Fringe Cities Design Lab

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How can design catalyze investment in small American cities on the fringe between urban and rural?

Between 1949 and 1974, the United States federal government invested billions in urban infrastructure through a series of planning, demolition, and construction programs known as “urban renewal.” While many large cities have rebounded or even prospered from this initiative, over 90% of cities that received funding were under 150,000 people, and have struggled to rebuild from the social and spatial traumas of these interventions. We have classified these struggling cities as “Fringe Cities,” which we define as small, independently situated cities, whose urban landscapes remain dramatically marked by this last great federal investment in American cities. 

Fringe cities hold architectural and infrastructural assets built during American manufacturing prominence, but today, they are literally crumbling, forgotten under the weight of a global manufacturing economy. The Fringe Cities Design Lab seeks to transform these liabilities into assets relevant to the communities’ present day needs and aspirations. In doing so we can address increasing environmental stresses through adaptive re-use—rather than new construction—while rebuilding communities in the process.

Emerging out of what was originally the Hudson Valley Design Lab, our work in Poughkeepsie and the region is a core element of our Fringe Cities Design Lab, and is part of a larger hypothesis that architects have a duty to work not only in the metropoles where there is a market for design, but also within smaller communities where it has yet to emerge. Our work focuses on partnering with and supporting local groups to lay the groundwork for community-led efforts to revitalize the city. This grassroots approach has proven to be a viable alternative to the trickle down model of practice that drove mid-20th century urban renewal, and that still broadly defines the architecture profession today.

Our theory of change requires reinventing downtowns using architecture and design to:

  1. Improve schools and educations
  2. Empower anchor institutions and community assets
  3. Reimagine infrastructure and public spaces “with” (instead of “for”) the community
  4. Invest in equitable models of ownership and wealth for existing residents
  5. Catalyze growth and density

Ongoing Projects and Partnerships include the Trolley Barn, Fall Kill Revitalization, Poughkeepsie Food Hall, and an exhibition at the Center for Architecture in New York City.