What if cities were designed as if people mattered?
“Ethical redevelopment” is urbanism focused on equity, and equity is an American tradition. At our best, we strive for equal access to public education, impartiality in hiring, and fairness in housing, to name just a few areas of concern (and struggle, in the current political climate). Ethical redevelopment happens when public artists, architects, designers, urban planners, and other thought leaders engage in thoughtful city building—in particular, when they use this mind-set to breathe new life into neighborhoods that have been overlooked.
One of the most significant voices in ethical redevelopment today is Chicago-based conceptual artist Theaster Gates. Gates takes abandoned buildings and forgotten spaces on Chicago’s South Side and infuses them with new vibrancy. His pièce de résistance is Stony Island Arts Bank, a neglected neoclassical building that he bought from the city for one dollar and transformed into a center for arts, culture, and community. That work, and other similar projects, brought him fame and influence in the art world. In 2013, ArtReview ranked him the 40th most powerful person (out of 100) in the arts worldwide.
Soon, placemakers from other cities approached Gates for help in their own communities, and he realized that the best gift he could give them was to distill, and then broadcast, the insights he’d gained from his own urban redevelopment practice.
“People were asking me about replicating what I was doing in Chicago in other cities,” says Gates. “My response was: I can’t replicate the Listening House or the Black Cinema House [two of his projects in Chicago]. I can’t replicate myself. But I felt like there were consistent values that guided those works and that they had to do with learning and sharing ideas.”
Creating a Shared Language
So Gates created Place Lab, an idea incubator at the University of Chicago that observed and documented his existing projects. From those observations—and from public convenings and by-invitation workshops with artists and change-makers from other cities—the Place Lab team outlined nine principles of ethical redevelopment.
Place Lab’s ethical redevelopment framework doesn’t differ all that much from other thoughtful, community-minded approaches to placemaking—it focuses on gathering neighborhood input on how spaces are redesigned, promoting and celebrating the advancement of culture, and fostering organic relationships between neighbors. What makes it unique is that it’s trying to create a shared language to express and realize the values, process, and aims of contemporary urban redevelopment. In other words, Place Lab aims to get a wide variety of change-makers on the same page and speaking the same language.
At the core of that shared vocabulary is the idea of mindfulness: keeping in mind human values in the creation of place-based projects. Mindful city building, for example, rejects traditional profit-driven development and franchising. Instead, it argues that urban spaces should be developed with the input of the people who live in them, and that true neighborhood vibrancy is built with spaces that celebrate and advance culture and feed the soul of a community.
Seeking input from the people who are actually affected by placemaking is crucial to ethical redevelopment, according to Gates, because the approach recognizes that houses and other properties are more than commodities—they’re holders of emotion, memory, and identity. Where developers see profit opportunities, neighbors see home. “The person who buys a property may have more skills, and more resources, and more access, and more networks, than the people who live there,” he says, “but [even] the empty lot next door is personal to the person who grew up there.”
A National Gathering
In June of 2016, Place Lab’s yearlong Salon Sessions began bringing together on-the-ground community development practitioners, including artists, advocates, public space experts, developers, designers, funders, civic officials, and others, to help learn from Gates’s successes and codify the language of ethical redevelopment. The gatherings functioned as a way to advance knowledge for both the Place Lab team and the participants—because, says Gates, for anyone who is going to wrestle with the built environment, “the more you know, the better.”
Knowledge matters, he explains, because redevelopment of any kind has so many moving parts. “The truth about changing neighborhoods is that the process isn’t [mediated] by one office or one city department,” says Gates. “It’s a [combination] of things, and I’m simply making the case, as a person who believes in creativity, that those systems can be hacked and that the people who’ve been on the outside can be on the inside.”
The concept of ethical redevelopment is still evolving, but the artists and others who participated in the workshops have started to incorporate this way of thinking into their work. “We’re a long way from being able to use the principles in our marketing language,” says Joan Vorderbruggen, one of the Salon participants and the director of public art and placemaking at the Hennepin Theatre Trust in Minneapolis. “But being able to articulate a way of working using these principles is valuable.”
The workshops also helped place-based change-makers, who are steeped in the challenges of their own neighborhoods and cities, see that they’re not alone. “Having an opportunity to step out of the local things I’m fighting in Detroit and see the national things people are facing in neighborhoods across the country helped give me context,” says James Feagin, a strategic consultant in Detroit. “It helped me understand the scale of the challenges and how to think about solutions.”
One of the challenges facing ethical redevelopers that became clear during the sessions was the traditional, profit-driven system that drives most urbanism. “This process is still about Miss Jenkins on the corner and the couple who want to buy a house in the neighborhood they grew up in, but it’s also about really big, market-driven [development forces],” says Feagin. “No one person can fight on his or her own. We have to become strategic in finding the power we do have.”
Vorderbruggen agrees: “When you’re working with —and against—long-standing systems to improve areas in a way that embraces a whole community, that is extremely challenging, because the systems are in place to do the opposite.” She adds that having “the support of other passionate people built my confidence.”
Place Lab operates on a three-year grant that comes to an end this year, but Gates already has visions for Place Lab 2.0. He sees the next stage of this work as even more pointedly educational—and not just in equipping ethical placemakers with the technical know-how to navigate the competing needs of various city offices and other stakeholders. He wants to teach his students at the University of Chicago, as well as other placemakers, how to have the “courage, independent agency, critical thinking, and enthusiasm” required for ethical redevelopment.
“If we’re going to be successful at creating balanced and equitable cities, we need skills that are different than the skills we have now,” he concludes. “We need to bring both heart and skill to these projects.”
The 9 Principles of Ethical Redevelopment
The Place Lab team created a framework for ethical redevelopment (downloadable at https://placelab.uchicago.edu/ethical-redevelopment/), articulating principles drawn from Gates’s neighborhood-based projects in Chicago and refined through yearlong workshops. Summarized here, these points can offer inspiration and guidance to place-based change-makers nationwide.
1. Repurpose and Re-propose
This principle suggests that ethical redevelopers make use of discarded and overlooked items. It also encourages them to deeply engage with those items so that they can be used in new and originally unintended ways. In 2008, Gates bought a small bungalow on Chicago’s South Side, gutted it, and used the scraps to build bookshelves for his 14,000-plus book collection. “Repurposing is an act of redemption,” the framework states. “Artistry is alchemy—it allows one thing to become another. Be an alchemist in your community. In new hands, there is renewed possibility for the discarded and overlooked.”
2. Engaged Participation
This principle is about collaborating with the people who believe in the place and approaching participants authentically—as you would approach a neighbor. It’s about offering participants multiple access points to the project and varied opportunities to participate, from attending planning meetings to participating in the creation of the spaces themselves. This doesn’t mean simply keeping neighbors informed (a one-way street used in many development projects), but encouraging the willing investment of participants’ time, talent, and resources.
3. Pedagogical Moments
Every step in the ethical redevelopment process should be instructive; teaching and learning are inherent parts of mindful placemaking. And this knowledge transfer can go both ways, from the community and the neighbors to the placemakers and from the placemakers to the neighbors. Opportunities for knowledge transfer can also be both formal and informal. For example, a master gardener designing a community garden can lead by example or formalize a mentorship program with would-be community gardeners.
4. The Indeterminate
Ethical redevelopment argues that “resource inequity can be reduced with imagination,” so mindful city builders are urged to embrace uncertainty, accept ambiguity, and ask questions in the face of “problems” in certain neighborhoods. For example, a dearth of funding via traditional routes may lead placemakers to forge new partnerships. Ethically redeveloped projects have a vision, but they remain open and flexible about how to reach the final objective. “Believe in your project but resist believing there is only one path to achieve it,” the Place Lab fellows write.
Good design matters because it offers beauty as well as functionality. “Beauty is a basic service often not extended to ‘forgotten parts’ of the city,” write the Place Lab fellows—and that should change. “Beauty has magnetism. It defines character. It promotes reverence,” they write. “Design ignites and gets people reinvested in a place.”
6. Place over Time
Ethical redevelopers know that fostering renewed vibrancy in neighborhoods doesn’t happen overnight. Placemaking takes time, just as neglect and divestment occur gradually. “Place-based work is about the aggregation of years of activity and organic development of relationships. When it works, people visit and return in response to offerings that are authentic to the spirit of the place.”
7. Stack, Leverage, and Access
Ethical redevelopers are encouraged to believe in themselves and to have something at stake in the project, even if it’s just sweat equity. “Projects like these require belief and motivation more than they require funding,” says the framework. “Making change requires conviction and commitment utilizing belief, brainpower, energy, time, and dogged perseverance.” Such commitment allows redevelopers to leverage early, smaller successes into later wins and gain access to bigger and better resources. And the group suggests “stacking” and “bundling” various resource streams rather than depending on single sources.
Ethical redevelopment needs both strong leaders and strong teams, along with a constellation of different forms of expertise. Projects require a “vibrant…ecosystem” of “visionaries, believers, implementers, collaborators, and evaluators.”
Mindful city-building requires platforms: opportunities for people to gather and commune. A platform is a literal or metaphorical space (a park or a chat room, for example) in which people feel comfortable hanging out, having deep conversations, connecting. It’s a space that encourages “new friendships, and, ultimately, a community of people who want to be part of a transformative work in the neighborhood.” The fellows note that “a just city is required to facilitate platforms that engage those who are not fully tapped into their power and feel cheated out of the right to publicly demonstrate their power.”