My good friend and colleague, Tom Dutton at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio has been working with his architecture students for several years in Over-the-Rhine - a downtown ghetto in Cincinnati. Over-the-Rhine is a national heritage site with 493 buildings listed with the National Register of Historic Buildings. It has the largest collection of 19th Century Italianate tenement buildings in the country - many of which are in a state of decay as a result of City Council disinvestment and financial sector redlining. This historical process of disinvestment (as in many American cities) has resulted in urban decay and very low property values - providing a cheap profiteering opportunity to the development community.
In the last few years, this potential has begun to be realised as the city, in partnership with investors and developers, have embarked on a process of gentrification that is displacing the entire resident community of poor, African Americans. Tom is the Director of the Miami University Center for Community Engagement in Over-the-Rhine, and through the Center, has been working with service agencies to support the residents in resisting displacement.
In the Spring Semester of 2010, Tom and I co-taught a design studio in Over-the-Rhine. Its purpose was to explore issues of urban sustainability - to look at alternative models of development that would include not just environmental and economic sustainability (which the City and its friendly developers don't even do at the moment), but to look also at social and cultural sustainability - that would allow and encourage development, but in a way that would safeguard the life and culture of its existing residents.
The 30 or so students in the program were self-selected. That is, they had chosen this particular project out of a range of available options. Since the goals and expectations of the project had been clearly articulated in the original course description, Tom and I naturally assumed that the students would be highly motivated about the need for greater sustainability. We assumed, further, that as the upcoming generation of leaders, they would be keen to learn as much as they could about problems of global warming, climate change and their environmental design consequences, since it was they who would have to be largely responsible for finding solutions. These were assumptions that were to be called into question as the project proceeded.
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