How Derelict Revival Catalyzes Natural Evolution [My Ideal City]

PSFK chats Eoin Billings and Duncan Jackson, founders of Billings Jackson Design, about how derelict revival is positively impacting urban development.

As part of our My Ideal City series looking at the future of cities, PSFK reached out to experts to get their take on key trends we’ve identified that are currently affecting urban environments. Eoin Billings and Duncan Jackson are founders of Billings Jackson Design, an industrial design firm specializing in designing for the built environment. They spoke with PSFK.com about how derelict revival is reinvigorating existing urban infrastructure and buildings that in many cases have been neglected and fallen into disuse.

How can reinvigorating neglected urban spaces positively impact urban environments?

We feel that the impacts cannot be overstated. When you get it right, you give a neglected space back to a community. That metaphorical ‘ownership’ can be all it takes to revive an environment in every respect.

If people want to use a space, the social impact is covered. Schemes that encourage walking or cycling, such as the pedestrianization of Broadway or the new wayfinding strategy, have clear environmental benefits. Finally, if people start spending time in a regenerated environment, commerce inevitably follows.

The examples you give – the High Line revival and the pop up stores in Old Oakland – differ in scale but are both perfect illustrations of this point of driving regeneration from the individual’s perspective. It is simply a question of providing the right catalyst.

How does your work relate to the trend of derelict revival?

Cities have always evolved in response to the communities shifting within them. As in nature, there is no stasis, just a constant state of flux. Understanding and accepting this is important in regeneration terms because we believe that thoughtful interventions that work with the existing urban fabric are generally far more successful than wholesale redevelopment.

In our work, our starting point is the individual. Places are about people after all and working up in scale from micro to macro is the most effective means of reclaiming cities as places that work for people. We’ve seen this in our work on the Hudson Square revitalization, a district that has been blighted by both the loss of its local manufacturing industry and the choking traffic congestion around the Holland Tunnel.

Our team, led by Mathews Nielsen landscape architects, has come up with five initiatives designed to improve traffic flow, create open spaces, green the streets and promote a pedestrian culture. The existing building stock is rightly valued for its modern heritage and is enhanced by the streetscape improvements.

These relatively modest changes are designed to catalyze the natural evolution that had stalled. Putting people first once again is the first step in creating a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable neighborhood.

Can you share any other creative design solutions that exemplify this idea? What are the implications of re-imagining the usage of space within city environments?

We believe that municipalities are becoming more sophisticated in their appreciation of what they have and so the value given to preserving the character and heritage of our cities is increasingly evident. Two obvious examples are the Meatpacking District in Manhattan and Smithfield Livestock Market in London. It is difficult to imagine what employees from either one a few decades ago would make of the desirability – and prices – of the housing stock today.

But this is not a new phenomenon. In the UK last year a wonderful documentary series aired on the BBC. ‘The Secret History of our Streets’ took as its starting point Charles Booth’s social surveys of London, undertaken between 1886 and 1903. Booth colored a series of maps to indicate social class and income of inhabitants, publishing them in a treatise that is widely seen as a founding text of both social history and modern sociology.

The documentary picks up the story of six of the streets, tracking their changing fortunes over the past century. The series perfectly encapsulates the way that places evolve over time. It demonstrates the consequences of the well meaning but flawed post-war slum clearance programs, where communities were displaced to high-rise developments with devastating social impacts. And it charts the birth of the modern conservation movement from 1967, which has been so important in preserving the rich heritage of cities throughout the UK.

In general, how is thoughtful design being used to change the way cities operate?

Thoughtful design is most effective when it is driven by joined-up thinking. And by this we do not mean overarching masterplans dealing in abstracts. It’s about effective communication between stakeholders and interest groups. In this respect NYC is lucky as its individual Business Improvement Districts, which are doing much to drive the sort of regeneration we are discussing here, have the support and guidance of citywide authorities including the Department of Transportation and the Public Design Commission.

We should also consider economic drivers. It seems to us that thoughtful design is perhaps more likely in times of austerity, when every dollar counts a little more. Maybe it’s the one silver lining!

Going forward, how can designers and developers create intelligent solutions for bringing city infrastructure up-to-date, while keeping the original use or design intact?

There’s already a move to de-clutter, to reduce infrastructure to the essentials to optimize ease of use and maintenance. As our cities are increasingly digitized, designers and developers will have more opportunity to pare back the superfluous and this will allow strong design to stand out.

What three things would you include in your perfect city?

Inevitably it has to be affordable housing, efficient 24-hour public transport and exceptional street furniture!

Thanks Eoin and Duncan!

Q. What abandoned spaces in your city or neighborhood would you revitalize and turn into recreational or sport areas?

Submit your answer now at the MyIdealCity site - or tweet your suggestion using #MyIdealCity and #UrbanCanvas

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Over the next 6 months, PSFK will be covering urban trends that are changing the cities we live in at psfk.com/my-ideal-city. Contribute your ideas at the MyIdealCity site.

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