Greening the Rust Belt


The Rust Belt city's assets and more are the key to its reimagining. They must be critically and strategically optimized and adapted while being stewarded and strengthened by contemporary theories and practices including sustainable development, place-making, smart growth and ecological infrastructure. The same systems that produced many of the assets are themselves in need of adjusting and in some cases, radical rethinking and change. And, the processes of governance, problem-solving and decision-making need to be adjusted to dissolve us-them mentalities and foster greater collective problem-solving, co-learning and exchange. Not just in Rust Belt cities, but also in "thriving" American Cities, we face a crisis of place, fueled by policies promoting sprawl, urban decline, neighborhood distress, poverty and social inequities. A call for greater democratic empowerment, ecological democracy and place-making imagination is echoed by philosophers, designers and thinkers who advocate for empowering individuals and communities, in their localities and regions, to take charge in caring for and cultivating their home places.

This suggests that, while assets are the key to the Rust Belt City's reimagining, the way we design the systems that grow and sustain those assets while strengthening overall resilience is critical. And the 21st century Rust Belt city, to make itself green, will need to perform in ways that buffer and prepare it in the face of global and unprecedented changes brought on by peak oil, climate change and resource scarcity. It will need to question and adapt its values, behaviors, decision-making processes and priorities- at macro and micro scales and in government, institutional and community settings- along with carefully weighing those factors to be included in determining its success or failure. It will be imperative to measure the city's performance to include the environment and social justice alongside economics.

Urban performance must begin with meeting the basic needs of residents. These include access to affordable housing, clean water and environment, healthy food, and education. We look to a future where social equity, heath and well-being and access to decision-making and deliberative democratic processes are considered basic needs as well and are supported by policies, organizational structures and governance processes.

Another measure of a resilient city will include an assessment of social networks. Partnerships and organized groups will likely become more valuable and necessary as we face a world with increasingly limited resources, to be shared by more people, in a context of greater uncertainty about what the future holds. The resilient city's social networks will be smart networks, open and inclusive, interdependent but flexible, learning structures that can adapt to changing conditions.

A final measure of urban performance relates to the idea of ecological infrastructure and connects urban metabolism and the built environment. Acknowledging the need to adapt rust belt cities to climate change, a post carbon future and changing economic conditions, we recognize the need to alter urban energy and matter (waste, water, nutrients) flows. Of course, we've built cities in the era of cheap oil, and what we've made reflects that. Dependence on the automobile and the dominance of highway infrastructure coupled with loss of population density has stunted transit system development in most rust belt cities. Sprawling growth patterns, landfills for easy waste disposal and short-lived building materials and construction are the other remnants of this era. Altering metabolic flows will require either redesigning and/or retrofitting these calcified structures that served a former time. Ecological infrastructures are opportunistic, in that they actively seek new relationships, multiple functions and added value. They retrofit the calcified city to alter metabolic flows and increase urban performance, productivity and resilience.

Strategies to maximize energy conservation are an important first step in managing energy flows and losses, as energy systems shift to sources renewable in shorter timeframes and transition fuel sources such as biofuel enable us to utilize existing energy infrastructure until more substantial shifts are possible. Ecological transportation infrastructure supports an increase in low-fuel and mass transit options, such as biking, bus, rail and pedestrian. Large, top down improvements such as high speed rail are supported with multi-modal hubs and secondary/tertiary alternative transport networks. Finally, waste streams are localized and transformed, so that waste is either eliminated or greatly reduced.

The Practice of Placemaking

R2G NY recognizes the importance of understanding and valuing place and the role it plays in building identity, belonging and meaning in people's lives and the communities and cities where they dwell. We also realize that we, as engagers working with communities, have an active role to play that embeds us or resituates us in the very fabric of a place. For us then, place is also a practice that recasts the designer's role (and that of the researcher, professional, etc) to one that is place-based. Therefore, our approach to the Rust to Green Action NYS Initiative originates both in the theory of place and the theory and practice of placemaking (Schneekloth and Shibley 1995).

Resilient cities depend on strong networks and partnerships. R2G works with local government and other community resources to build communication and share resources between these existing assets in an effort to move forward an agenda of urban revitalization.

Collaborating to Explore the Dynamics of Social-ecological Systems

The Resilience Alliance lists four essential components of urban resilience:

  1. Social dynamics (people interacting with city and environment)
  2. Governance
  3. Urban metabolism (flows of energy, matter and  information through a city)
  4. Built environment (the physical world)

Questions of Good Strategies

The concept of ecological infrastructure asks that we consider how we might use existing resources with minimal external inputs to intensify the flows of energy, matter, and/or information towards increased productivity and resilience. For example, how might we rethink food production to increase food security for urban residents, reconnect people with healthy food, diversify local farm production and build a regional food market economy, and network regional farmers to share information, knowledge and market power? How might we rethink pastoral parks that now require large maintenance inputs from shrinking parks departments to create an open space system that performs work for the city by optimizing for multiple ecosystem services? Vacant lands currently draining city resources shift meaning to become "fallow lands", managed to increase productivity potential.