Ghost Towns

I remember visiting ghost towns when I was a kid, in California or Nevada.  Those eerie places seemingly abandoned in their entirety, clothes still in the closet and dishes in the cupboard.  We would whisper as we walked inside the vacant houses, as if we were spying on peoples’ lives.  And as kids we could never figure out why everybody just left.

In my mind, ghost towns are relics of the past, the product of a specific time and place in the story of the American frontier.  But in this day of the resurgence of the city, as technology is severing our reliance on place, I see ghost towns looming. 

Wyoming’s population, at 544,000, is technically too small for it to officially be a state.   Detroit’s population, at 900,000, is half of what it was 60 years ago.  Tiny Midwestern towns are languishing to single digit populations.  Outside of Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix, thousands of brand new houses with pretty fences, sprinkler lines and sewer hookups are sitting empty as folks pour into the cities’ sprouting high-rises and townhomes.  And I heard recently on NPR that we have enough vacant housing stock in the US right now to absorb the country’s growth for the next 6 years. 

So why are we still building? 

A lot of money and resources have already been pumped into the suburbs and small towns of this country, and the planning profession is ignoring them.  Urbanism, or new urbanism, is the sexy thing in planning today.  We are taught to decry those short-sighted planners and developers who subdivided in the middle of nowhere, running freeways this way and that with no regional plan or sensitivity to the environment.  But that was all about growth, and as much as we hate to admit it, planners exist because cities expect their populations to grow.  In mid-sized cities like Portland, half of the new population comes from other parts of the United States.  That means that hundreds of thousands of people have vacated their rural homes over the past decade, and now as foreclosure rates rise on the suburban fringe we planners are standing on our soapboxes, urging people to shed the burden of low-density and come to the city to really live.  How is this any different from the culture, money and policy that abandoned the urban cores of this country 60 years ago? 

We have an affordable housing crisis in this country, with about 10 percent of the population either living in substandard or inadequate housing, or paying more that 50% of their income for housing.  And according to one study, half of the lowest income families in the US are at risk of homelessness.  And yet there are rows upon rows of empty houses, and main streets serving no one.  Ghost towns.  The only people who seem to have noticed are the squatters taking up residence.

We need to disentangle ourselves from the concept of housing production.  GDP is tied to it, people’s income and retirement is tied to it, our public education is tied to it.  Housing needs to be about shelter, about “home.”  Somehow, in commodifying housing, the least “socialist” of the world’s industrialized counties looks an awful lot like the most socialist industrialized countries.  Scratch the surface of our suburban developments, and you will see conditions reminiscent of Ceausescu’s Romania or China’s empty cities.

– Allison Moe


a culture of makers


detroit window art

A great many people have romantic associations with Detroit.  I am among this cohort; I have long considered America’s industrial cities to be far greater than their depiction in the media.  Maybe this is because I too am from a post industrial city and there is no choice but to see beauty in the breaking and broken.  Last year, I began watching closely the photography of Sweet Juniper, a Detroit transplant who has done an excellent job of documenting Detroit’s urban decay and its ongoing revitalization.  The media does a good job of perpetuating negative associations through what one Detroit artist called “ruin porn,” but Sweet Juniper manages to depict positively Detroit’s conglomerate of empty lots, feral houses, and corporate and governmental abandonment as venues of possibility.  The truth is Detroit has a lot more to teach us than we think.

Last night I stumbled upon this fantastic three-part documentary on the website of a boot company.  The film profiles the community development effort emerging within the city of Detroit.  Artists, innovators, entrepreneurs and courageous do-it-yourselfers are banding together with long-time Detroit neighbors to preserve and revitalize their city.  Seeing the potential of their surroundings, together these groups are transforming their city.  It is a renegade movement; they’re bypassing the traditional bureaucratic channels in favor of neighborhood approval.  They’re planting guerilla gardens in abandoned neighborhood lots, spurring a local food movement by supporting local farmer’s markets, they’re using street art to deter criminal activity in their neighborhoods and they’re finding inspiration in everything around them.

Most interesting to me is that this movement is not occurring because of a concerned government, the work of urban planners or the “big ideas” of economic development experts.  Government, planners, economic developers have long since forgotten Detroit and because of this Detroit has emerged as a bastion of urban potential—the ultimate blank canvas, the last new urban frontier.  Instead, revitalization and renewal is occurring at the hands of young, creative people who see the potential of everything that surrounds them.  They aren’t counting on the government for help and they’re not combating blight with out dated economic development tools, they’re employing a strategic plan called doing something.  For me, their investment is an awakening.  How long must a community be ignored before they emerge as the answer?

Detroit illustrates the undercurrent of our discipline.  We are taught the right way to approach urban planning, we are educated in the principles of planning, we are taught the importance of community input, but how well are we listening?  Portland has a lot to teach America about the potential of innovative transportation and land use planning, but I argue Detroit has lessons more powerful and deep to bestow upon us.  That lesson is that even the best laid plans are nothing without the investment of our communities in both process and practice.

– julia crain

Art and Authority

Sleuthing on the web, I came across this advertising agency and its recent installation along a public crosswalk. It looks much like the City Repair Intersection Repair projects — except, in this case, it’s for commerce, not charm. Of course, the “fries” were removed when the street closure was up, but it evokes thoughts about what is possible in the public realm.

This project reminded me of Peter Gibson, perhaps one of the most well-known artists to incorporate official traffic control markings into his art. In his words, it began as simply a project to install bike lanes in places where none existed. It soon evolved into a full-blown project spanning three years, court dates, and finally, a film.

Similar to Intersection Repair, the city told both artists that such things could not be done. Not today, not tomorrow — not ever. But after they went ahead and did it anyway, perceptions changed. And today, much of Gibson’s work, as well as City Repair’s is sanctioned by communities. It’s an interesting look at how sometimes it’s easier to ask forgiveness, rather than permission.

Do we make the city or does the city make us?

In this incredible Radiolab, two physicists investigate why it is that cities develop particular beats.  Beats being the pace with which inhabitants walk– does the city move to our pace or do we move to the city’s pace?  Not shockingly the answer to this question lies in a mathematical formula and if you’re curious about this formula and the meter of urban life listen here.

– julia crain


I’m always intrigued by the homogeneity in fresh suburban housing developments. The neat rows of homes, the near perfect concrete scoring, thin tree lines, and general cleanliness. Sometimes this cleanliness is mistaken for sterility, but over time we see that this is not true at all. These suburban developments, over many decades, evolve into individual places as they themselves are eaten by encroaching urban development.

Artist Paho Mann explored the world of re-inhabited Circle K’s (the southern equivalent to 7-eleven). In the early 90’s, Circle K underwent massive restructuring, and hundreds of their storefronts — all the same — were sold. He documents these new uses:

The slow individualization of re-inhabited Circle Ks caused by years of choices and actions caught my attention. These buildings do not show a linear progression of the corporatization and homogenization of suburbia, but rather serve as evidence of a more circular system – a system driven by a delicate negation between same and different, between complicated sets of actions and choices that shape our built environment.

– Victor

A dying urban art form


Some of the most beloved images of the urban environment are the faded advertisements adorning the bricks of century-old buildings. Often, they are for some product or business that has since gone defunct — evoking even more mystique. These billboards tell the story of a very specific period in our history. We love them, really. But for a time I imagine these deteriorating signs were a sign of dereliction and disinvestment.

In this short documentary, we’re exposed to the dying art form of painted billboards. With the proliferation of vinyl, it’s interesting to consider that in a hundred years, little will remain of our large format branding and advertising.

Click here to watch (on Vimeo) (Unable to embed, sorry!)

– Victor

Building a community out of sea cans

Brimming with over 30,000 students, Portland State University could certainly take a lesson from this project in Le Havre, France. Using recycled shipping containers, the developer build a steel exoskeleton to fit about 100 containers, providing basic and affordable student living. Not to mention they are just so cool!

From the architect:

The new town is the result of the transformation of old containers in modular housing units equipped with every comfort. Mounted on a metal grid, the containers have given shape to a four-story building that houses 100 apartments of 24 square meters each.

The architect Cattani said the thoughts that accompanied her work. “How do I prevent students, prospective tenants, they feel put in the box? Compelling needs have arisen. Necessary to conceive of a lightweight, transparent, and certainly not solid. Hence the idea of independent living, to avoid the stacking effect.”

The solution was found in a metal frame that acts as a structural support to the old container, while allowing to stagger the units, and create new space for walkways, patios and balconies. “The metal structure – Cattani says – it allows a better identification of the different rooms, and enhances them through the external extensions that become terraces and balconies. The sequences of the transverse corridors giving access to the apartments on the façade create a succession of full and empty spaces that gives the structure a more visual transparency.”

To ensure maximum heat and sound insulation, the walls of the container adjacent to the outside and those that divide the different units have been coated with fire walls in reinforced concrete 40cm wide, and come within layers of rubber to dampen vibrations.

With only 5,000 beds today, Portland State is widely known as a commuter campus. This of course adds to our carbon footprint and increases the need for parking infrastructure. In addition, the level of community and student engagement suffers from this deficiency in campus housing. What’s particularly neat about this type of project is how versatile it could be in fitting into tight footprints of the urban environment. I’d love to see Portland State experiment with something like this.

More photos and details here

– Victor