Sasaki's collaborative design approach is strengthened by our ongoing exploration and exchange of ideas; fresh ideas push our collective practice forward. To continually expand our knowledge base, we host an ongoing lecture series featuring guest speakers who range from specialists at the New England ADA Center to branding experts at IDEO.
Sasaki recently hosted Jill Desimini, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Her compelling new research focuses on landscape strategies to address the conditions of abandoned urban land, aiming to uncover latent socioeconomic and ecological opportunities. Recently Jill has focused on cities in the Northeast and the Midwest.
Here, Jill shares insights into cutting-edge academic discussions around legacy cities—that is, cities with historical significance undergoing revitalization.
Q: How did you develop an interest in legacy cities in the Midwest?
A: Believe it or not, I was a huge basketball fan in middle school, and my two favorite teams were my hometown Portland Trailblazers and the Detroit Pistons. You can imagine how excited and conflicted I was when the two teams met in the 1990 NBA finals, the first time since 1979 that neither the Lakers nor the Celtics were in the contest. From my interest in basketball came an interest in the city of Detroit, and its socioeconomic struggles. At that point, I imagined ways to help, usually having to do with addressing youth and education. I wanted to be involved, but little did I know I would still be thinking about the city over 20 years later, this time through the lens of landscape and design.
My current interests around abandoned land, urbanization, and demographic shifts have developed through an urban studies undergraduate degree that focused on social science and the history of the built environment, largely in Providence, Rhode Island. And then I got a landscape architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania that heavily emphasized urban projects, using several sites in North and Northeast Philadelphia. These experiences led me to look more broadly at places with significant population loss and to think systematically about the issues affecting the landscape, both short and long term.
Q: What was your process and criteria for selecting which cities to research?
A: I made the decision to both try to understand a large number of cities—through comparative analysis—and to limit the work to this country to narrow the political, cultural, and economic context. The criteria for selecting cities in the United States began with a simple quantitative filter: a list of cities whose populations, as measured by the decennial census, once exceeded 100,000 people and whose 2010 population is less than 75% of its peak population. Thirty-five cities meet this baseline criterion and are being evaluated by further quantitative measures (land valuation, demographic shifts, and economic wealth of the region) as well as qualitative understandings through repeat site visits, interviews, and cultural assessments.
Q: What are some efforts that have been successful in addressing the issues that shrinking cities face?
A: The issues facing the cities are varied and complex and the scale is overwhelming. The best strategies recognize on the one hand that there is no one panacea and on the other that the propositions need to respect local contexts while being bold and transformative. To think of addressing one lot at a time, when there are tens of thousands of vacant lots in any given city is daunting. Similarly, to propose a single use—for example, wind power alone on a former steel mill site—is short-sighted. Strategies that work regionally and address the potential of larger-scale hydrological, ecological, and cultural systems have the greatest potential; the innovative, local, often short-term and small-scale interventions are the most implementable. The Power House and TAP Project in Detroit, Chateau Hough and Pop-up City in Cleveland, and City Farm and Rebuild Foundation in Chicago come to mind. In terms of the larger scale, the EPA is funding some interesting soils work in Cleveland through the Urban Waters program, the ULTRA-EX grants have potential to implement change, the Local Code: Real Estates project uses a contemporary toolkit to address underutilized land, and the Detroit Super Division and Detroit Works projects present two views on landscape infrastructure.
Q: So, how can designers help?
A: Designers are positive thinkers with creative energies capable of imagining and articulating visionary futures. Designers have the facility to address multiple systems and to find opportunity. They can reframe the perception of the existing context, as well as project viable, environmentally and socially responsible alternatives. Of course, design alone is not enough, but I do believe, it is an important and too often missing part of the equation, especially in these contexts. Design is not about fancy materials and expensive schemes, but about being strategic, doing the most with the least number of moves.
Q: What is next for your project?
A: A compendium of landscape-based strategies that merge theory and practice, ideally culminating in a symposium and book that bring together multiple proposals and viewpoints from designers, scientists, economists, and artists alike.
Interview by Alexis Canter.