Cutting-Edge Repositioning

November 1, 2010 · by Ernest Hutton, Mark Strauss, and Stephen Whitehouse

Two very different cities had a common problem: a withered economic base. To addresses their challenges, both communities undertook dramatic improvements through repositioning.


Often through no fault of their own, communities find that their former strong economic base has suddenly wilted.

In the early 1970s, Pittsburgh faced the collapse of steel mills and loss of jobs due to a recessionary economy, foreign competition, and shifting market demand. Faced with economic shrinkage, the city reinvented itself by shifting to a creative economy to bring back a faltering downtown. Initiated by local foundations and reinforced by the public and private sectors, the Pittsburgh Cultural District, an arts/mixed-use development, was created.

Through a parallel commitment to innovation, the city’s business community established a proactive framework for new high-tech industrial development fostered in conjunction with nearby educational institutions.

Providence, R.I.

By the early 1980s, downtown Providence was an asphalt jungle. Encroaching pavement and development had relegated its central area river system to an underground storm sewer, and public space was for the most part devoid of landscaping -- and life. A creative plan to reopen the river and line the resulting basin and channel with walkways, bridges, and parkland was enthusiastically adopted by the city’s public, private, and civic sectors.

Rapidly implemented, the improvements dramatically changed the city’s image. Building on this success, Providence is encouraging public outreach to empower neighborhood enhancement and economic development, setting in motion Providence Tomorrow, a charrette-based, city-wide planning partnership between the city administration, the City Council, and community stakeholders and citizens.

Cutting-Edge Approaches

These case studies represent cutting edge approaches the challenge of repositioning. Some innovations started with interactive planning and pre-development activities more than 20 years ago since successful policies often require long gestation periods. Other more recent approaches have involved policy changes that could be implemented within a city government to set the stage for long-term evolution and change.

Ernest Hutton, founder and principal of Hutton Associates Inc., trained as an architect and city planner at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently planning advisor to Providence, R.I., City Council. Hutton prepared the original Pittsburgh Cultural District development strategy. He is a member of the AIANY Board of Directors, co-chair of the AIANY Planning and Urban Design Committee, and co-chair of New York New Visions, a 350-member volunteer group he helped organize following 9/11, which helped advance New York’s PlaNYC sustainable development strategy.

Mark E. Strauss is a senior partner at FXFowle and co-directs the firm’s Urban Studio. He has contributed to the development of guidelines for both Manhattan’s Eastern and Western Rail Yards; the redevelopment plan for Water Street in Lower Manhattan; the master plan for Hunter’s Point South in New York; and numerous large-scale planning and urban design projects in Philadelphia and the Washington, D.C., metro Area. His City Regenerative Project in Copenhagen was honored with the 2009 World Architecture News Urban Design Award.

Stephen Whitehouse is a partner at Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners, where he focuses on the environmental quality and social vitality of places. As chief of planning at New York City Department of Parks & Recreation in the 1990s, Whitehouse launched the city’s Greenway and Green Streets programs. His recent work includes the Water Street study for the Downtown Alliance, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway Enhancements project, and the design of Bushwick Inlet Park on the East River in Brooklyn.

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