes from quakes, it’s going to slide, too’ provides a good snapshot of the impact of an earthquake on hillsides and the buildings dotting them.

University of Washington researchers performed a study which used simulation on a ‘fault rupture’ that transects the City of Seattle to see the impact.  The results are summarized in the caption from the Seattle Times:


The issue is not just the damage, but the impact of these slides, as lead researcher Kate Allstadt mentions, in addition to “…widespread damage to buildings and infrastructure caused by the quake itself, landslides would compound the city’s problems and slow its recovery.”

This is a common issue in many cities on the West Coast, and a history of seismic activity coupled with slides is prevalent throughout the region:

The Puget Sound-area landscape is pocked with scars from slides triggered by ground shaking, but the worst of them occurred long before cities existed here. The last quake on the Seattle Fault, about 1,100 years ago, shook the ground so hard that entire hillsides slumped into Lake Washington, carrying intact swaths of forest with them.

A recent earthquake in 2001, for instance, set off over 100 landslides, according to the article.  This continuing threat of instability has interesting dimensions, particularly based on how much moisture is present, as dry soils yield far less damaging slides, at least in the models.  Unfotunately, many of the areas that would be impacted aren’t shown on current landslide risk maps, including West Seattle, Beacon Hill and Mount Baker.  A map shows the major risk areas.


While it’s obvious why this matters, in terms of health and safety, most earthquake specific action focuses around the.  As mentioned in the Seattle Times article. “According to one scenario, a magnitude 6.7 quake on the Seattle Fault could kill 1,600 people and cause $33 billion in damage. That analysis glossed over the damage caused by landslides, but in major quakes, collapsing hillsides can cause as much — or more — destruction than the shaking itself, Allstadt pointed out.”

This additional cost and issues with access and cleanup mean serious study should be conducted related to how to deal with existing development in these areas, and what this means long-term for these areas of the city essentially waiting for the right event to collapse.

Another interesting article from The Atlantic Cities: “Seattle’s Hilly Neighborhoods Could Slide Into the Water During the Next Earthquake” delves into similar terrain looking at the UW study in more detail in areas of .  Writer John Metcalf looks at the smaller micro-impacts that the study (for instance see below), and the distinctions of the dry vs. wet scenarios.  The context is important, as in the case below, the impacts to major transportation routes in large landslide events could hinder response to areas of the City, in addition to the immediate damage.


The summary is, that we need to be aware and prepared – as a region, but also in specific areas we know are going to be impacted and those that are key elements of the response infrastructure system.  We don’t know when, but it could be sooner than we think.  As mentioned in the Atlantic Cities article:

That’s why it’s crucial to start prepping, says Allstadt – finding out what microregions are especially vulnerable, planning rapid responses in and out of these zones, predicting what sewerage and electric infrastructure could be knocked out, educating home-buyers on the risks of living on uncertain slopes. “It could be now or a couple thousand years,” she says. “We just don’t know.”

Shrinking Cities: Sugrue Part I: Arsenal

Moving along with the Shrinking Cities readings, the first part of ‘Origins of the Urban Crisis’ by Segrue recounts the development of the City of Detroit around WWII as the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ which made it one of the highest paying blue-collar cities in the US.  In the words of Segrue, “Mid-twentieth-century Detroit embodied the melding of human labor and technology that together had made the United States the apotheosis of world capitalism.” (p.19)  This height of Fordist production makes the inevitable fall even more extreme.

::  ‘Criss Crossed Conveyors’ from the Ford River Rouge Plant – Charles Sheeler (1927) image via Art History Archive

As mentioned, the visitors of today’s Detroit marvel at the industrial ruins and disaster porn, but at the time, people flocked to the city to see the massive technologies and industrial might at work, and mostly “they stood rapt as the twentieth century’s premier consumer object, the automobile, rolled off the assembly lines by the dozens an hour.” (p.19)  It is hard to think of the spectacular model of modernity that Detroit once embodied, one that reshaped the city with a new form of ‘industrial geography’ which tied factories to suppliers and workers to homes with unprecedented efficiency.

:: Ford Assembly Line – image via Wikipedia

:: image via wunderground

The traces of grand boulevards from Woodward’s L’Enfant-inspired plan of 1807 remained – fanning out in a radial pattern of wide avenues from the city center, which added to the idea of speed and efficiency that has characterized Detroit, and the automobile industry for decades.   Much like Los Angeles being the embodiment of the auto-centric city, Detroit is the perfect model of Fordist urbanism at work – not just in the factories – driven by mass-production along with high union wages, and the accessibility of the blue-collar worker to live in a single-family house of their own – with a dearth of any sort of apartment of multi-family housing to accommodate lower-income or those not wealthy enough, or white enough, to buy houses.

:: image via urban places and spaces

The focus on single-family houses led to perpetual housing shortages – particularly when combined with a history of official and unofficial policies that prevented blacks from obtaining housing.  Unlike many of the eastern cities where the geography was a patchwork of ethnic enclaves, Detroit was much more literally black and white, as Segrue mentions, “class and race became more important that ethnicity as a guide to the city’s residential geography.” (p.22)  While it was understood as a “City of Homes” for most, the influx of black workers from the South, who came in the ‘Great Migration’, were met with a consistent range of discrimination and violence, as existing residents perceived in-migration as a threat to their community, starting in the 1920s and continuing all the way through the 1970s.  As mentioned in Segrue:

“White neighborhoods, especially enclaves of working-class homeowners, interpreted the influx of blacks as a threat and began to defend themselves against the newcomers, first by refusing to see to blacks, then by using force and threats of violence, and finally establishing restrictive covenants to assure the homogeneity of neighborhoods.”  (p.24)

There were some inroads to employment in good jobs around WWII, driven by a tightening labor market, the coalitions of unions and civil rights groups, and some federal policies, which made sure that “blacks made significant gains in Detroit’s industrial economy during the war.” (p.27)  There was still an undercurrent of racial tension, which played out in housing and employment, a continual topic that Segrue alludes to being a ‘structural’ racism that played out in Detroit, and were displayed in significant riots and other violence throughout the years, but that this didn’t stop the influx of blacks coming into the city, leaving the Jim Crow south for something better.  It’s debatable if Detroit was much better.

The Time Bomb

The availability and quality of housing was poor for blacks – driven by a number of social and policy factors.  While the New Deal had instilled a new ideology of opportunity for blacks – it had also instilled an ideology for current residents that the government would protect their property and the status quo.  Thus the competing ideals of opportunity and protection played out in Detroit, and although, as seen previously, some gains were made – the majority of the wins came in maintenance of the status quo and protection from the new waves of poor, black residents.

As seen in the map below, there were very specific segregated neighborhoods that were predominately populated by blacks – in particularly the original Paradise Valley and West Side Neighborhoods (which had been an areas for wealthy blacks that had deteriorated), along with the wealthier blacks in Conant Gardens and the more distant Eight Mile-Wyoming area, where they had land for gardens to grow food, which became for some pioneering blacks, “their one opportunity, as they saw it, to own their own homes and rear their families.” (p.39)

:: image via city-data

The geography of race was perpetuated by the real estate community as well, who were actively involved in the exclusion of blacks from housing.  Another aspect was construction, with new houses rarely being built for blacks or in a price range that was suitable.  As Segrue mentions, in “1951, on 1.15 percent of the new homes constructed in the metropolitan Detroit area were available to blacks.” (p.43).  Another major issue that shaped this geography in Detroit, and many other cities around the United States, was the concept of redlining.  Maps were produced by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, informed by local real estate brokers and lenders, to rate the neighborhoods in cities according to a scale from A (green) to D (red).  While ostensibly a methodology for determining investment risk, the process became a de facto method for exclusion, disenfranchisement, and continued disinvestment in the minority areas.

:: redlining Detroit – image via RG25

Black neighborhoods, even those with a small percentage of black residents, were given a rating of ‘D’, which was deemed hazardous and colored red (as seen in the unfortunately fuzzy map above, which shows significant portions of the downtown). I haven’t been able to track down maps from Detroit – although they do exist for a number of cities – and tell as pretty sad tale of federally aided racism. The ratings kept out new loans for new construction or home repairs, furthering a cycle of disinvestment, as outlined by Segrue:

“Residents in areas rate ‘C’ and ‘D’ were unlikely to qualify for mortgages and home loans.  Builders and developers, likewise, could expect little or no financial backing if they chose to building in such risky neighborhoods.” (p.44)

When you factor in restrictive covenants (the actual and implied), and the work of redlining along with real-estate industry maintenance of status quo, it equated to an impossible position for the largest growing population of residents in Detroit to get adequate housing, which further fueled tensions.  For a bit more context, here’s a video about the Race Riots from Detroit 2020 offers a concise history on the topic:

The final element of the oppression of poor minority residents in Detroit came, as it did in many areas, through the disguise of urban renewal, in particular the construction of highways through ‘slums’ that cleared out substandard housing without replacing it with enough to handle what was lost, much less house the large numbers of new residents.  From Segrue:  “The most obvious problem with slum clearance was that it forced the households with the least resources to move at a time when the city’s tight housing market could not accommodate them.” (p.50)

This was exacerbated with landlords charging more rent (up to 35% more) for blacks for less housing, which, coupled with the lower wages and job opportunities, forced many to live in great numbers, and not have anything left over for maintenance.  This further degraded already deteriorating stock, which further declined, and continued the narrative that some whites believed – that blacks would destroy neighborhoods. The cycle continued.  Unlike some areas that built robust (if often misguided) public housing, the next chapter showed that Detroit, city of ‘homes’ had some similar issues with density, and a new-found Nimbyism which led to a slow provision of subsidized housing, which may have aided in softening some of the myriad impacts of the 1950s and 1960s.

Public Housing

The promise of the New Deal, in post-WWII era, was predicated on government intervention to solve the problems of the city.  One of those things was to provide adequate housing for the poor, whether this be true building of community and opportunity, or the more commonly wielded tool of ‘social engineering’ to make better citizens.  Through a number of acts, the US developed policy and funding for many types of affordable housing, complementing the already robust subsidies of single family home construction and highway building.

The trend toward ‘modernist’ totalitarian schemes emerged from this process of social engineering, embodied by the work of a group of professionals called the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Council (CPHC), which took a mission of “improvement of the environmental conditions of Detroit’s slums through the elimination of crowded, dirty, and substandard housing, and the construction of sanitary, well-lit, and well-ventilated public housing in its place.” (p.61)  This type of rhetoric smacks of much of public housing projects of the era, which provides housing, as Segrue mentions, that has “ameliorative effects on living conditions and would modify the behavior and character of urban residents… Public housing would also uplift the ‘morale’ of urban dwellers,” which could happen through “social and individual improvement through orderly planning and urban redevelopment.” (p.62)

The problem in Detroit, was that nobody seemed to want public housing, as it was fought almost everywhere by both whites, unions, real estate agents, developers and even some established black residents.  The adjacency of even some black areas was problematic, and developers had to make deals with the FHA, such as the 1 foot thick, 6 foot high wall that separated the new development from the old – remnants of which still exist.  This sort of approach reinforced the FHA’s official policy, not of true equality, but as mentioned by Segrue, even with some of the more enlightened bureaucrats, “a separate but equal philosophy.” (p.67)

 :: Wall Separating Black from White – remnant – image via Detroit Fly

The official ideology of racial segregation couched in urban renewal also bled into the policies of the City Plan Commission (CPC), which continued the rhetoric of “an emerging program to create a totally planned metropolis, combining public housing with strictly regulated private development…”  and the group began using zoning to start “composing a master plan to guide city and regional growth… for the ‘reconstruction of Detroit’s ‘blighted’ neighborhoods’…” (p.68)  The use of condemnation and slum removal, and strategic placement of black neighborhoods aimed to ‘clean up’ areas and protect others from deterioration, but more often than not led to housing shortages for those most in need.

The contention over public housing locations was intense, with everyone agreeing that there was a chronic shortage, but no area wanting to be the location for housing to be built.  It is understandable, as the inclusion of black neighborhoods, even those Federally-funded, would place these areas in danger of redlining, meaning that value for those living nearby would degrade, and their access to money for improvements and new construction would be significantly decreased. Many planned projects, such as the Sojourner-Truth housing project in Northeast Detroit, which was a planned 200 unit development opposed by whites as well as existing, establish blacks.  The overt racism was sometimes couched in a patriotic fervor, “couched in the language of Americanism,” as seen in the flags atop the blatant message below but also came with a hint of threatened violence, all with an aim, in the words of existing homeowners, to “preserve the racial and architectural homogeneity of their neighborhood.” (p.78)

::  We Want Whites –  image via Detroit 20/20

:: Sojourner Truth Housing – image via Feministe 

The Federal government flip-flopped multiple times on location and type of housing – at one point within a two week period switching from black to white, and back to black.  The New Deal dichotomy of rights vs. existing protection was at play in many of these conversations as well, as mentioned by Segrue, while:  “Acknowledging the ‘moral and legal right’ of blacks to adequate housing...” existing residents countered that they “had established a prior right to a neighborhood which we have built up through the years – a neighborhood which is entirely white and which we want kept white.” (p.80)  The government, with pressure from residents, unions, and other groups, implied redlining from real-estate agents, and continued white flight to the suburbs, often acquiesced to these demands, further creating a tension of high rent and little opportunity that continued to flare up in violence.

The venue of public housing debate became a political touchstone as well – with mayoral elections being decided not by the traditional means of party affiliation and union membership, but by black and white, specifically a candidates views of public housing.  This conflict, as Segrue mentions, of “politics of home” versus the “politics of the workplace” was another interesting institutional element that made Detroit a large city with very little public housing compared to many other US cities.

As we shall see in subsequent chapters, the racial and social strife had already taken a toll on Detroit, even before deindustrialization, and that loss of industrial might that made the city the Arsenal of Democracy, will continue to play out in racial division, housing, and employment.

THINK.urban: Introducing Megapolitanism

A recent article from John King at the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned the concept of using the Megalopolitan scale for planning purposes. The article references the new book by Arthur C. Nelson and Robert E. Lang entitled ‘Megapolitan America: A New Vision for Understanding America’s Metropolitan Geography‘ (APA, 2011).

As an example, King mentions the Sierra Pacific Megapolitan Area, seen below as a large geographical area that extends from the San Francisco Bay area all the way into Western Nevada, around Reno. The region includes 27 counties and includes over 12.4 million people, and its expected to grow substantially in the next 30 years.


As mentioned in the article, the significance of the concept of megapolitan areas is to look more broadly at a larger scale, King, quoting Nelson, mentions that “regions can be more proactive in everything from transportation planning to economic strategies… to have people look at things a little differently, the whole rather than the parts.” While explicitly not a model for mega-regional government, there are some possibilities of what this might mean for regions by looking at larger areas. As mentioned by King, “It’s too early to say whether the concept of megapolitan areas will catch on as a framework for government policy, much less in terms of how regular people define where they live.” The significant of megapolitan areas, thus is undetermined.

The overall ambiguity of the defining characteristics of a ‘city’ has led to a lot of questions related to city centers, sprawl, and other hybrid urban agglomerations like edge cities, exurbs, and the shift from urban area to metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). This leads to a lot of diversity in definition (outlined in the SF Gate article) – including the largest megapolitan area (NY-Phil 33.9 million people) to the smallest, fastest growing (Las Vegas 2.4 million). While Vegas booms, the Steel Corridor of wester PA is creeping along slowly. In terms of diversity, not surprisingly, the Southern California region has the largest percentage of minorities (62.7%) and the Twin-Cities are the least diverse with 15.5% of minorities. The terms megaregion, megalopolis, megapolitan area, while similar in nature, are somewhat different historically, spatially, and statistically, so it is worth a look at some of the designations. A map of megaregions shows the eleven areas in the United States as determined by the Regional Plan Association.


This differs somewhat from a more recent version of Megapolitan areas from a recent essay by Lang and Nelson on Places from Design Observer) They identify 10 megapolitan clusters that exist in 23 megapolitan areas that are similar but slightly different from those above.


The different terms, definitions, and geographical extents makes the concepts a bit difficult to parse, but in general terms, the areas are defined by a population of more than 10 million people that exist within a ‘clustered network of cities’ typically delineated through transportation corridors. The new interpretation of Megapolitan area builds on earlier concepts to describe a more general ‘transmetropolitan geography’ which is typically thought of more commonly in larger, global areas such as China, Japan, Brazil – which include megaregions of 120 million (Hong Kong, Shenzen-Guangzhou), 60 million (Nagoya-Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe) and 43 million (Rio de Janeiro-Sao Paulo). While the concepts are similar, the scale of these new global areas are immense in comparison to the US.

Interestingly enough, the term has been used since the 1820s, and the conceptual usage of the concept of Megalopolis as a grouping of urban areas within a region dates back almost 100 years. This includes references by Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West (1918) and Lewis Mumford in The Culture of Cities (1938). The most popularized recent usage was from 1950s and 60s, in the book on the Northeast United States by Jean Gottmann entitled ‘Megalopolis’ (1961).


More on this in subsequent posts, specifically additional information on Lang and Nelson’s longer essay in Places, and a closer look at the book. Stay tuned.

[Originally Posted:  12/02/11 from THINK.urban – by Jason King]

Introducing THINK.urban

I am happy to announce the formation of a new organization, THINK.urban in Portland, Oregon.  Along with colleagues Katrina Johnston and Allison Duncan, our group plans to promote, as our tagline mentions: “Better Design Through Applied Research.”   We bring a range of experience in urban design research, landscape architecture, urban ecology, public space, and social science, combining academic rigor with creative expression.

In short, we are a research based non-profit that connects academic research to urban design practice through a number of means, including expertise, scholarship, interventions, publications, and consultation with professionals.   We have current focus areas in public space, streets, and landscape – and cast a broad net across urbanism in general – with a goal to act as a bridge between theory and practice.  We are currently forming the 501(c)(3) organization and recruiting board members, so more is happening in 2012.

A snapshot of a couple of the projects that we are working on in tandem and as an extension of our studies at Portland State, include:

Find out more about the activities of the non-profit on the website and ongoing blog, by following us on Twitter @think_urban or by checking our our new Facebook page.  

In the spirit of economy (and my own sanity), I will be cross posting periodically between these two sites – particularly posts that are relevant to both – but will still have original content on each as it makes sense.   Enjoy!

Ecologies of Gold

Brilliant study of the meshing of urbanization and gold mining in Johannesburg, South Africa by Dorothy Tang and Andrew Watkins (on Design Observer).  As mentioned in the article and accompanying photo essay;  “ In particular, the 80-kilometer mining belt between the two cities is riddled by deep-shaft mines, where companies built an extensive network of underground tunnels and moved large amounts of earth to the surface. These operations have weakened geological strata, disrupted natural drainage patterns and altered ecological habitat. The original semi-arid grasslands ecology is now converted to an urban forest, and sediment from mining waste has blocked natural waterways, unexpectedly creating wetlands with rich bird habitat.

 :: images via Design Observer

While mining and urban areas is not necessarily a different scenario (the many sand and gravel pits around cities have a similar pattern) – the cyanide-extraction method of gold mines makes them especially toxic neighbors – especially when coupled with adjacent areas of poverty.  The overall urban pattern that emerges pairs the informal settlements with gold mining particularly on the fringes of the urban area.

  :: image via Design Observer

 Some of the diagrams show the processes of mining on a macro and site specific scale – which is helpful for understanding the complexities of the process.

  :: images via Design Observer

 In addition to analysis, there is thought of opportunities and solutions that take advantage of these new ecologies that have emerged – as Tang & Watkins propose: “While Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni face grave environmental challenges, including contaminated soils, acid mine drainage, undermined land and scarce water resources, it is also important to recognize the possibilities found in the existing regional infrastructure of pipelines and the large quantities of land being released for use. Currently operating gold mining companies recognize the environmental challenges they face and are actively pursuing more sustainable mining practices. Informal settlements are finding productive political strategies and are maintaining a positive entrepreneurial nature. The scarce water resources of the Witwatersrand are a critical entry point for landscape interventions, especially in relation to the provision of sanitation and the remediation of acid mine drainage. Can gold mining and informal settlements, two seemingly disparate players in the region, provide solutions for the future development of the “Ridge of White Waters”?

 :: image via Design Observer

Read much more and see the entire slideshow here.