A Midwest Renaissance: Reinvention and Renewal

Starting with a Community Service Fellowship during the summer of 2016, landscape architect Chris Merritt (MLA ’17) has immersed himself in study of the urban revitalization of the American Heartland with help from Loebs who know the landscape and the key players. His findings are on display at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2nd floor outside Piper Auditorium, through next week.

Over the summer of 2016 I traveled across the Midwest meeting with city leaders, designers, and artists actively involved in reinventing the cities where they lived and worked. We often see cities labeled as livable, creative, and innovative, and millennials are encouraged to move back home to their second tier city to have a big impact. As a landscape architect, I am interested in the renewing of Midwestern cities particularly through investment in public spaces. These processes are taking place across the Midwest with large support from the private philanthropy and foundation communities.

The cities of the Midwest have social, cultural, and political histories that still exist and define the region. The exact definition can be argued: Great Lakes Region, Rust Belt, Corn Belt, Heartland, or Flyover States. More recently, the national spotlight is on the Midwest as “Trumpland.”

There are lessons to be learned from the region about how cities celebrate and redefine identity and rebuild communities. Many of these urban areas have struggled with shrinking economies and loss of population–now on the rise. They have found strategies to capitalize on renewed interest in the city. My project, currently on exhibit at the Graduate School of Design, reviews how landscape architects can position the urban landscape at the core of the reinvention and renewal taking place across the Midwest.

Cities now realize the value of the public realm. Throughout my travels and research, I discovered great public and private appetite for improved public spaces and quality designed urban landscapes as catalysts for reinvention. The exhibit shows stories and initiatives of the past decade from Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, and Omaha.

Some cities are abandoning the “humble blue collar” Midwest stereotype in favor of tech innovation, creative centers, and arts districts. These new flashy developments, however, need to simultaneously deal with the issues of affordable housing, crime, employment, failing school districts, and racism also prevalent in portions of the cities.

In creating a framework for the project, I received early direction from Loeb Fellows Susan Rademacher (’87), India Pierce Lee (’09), and Anne-Marie Lubenau (’12). A critical resource was the Loeb Fellowship’s large network of civic minded leaders having positive impacts across the Midwest.

This work is part of an ongoing design research project initiated with a Harvard Community Service Fellowship in the summer of 2016 with the Central Indiana Community Foundation. Special thank you to Michael Kaufmann in Indianapolis for his leadership throughout the summer.

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