Urban Design certainly can accomplish a lot and have an enormous effect on how people live their lives. The built environment can give people choice to live a healthy, community-oriented, and an environmentally friendly lifestyle – or the opposite. But research shows that physical interventions can only accomplish so much. There are obviously hugely influential societal factors, such as race, class, and years of oppression (or privilege) that can have an enormous and sometimes a seemly irreversible effect on neighborhoods.
I came across a BBC video that explores this issue in a Saint Louis neighborhood called The Loop. Please check it out here. This video explores how one street can divide two demographics so intensely. I couldn’t help but share it because I spent four years living right next to the street in question while studying architecture at Washington University in Saint Louis. On one side is a predominately affluent, white neighborhood, with gorgeous stately homes and the home of a top 12 university. On the other, is what can be described most simply as the ghetto.
I was surprised that the video didn’t touch upon the total revitalization of Delmar Boulevard, or The Loop as it is known. The 5 block stretch of this area acts as the retail and entertainment heart for both sectors of society. Here you can see people of all eccentricities and identities having fun harmoniously. In 2007 the American Planning Association recognized it as “One of the 10 Great Streets in America.” (Read about it here.)
I spent many weekends at Blueberry Hill, where Chuck Berry still to this day performs his trademark duckwalk monthly. I also witnessed the younger generation performer Nelly, film his music video on Delmar. With the lyrics “I’m from the Loop and I’m proud” there is no doubt that the street plays a part in everyone’s self-identification. Having said that, as students we were told never to cross Delmar Boulevard. As a result, embarrassingly, I rarely experienced and witnessed some of the conditions documented in this video.
Delmar Boulevard got the nickname “The Loop” from the now-retired streetcar route. The turn-around point right at end of this part of the street, gave it its name. By the 1930s, the Loop was booming with retail, entertainment, offices and apartments. It was accessible and popular with many St. Louisans. Like so many main streets across America it suffered from the suburban mall movement, and by the time the streetcar system was terminated in the 1960s it was deserted and dilapidated. Luckily for all of us, the city had enough sense to preserve the historic character of the area, including the store-fronts and instill zoning changes that required all then-future ground-floor vacancies to be filled by commercial uses.
Enter the entrepreneur, Joe Edwards, in 1972. There is no greater story of one individual having more effect in one neighborhood. He in himself is a success story. His is well-known in St. Louis and there is no doubt his passion, commitment, and business savvy made The Loop’s regeneration happen. He opened Blueberry Hill when few healthy businesses existed on the street, and set up a Business Improvement District (BID), that funneled money into the streetscape and public realm. He opened more unique businesses such as an old-style bowling lounge, a concert-venue, and restored independent movie theater. He also funded the St. Louis Walk of Fame, which placed stars in the pavement for famous St. Louisans. He is now instrumental in bringing the street trolley back to Delmar, which will connect the entertainment district with Forest Park and the museum district.
The main point of me telling you this story, is that Delmar Boulevard has achieved an extremely high level of urban design. It is walkable, overlooked, has an active public realm, and a strong economic presence in the area. The light-rail system, MetroLink, connects the area with the rest of the city. The street network on each side is well-connected, creating a grid that allows multiple connections into this thriving part of town. The eccentricity and affordability of the businesses and corridor identity is all-inclusive and welcoming to all.
Yet, still, it is segregated. Just as the video shows, the surrounding context north of Delmar continues to suffer from poor education, employment, crime, and drug use. As an urban designer, we have to realize that in some situations that improving physical conditions can only go so far, and social and political interventions are required. It is up to the city and community groups to give these people the training and education that can help to start improve people’s lives who have long suffered. Of course, this takes time. And I would bet my bottom dollar that if given the right support, The Loop and its surrounding neighborhoods would improve faster than other parts of the city that aren’t able to tap into such a thriving and strong heart, serving as a foundation for so many people’s self-identity.
People might then ask, “well what’s the point of urban design, if it can’t create change?” Well, we already know that it creates an enormous amount of change and any resident of the area will tell you that Joe Edwards and the Loop’s revitalization has had an effect on people’s self-identity and quality of life. What this example does show, is that there is a limit to what urban design can achieve, especially those that are the most severe situations.