Strategic investments, made at the right time, can change the community around them. Just like in chemistry, catalysts are the things that make other important events happen. Strategic design interventions focus energy to counteract decline, or to coordinate efforts that are underway.
There are many, many examples of rethinking cities, and projects that became the lodestone for neighboring sites. Park Hill Housing in Sheffield, England did it twice, once when it was built in 1961, replacing wastelands, violent crime, and tenements with a mixed use structure on the hillside incorporating a primary school, shopping district, and housing. Former neighbors were re-housed together, in “streets in the sky” named for the displaced lanes; developers incorporated the cobbles into the site pathways. Over decades the brutalist structure fell into disrepair, but the building is once again thriving with an iconic remodeling bringing attention and eager tenants.
The San Antonio Paseo del Rio works at an even larger scale, encouraging a second level of promenade, restaurants, hotels, and shopping through the formerly dangerous downtown area. Construction of the flood control portions of the project began in 1938, and soon afterwards, the WPA created walkways, bridges, and plantings along the river edge. It was extended in 1968 and again twenty years later to reach several more miles, now linking cultural facilities to the established recreational network. It has had impacts far beyond San Antonio, inspiring similar projects in Colorado, Mexico, and other places.
Catalytic projects have components that encourage active streets: commercial uses, housing, civic functions, and public space. It is not about building opulence or magnificence, but about using architecture and its wider complement of financial investment, construction, and operation, to change a community, to impart knowledge, or to occupy hitherto abandoned places. Catalysts take a wider view, and modify the streets and structures around them, and set the standards for future improvements by creating an examplar.
In preparing cities for the future, it is essential to consider threats including those from climate change. Rethinking designs to match the timescale of rising sea levels requires considering city edges more closely than their centers. Balancing innovation with context is critical in maintaining the history and authenticity of a place. Catalytic projects must include the technical solutions that will ensure viability for longer than the accepted period of 50 years.
We cannot protect everything, and furthermore, we cannot do everything at once. Grandiose visions engender cynicism. We have to embrace the piecemeal, the incremental, and the small. These are the ways that cities can claim their own history and remain authentic. The corollary in chemistry is a controlled reaction, rather than an explosion. We hope to preserve the existing urban fabric, but introduce new elements, and ordering principles to guide future development. Catalytic projects will reduce the burden of automobiles on our streets, trim energy dependence, and retain stormwater before it overflows the boundaries of the site.
In Bridgeport, we are exploring a retreat along the industrialized edges of the waterways to a more defensible perimeter, with re-naturalised marsh edges, hardened streets, and waterproof foundations such as raised floor levels, bathtub parking, and armoured commercial functions along the streets. We are also exploring solutions to protect investments at the water’s edge with multi-duty flood protection that also provides neighborhood connections, recreation, and a base for other active uses. It’s not quite chemistry, but it is a wise, long-term strategy to deal with the unknown.
(with thanks to Wayne Attoe, author of American Urban Architecture: Catalysts in the Design of Cities)