Healing the wounds of the city: Urban fragmentation and reconnection in postindustrial landscapes*

Urban fragmentation is arguably the most pressing issue in urban design and physical planning in postindustrial cities. After two centuries of implacable urbanization cities have inherited massive lines of infrastructure that divide neighborhoods otherwise connected. Railways, expressways and industrial yards were traced with no regard for everyday urban life and communities. At the same time, this also effectively connected cities regions and complete continents in ways that would have been unimaginable. This is one of the great paradoxes of contemporary cities: connection at the large-scale creates disconnection at the community level. Therefore, fragmentation is not only a problem of the urban form but also a problem of scale. To make matters more complex, we have inherited infrastructure that is not only massive but often times have become obsolete, underused or just abandoned.

Infrastructure such as elevated highways, multi-level vehicular intersections, (post)industrial complexes, railroads and railyards as well as on small urban spaces in parks, plazas and service alleyways often create interstitial spaces. The interruptions that these spaces create in the urban fabric are not only due to their physical condition, but also because there is a difference in the social, spatial and institutional scale. These spaces are often under national or provincial/state government jurisdictions (i.e. highways and railroads) or even transnational regulations (i.e. international corporations), and therefore are detached from community and neighborhood-level dynamics. Seen from the sky these structures really look like "wounds" in the urban tissue. This analogy of the city as a body is helpful to rethink fragmentation.

Urban fragmentation created by an interchange in Chicago. Overhead photo of the Circle Interchange in Chicago, IL. Source=self-made |Date=August 12, 2006 |Author= Stratosphere. Image registered under Creative Commons 4.0 license.

The question is: Is fragmentation reversible? Can these "wounds" and "scars" actually heal? Is there a way to "re-stitch" the city? The answer is yes. However, is it feasible? Yes, but not always. There are technical, financial, political and jurisdictional challenges to reconnect fragmented landscapes. In the last ten years, cities across the world have substantially invested in reconnecting urban space. However, most of them use “major-surgery-like” interventions that require large demolitions and reconstruction of existing infrastructure. Celebrated projects such as The New York Highline Park, The Cheonggyecheon Stream Park and Seullo 7010 in Seoul completely reinterpret infrastructure lines and turn them into vibrant public spaces. Such projects are strategic interventions in the territory. That is to say, they are conceived with a large-scale and long-term approach. But the reality is that most cities cannot afford projects of such scale. However they can opt for a tactical approach (small-scale and short-term interventions).

  Urban re-connection through the reinterpretation of infrastructure in Seoul.  Cheonggyecheon stream. Author. Francisco Anzola. Transferred from Flickr via Flickr2commons. Available in Wikimedia Commons. 15 April 2014. Seoul, S. Korea. Registered under Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Urban re-connection through the reinterpretation of infrastructure in Seoul. Cheonggyecheon stream. Author. Francisco Anzola. Transferred from Flickr via Flickr2commons. Available in Wikimedia Commons. 15 April 2014. Seoul, S. Korea. Registered under Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Following the analogy of the city as a body, "urban acupuncture" (Lerner, 2014) is an alternative to major surgery. Urban acupuncture are mild interventions that can turn the socio-spatial dynamics around in the urban fabric. This is not to say that the reconstruction of infrastructure should not be considered as a solution -- like in Medicine, sometimes surgery is the only way to solve the problem -- but that we should consider a gradient of options between the two approaches. Depending on the financial, technical or political feasibility, city planners can choose different strategies as alternatives to the full reconstruction and transformation of the infrastructure.

Interventions such as graffiti murals, art installations, farmer markets, community gardens, and events such as festivals, concerts or neighborhood meetings are examples of mild interventions to reconnect fragmented territories. In these cases, the urban tissue is not fully restructured, rather the edges are improved through community reappropriation, scattered stitches are located in strategic spaces in the infrastructure lines or, if none of these is possible, artistic projects are used to connect the space conceptually. In all these cases, the first step is a creative reinterpretation of the site to provide a good diagnosis that leads to an effective intervention.

 Chicano Park in San Diego is an example of a tactical intervention in an elevated highway. This murals were made by Mexican-American Activists during the occupation of the space in the 1960s. Description: Chicano Park Murals. Author: Kellinahandbasket. August 10 2006, San Diego, CA. Registered under a Creative Commons 2.0 license. Available in Flickr.

Chicano Park in San Diego is an example of a tactical intervention in an elevated highway. This murals were made by Mexican-American Activists during the occupation of the space in the 1960s. Description: Chicano Park Murals. Author: Kellinahandbasket. August 10 2006, San Diego, CA. Registered under a Creative Commons 2.0 license. Available in Flickr.

*This blogpost borrows largely from the Syllabus of Urban Laboratory (URBS 333) (De la Llata, 2018).

References.

De la Llata, S. (2018), Urban Laboratory Syllabus, Studio course taught in the Department of Geography Planning and Environment at Concordia University.

Lerner, J. (2014). Urban acupuncture. Island Press.