Future of the American City Initiative

“The future of the American city is very much linked to questions of urban development and urbanization across the globe. Therefore, I think there’s something very exciting to really think about the future of the American city in the context of this worldliness.” – Mohsen Mostafavi, 2019

The Future of the American City project is an urban study initiative aimed at helping cities tackle urgent challenges. Building on the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s unique, multi-disciplinary model, the effort will use architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning and design to come up with actionable, efficient solutions that take into account community needs.

Research on Miami will form the first phase of the project, a broader initiative intending to also examine the cities of Los Angeles, Detroit, and Boston. The school plans to host a summit to convene experts from each city to create a national discourse on the future of cities and urban life in America.

To engage Miami residents in creating new approaches to address pressing urban issues—including affordable housing, transportation and sea level rise—the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is providing $1 million in support to the Harvard GSD. With the funding, the school will embed urban researchers in Miami and Miami Beach to better understand the cities’ opportunities and challenges, and launch a multi-year study toward building solutions shaped by residents.

Researchers at the GSD have been actively connected with the City of Miami and the City of Miami Beach for several years. Since 2012, the school has conducted six courses focused on Miami and held several major events in the city. Expanding on this work, the school will convene a range of experts, policy-makers, and members of the public to contribute to this new effort.

In its research, the school will focus on urban mobility, affordability, and climate change, themes that emerged from a series of previous discussions among its researchers and members of the Miami and Miami Beach communities. Following their analysis, students and faculty will offer toolkits, white papers, and other materials for review and use by city managers, mayors, and other civic leaders, many of whom will be directly involved throughout the study.

Project Team: Mohsen Mostafavi (PI), Charles Waldheim (co-PI), Jesse Keenan (co-PI), Chris Reed, Sean Canty, Lily Song, Aziz Barbar, Charlie Gaillard, Mercedes Peralta, Jeffrey S. Nesbit, Jessy Yang, Tam Banh, Theodore Kofman, and Jonah Susskind.

Partners: Michael Rock / 2 × 4.

Elevated Parks on Obsolete Transportation Infrastructure

“Infrastructure’s long-term value, whether used or disused, is tied to a place. It is a local and material response to societal and economic challenges. Today we spend so much time immersed in the mediating environments of networked society, staring at data through monitors and at highways through windshields, that we are prone to forget infrastructure’s powerfully physical nature.” – Ian Baldwin, 2019

This report presents a series of themes, considerations, and recommendations related to the practice of redeveloping obsolete urban transportation infrastructures. Given the pace of economic restructuring and ongoing urbanization, many cities find themselves inheriting elevated rail or road infrastructures that have outlived their original use. While many of these redundant infrastructures are razed to make room for new forms of development, an increasing number are being offered a second life as elevated public parks. The practice of adapting defunct urban infrastructures came to prominence in the 1990s with the conversion of the Promenade Plantée in Paris, a 4.7-kilometer-long elevated walkway atop an abandoned railway viaduct in Paris’s 12ème arrondissement. The practice was further developed during the 2000s with The High Line, a 2.3-kilometer-long park built atop a disused stretch of elevated freight rail line in western Manhattan. Following their success, elevated parks proliferated during the 2010s, a trend that is expected to continue to accelerate. In light of the wide and rapid acceptance of this mode of adaptive reuse, as well as the ubiquity of derelict transit-destined areas in cities around the world, this research project draws on a comparative, case-based study of such parks in order to inform the discipline of landscape and urban design.

The specific context for this analysis is the case of the IIIia Highway in the Barrio 31 area of Buenos Aires City, for which a similar redevelopment project was recently proposed as part of a larger urban integration plan. The work presented in this report, in line with the Office’s goal of addressing societal and cultural conditions associated with modern urbanization through design research, organizes and visually represents complex arrays of information related to Illia Highway’s prospective conversion. Instead of producing a definitive design, it negotiates between analysis and proposal, using simulations and scenario-based projections to reveal relevant conditions that can serve to later guide the design processes.

This research project revolves around a series of key themes — identity, accessibility, activity, hydrology, ecology, energy, and materiality — drawn from studying international precedents and presented in order of priority. Each theme, developed over the course of a chapter, serves as a lens through which to tackle areas of interest. As such, “Identity,” as a topic, becomes a point of departure for thinking about the materialization of the park; “Accessibility” refers to issues of entry, as points of access are related to the intricate and narrow spatial conditions of Barrio 31’s buildings; “Activity” proposes thinking through programming and events throughout the whole section of the highway; “Hydrology” illustrates how water can be both a challenge and an asset for the park; “Ecology” displays the interconnectedness between users, vegetation, biodiversity and microclimates; “Energy” considers the influence of the sun patterns and the need for shade in the proposed park; and “Materiality” helps to anticipate the volume of materials to be dealt with and notes the ramifications thereof. In addition, direct guidance is offered for the development of various scenarios along with advice on the convening of academic and professional peer reviews and the documentation and dissemination of findings. The Barrio 31 case in Buenos Aires is assessed in relation to similar projects in New York, Chicago, Paris, Barcelona and Seoul, integrating different forms of knowledge in order to foster social, cultural, and environmental renewal. With an ecological framework as its background, Barrio 31’s proposed park stands not only to join the city’s roster of celebrated landmarks, but also to set a new precedent for urban redevelopment around the world.

A synthetic representation of the precedents used is compiled at the end of the report in the form of a comparative catalog. This report ends with a series of general observations and recommendations, as well as a small list of winning proposals in the international competition for the design of the elevated park.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim (PI), Daniel Quesada Lombó, Erin Yook, Mercedes Peralta, Aziz Barbar, Daniel Ibañez, Sofia Xanthakou, Lane Raffaldini Rubin, and Charlie Gaillard.

Mobility-Oriented Design

“The city of Miami has always been modern. Born of the railroad and fed by the airlines, it was shaped by transportation systems that linked the city to distant destinations while dividing local districts. Perhaps as a result . . . the city has long been divided into interdependent, yet spatially distinct cities.” – Gray Read, 2009

Mobility-Oriented Design (MOD): The Case of Miami Metrorail investigates the multiple facets of public transit in Miami-Dade County and its effects on the urban fabric. Broadly, this design research project seeks to understand how public transit operates within the county and why it has historically underperformed. MOD focuses on Miami Metrorail as a case study and identifies and analyzes the specific parameters that have guided transportation and development within the city’s emergent transit corridor along U.S. Highway 1.

This research project synthesizes multiple perspectives and analytical frameworks to present the historical and contemporary factors that contribute to Miami Metrorail’s low ridership and poor accessibility. It pays particular attention to the influence of public opinion, the day-to-day experience of riders, and the relationship between the transit system and its surrounding urban context. A close analysis of these factors and an investigation of correlated prospects and issue areas informs several design scenarios that are intended to visualize and project future options and investment alternatives. Ultimately, this project proposes a menu of recommendations at a variety of scales that are meant to inform decision-making around reinvigorating Metrorail’s existing infrastructure, facilitating ridership, promoting higher-density living, and improving the rail’s integration into the urban fabric.

Project Team: Mohsen Mostafavi (PI), Charles Waldheim (co-PI), Jesse Keenan (co-PI), Jessy Yang, Aziz Barbar, Daniel Quesada Lombó, Charlie Gaillard, Mercedes Peralta, Tommy Hill, Sofia Xanthakou, and Fletcher Phillips.

Partners: Michael Rock / 2 × 4, and Eric Rodenbeck / Stamen.

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South Florida and Sea Level

“We do not have time to deny the effects of climate change… Nowhere is it going to have a bigger impact than here in South Florida.” – Barack Obama, 2015

The Harvard Graduate School of Design and the City of Miami Beach are partnering on a multiyear study of the impacts of and potential responses to sea level rise for coastal communities in South Florida. This research project will examine the implications of rising sea levels and increased storm events on the economy, ecology, infrastructure, and identity of Miami Beach in relation to its metropolitan and regional contexts. The study will develop planning strategies to anticipate future potentials, and to mitigate present threats. As Miami’s coastal barrier islands form one of the most recognizable and singularly valuable cultural landscapes in the world, the study of Miami Beach reveals the potentials for ecological and infrastructural strategies as alternatives to large single purpose engineering solutions.

The emergent topic of urban adaptation to the effects of climate change is among the more pressing areas of research for those engaged in the built environment. While it was not entirely clear how the mitigation of climate change implicated the disciplines of architecture, urban design, or planning, the more recent focus on adaptation to ongoing effects of anthropogenic climate change puts those fields at the center of the conversation. Over the past several years the North American discourse on the subject has sensibly focused on the significant case studies of New Orleans post Katrina and New York post Sandy. Both of these cases have engendered a range of public discourse, planning proposals, and design strategies for living with the ongoing reality of increased storm events, rising sea levels, and a host of secondary and tertiary effects associated with the new reality. In each of these cases the design disciplines have been central to the projection of alternative futures for these vulnerable major metropolitan centers. While these cases have provided unique contexts for the advancement of disciplinary knowledge, professional practices, and societal engagement with the subject of urban adaptation to sea level rise, they have reinforced a tendency toward the defense of relatively densely concentrated urban agglomerations through the deployment of large hydrological engineering systems. By contrast, much of the North American coastline, and its associated urbanization resist such approaches by the realities of their geography, hydrology, and patterns of urbanization. Among the more extreme cases in this regard is the present status and uncertain future of South Florida’s coastal communities.

Using the vehicle of Miami Beach as a case in point, the Harvard Graduate School of Design and its partners will examine the implications of sea level rise and increased storm events on the sprawling urbanism of metropolitan Miami and its numerous municipalities and communities. The low-lying coastal conditions and singular cultural heritage of Miami Beach resist the types of massive civil engineering projects that have recently been proposed for London, Venice, or other major international examples. Given the reliance of South Florida’s economy and identity upon the specific landscape conditions of Miami Beach, this research project proposes to use the frameworks of green infrastructure, landscape ecology, and cultural heritage as potential responses to looming threats associated with sea level rise.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim (PI), Aziz Barbar, Matthew Coogan, Rosetta Elkin, Francesca Romana Forlini, Mariano Gomez-Luque, Helen Kongsgaard, Christian Lavista, Chris Merritt, Javier Ors-Austin, Richard Peiser, Maggie Tsang, Lindsay Woodson, and Jessy Yang.

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Airfield Manual

“Thousands of abandoned or underutilized airports exist around the world, and these redundant infrastructures present extraordinary opportunities for addressing the social, economic, and ecological challenges confronted by cities today.” – Office for Urbanization, 2017

The city of Mendoza, Argentina presents a unique opportunity to examine the extraordinary benefits that the transformation of decommissioned airfields might bring to the city and its inhabitants. The Mendoza Aeroparque is a 72-hectare decommissioned airfield sitting at the western edge of the Andean city in a strategic position between the foothills and the high plains. The Aeroparque sits today behind concrete walls surrounded by the ongoing urbanization of a 1200-hectare district spanning two municipalities and host to various social, natural, economic and urban challenges. The twin municipalities of Mendoza and Las Heras belong to a the larger metropolitan area along with five other municipalities including Godoy Cruz, Guaymallén, Luján, Maipú and Lavalle. Taken together, these department make up Greater Mendoza, a metropolitan area with 1,900,000 inhabitants. Mendoza is among the world capitals of wine production and is known for this specific agricultural, commercial, and tourist economy. Mendoza’s high desert climate features warm summers and very cold winters. Mendoza is presently the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country. Situated in the Precordilleras de la Rioja, San Juan y Mendoza, the city was established in 1561 in an alluvial high plain whose ecological input dictated the organizational logic of its urban form. The region is predominantly a desert due to low levels of precipitation; however, pre-Hispanic water management techniques engineered the land to be amenable to human life. The city’s grid was designed to capture Andean snowmelt and provide an urban oasis through a system of channels called “acequias.” These channels form the morphological and hydrological logic of the city’s spatial structure. During the second half of the twentieth century, urban expansion advanced from the plain up into the mountains, occupying parts of the piedmont ecosystem of the Andean slope. The Mendoza Aeroparque, an exception to this historical line of urban expansion, is a major land area whose ecology can generate new sensitive urban forms.

This research report proposes a series of recommendations for the future transformation of the Mendoza Aeroparque. The Aeroparque’s location and surrounding conditions provide the ideal setting for a strategic urban plan that binds together multiple scales of impact and reprograms available land with mixed uses. Its objective is to share with local stakeholders a set of spatial considerations where landscape and ecology are the media of new urban form. These recommendations were structured following two site visits by the Office to Mendoza, Argentina in December 2016 and March 2017. Both visits comprise part of a half-year research project led by Principal Investigator Charles Waldheim and Research Associate Pedro Aparicio at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, MA. During each site visit, engagement with public officials, technical experts, the academic community, and local citizens offered nuanced visions about the challenges and opportunities that this airfield conversion might entail.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim (PI), Pedro Aparicio, Sara Favargiotti, Mariano Gomez-Luque, Matthew Moffitt, Ruben Segovia, Dana Shaikh Solaiman, Ximena de Villafranca, and David Zielnicki.

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Data, Design, Decision

“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”  — Herbert Simon, 1971

Recent claims around big data, smart cities, and the Internet of Things suggest that we are on the verge of an unprecedented wave of information about the contemporary city. From IBM’s early “smarter cities” initiative to Google’s recent foray into “civic innovation technologies,” a variety of companies have entered the marketplace of urban informatics. At the same time, a number of open source developers have contributed platforms and strategies to help cities operationalize data for the public good. Governments have responded to a call for transparency and innovation by releasing data into the public domain for others to access, analyze, and leverage toward alternative and better futures. Today, a range of technology advocates, from technology corporations and open-source developers to architects, planners, and urban designers are advancing strategies to effectively resolve urban questions as data infiltrates the public realm. Concurrently, developments in design methodology, and the increasing prevalence of design thinking in the domains of business, public policy, and information technology, among others, promise innovation in decision-making processes.

While technological and social change may, in fact, produce more and better information, the status of that information relative to decision-making, especially in the urban context, has been a longstanding area of research in the design disciplines. Over the past half-century, the discourse and practices associated with design thinking have been proposed to describe the role of design in dealing with a surplus of data. Beginning with discussions of design methodology in architecture and urban design, design thinking emerged as a means to address the complexity of open societal systems through a propositional model of intervention in the world. In contrast to empirical or descriptive models of inquiry, design thinking is most often propositional. Rather than simply describing the world as found, design is capable of describing how it might change. This projective condition for design is most often concerned with material, spatial, or temporal interventions in the world. In this respect, design thinking is often characterized by its capacity to propose alternative and better futures, particularly in contexts where traditional forms of scientific inquiry are found inadequate to the complexity of the situation at hand.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim, Helen Kongsgaard, and Robert Pietrusko.