FRINGE CITIES: The legacies and future of renewal in the small American city

Across the nation, small, post-industrial cities today occupy a critical boundary between our polarized metropolitan hubs and vast rural landscapes. These are the Fringe Cities. Fringe Cities exemplify a latent national crisis of failed urban infrastructure, bearing visible scars of radical mid-century transformation, followed by dramatic neglect. Between 1949-1974, the federal government invested billions in urban development through a series of programs known as “urban renewal.” While packaged through housing initiatives, the programs’ effect instead functioned to reinforce segregation, carving highways through downtowns and destroying older neighborhoods. When urban renewal ended in 1975, market forces gained exclusive control over how and where development could occur, leaving many of these once over-invested locales to fend for themselves. And yet, in our recent presidential election, these same zipcodes played dramatic, outsized importance as battlegrounds. Similarly, in our new pandemic rush to the exurbs, those market forces may be finally arriving, making these urban geographies more central to our American dilemma than the ‘dying city’ narrative of the last decades may have previously imagined.  

The spatial and design fields too are shaped by this last great public investment in infrastructure—whose aftermath drove the disciplinary divergence of architecture and urban planning that we see today. As designers of the built world, we have often been blamed for these disastrous effects on cities. Are there lessons in understanding the motives of the past? Are there strategies that proved successful we have overlooked? Which mistakes will we repeat in the next great federal investment in infrastructure? 

This studio will endeavour to broaden and deepen our collective understanding of Fringe Cities by approaching their urban forms as tangible, material tapestries of social and cultural values at critical moments of development, and as powerful drivers of political frustration today. We will set out in search of an ethical design practice in which our buildings and public spaces provide inclusive environments that enable shared prosperity. We will design urban networks that are shaped by and function in service of community needs.

The semester will be structured around three assignments. In the first two weeks, we will explore local implementation of the urban renewal playbook. Through research, mapping, and drawing, students will identify how three cities pursued public funds, solicited design and planning expertise, and executed projects within their context and region. Students will next investigate one city in detail, imaging its narratives from urban renewal to today and locating key activist-based models of community design practice that have shaped its history and present. Finally, students’ will pilot a design at an urban scale that anticipates future evolutions and pressures. 

Michael Murphy, Executive Director and Co-founder of MASS Design Group, will lead the studio with lectures by colleagues at MASS Design who have spearheaded the Fringe City Design Lab in Poughkeepsie, New York and whose exhibit at the Center For Architecture in Fall 2019 and forthcoming publication will provide foundational data. Guest Lectures by Brent Ryan, Lizabeth Cohen, Iwan Baan, and others will shape the semester’s investigation. 

Notes on irregular schedule: This studio has an irregular schedule. The studio will meet on Mondays from 11 AM-3 PM, and on Thursdays from 2-6 PM.

GSD students may view additional information on option studios:
Option Studio Presentations
Schedule for Zoom Q&A sessions