Revitalization and Evolution of the Modern City / 09.20.17

Urban Designer Stephen Gray and the Power Structures of Progress

By Shami Barooshian
The origin story of Stephen Gray’s career is rooted in the two people responsible for his human origin: his parents.

“I would always say, my mother’s an artist, my father’s a mathematician, so I’m going to be an architect,” he explains. His voice is kind, even. The foreshadowing of his parents’ careers bore its fruit in 1999, when Gray found himself pursuing a B.A. in architecture at the University of Cincinnati, just around the corner from where he grew up.

“I don’t know if you know anything about architecture school, but you stay really late at the studio—three, four in the morning almost—at least half the weeknights you’re at school,” he explains. Rather than go home to sleep as these late nights came to end, Gray often walked. His destination? “Down back alley streets that you probably shouldn’t ever be walking on” in downtown Cincinnati.

On these walks, Gray observed the beginnings of revitalization efforts in the city he called home. These efforts were designed to encourage young people and natives like Gray to settle down and work in the city. At the time, many of the city’s residents were, as University of Cincinnati economics professor George Vredeveld told The Cincinnati Enquirer, “voting with their feet” and leaving the city for better prospects elsewhere—whether it was better schools, jobs or housing. In 2003, Gray’s sophomore year at the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati’s population decline was the fastest in the US, falling 4.2 percent from 2000.

Since 2003, different organizations around the city formed to combat the mass exodus issue—and the early stages of the projects they initiated were those that Gray saw while at the University of Cincinnati. While he walked, he wondered: what’s going to happen to the people who already live in these areas? Would all this development help them or hurt them?

It soon became clear to Gray that architecture’s focus was too narrow. He was interested in tackling broader questions and challenges like those he saw in downtown Cincinnati. So he turned his attention to urban design and planning: a discipline focused on designing towns and cities, rather than individual buildings. Where architecture has an outlook of several years, urban design looks at several decades.

Gray pursued a master’s in urban design at Harvard in 2006. During his two years of study, Gray became focused on a particular reality of the field: the power structures involved in urban development. He focused his thesis on the subject, using the revitalization efforts of Cincinnati as a case study. He critiqued the new streetcar route under construction at the time, and recommended adding a second route that would facilitate more connections in the city that would meet the needs of a larger segment of the population—including those native to the area where the revitalization was taking place.

“I was really thinking about ways to create shared governing regimes that would effectively take on the needs of the community, at the same time achieving the goals of the city and the bottom lines on the private sector,” he says. “That was my whole thing.”

And it still is. In his work as an urban designer, Gray is involved in a breadth of urban development projects in cities across the US and abroad. Gray believes that being cognizant of the different power structures involved in every phase of these projects is essential to making urban development more equitable and, by extension, more effective. In the projects he’s involved in—past, present, and future—Gray works to imbed this awareness and balance.

Creating a Foothold for the Future of Urban Design

“It’s a little bit odd for me not to be consulting,” Gray admits as he sips on a latte—soy and decaf to avoid headaches—in Harvard Square on a rainy March morning.

Prior to teaching, Gray spent eight years working at Boston-based design firm Sasaki Associates, Inc. He worked on the revitalization of the downtown areas of Raleigh, North Carolina and Hampton, Virginia; on a neighborhood planning project in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; on developing a master plan for the Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research in Abu Dhabi—to name just a few. During his time at Sasaki, Gray was awarded one of two prestigious American Institute of Architects (AIA) Associates Awards for his work and his contributions to the Boston community as a member of the Boston Society of Architects.

Gray and colleagues working at Sasaki.

“His sense of curiosity and his strong devotion to making cities better for everyone is helping advance the practice of urban design in new and exciting ways,” James Miner, a managing principal at Sasaki, wrote of Gray.

With his students, Gray works to foster awareness of the power structures in urban design that preoccupy him. One class, “Cities by Design II: Projects, Processes, and Outcomes,” asks students to explore the relationship between politics and urban design—and how that relationship helps or hinders the success of different development projects.

During one of his spring semester “Cities by Design” classes, Gray listens to students unpack the design and development of Beijing’s Olympic Park, Fort Bonifacio in Manila, La Defense in Paris, and Qatar’s Education City. Using diagrams Gray developed specifically for this class, students track each stakeholder involved in the projects across different project milestones. The Beijing group, for example, examines how the 2008 Olympic Park was developed with the priorities focused on the city’s international image, rather than long-term urban improvement. One student points to photos of the abandoned rowing park and iconic Bird’s Nest stadium as evidence of the planning oversight (and truly, the photos are missing only tumbleweeds). The stadium, constructed to the tune of $480 million, now sits empty while continuing to cost the city $11 million in annual maintenance.

Beijing is certainly not the only host that’s fallen victim to the type of short-sighted design and development issues Gray’s students illustrate. There’s no limit to the number of photographs showing the decline of Olympic venues in Sarajevo, Athens and Berlin, among others.

“Time and time again we have seen Olympic hosts promise that the billions of dollars spent in the two-week spectacle would have lasting effect on the local economy and its citizens only to watch silently as the venues are abandoned and begin to decay,” Emmett Knowlton writes.

Even the best-laid plans to repurpose Olympic facilities are often met with economic or technological challenges and go unrealized. Rio is following the “ghost-town” trend despite the planning committee’s best efforts. The Aquatics Stadium, for example, was intended to be converted into community pools, but now sits abandoned.

At the end of the presentations, Gray’s aim to arm students with tools and strategies for avoiding this planning breakdown is clear. The feedback he delivers centers around how students might better format their diagrams to illustrate concepts for their future clients. He says graphic communication is essential to working in urban design and helping communities come to a consensus.

Balancing Power: Revisiting Cincinnati and Tackling its Uptown Revitalization

Part of the reason Gray is so adamant about ensuring a balance of power structures in urban development is that he’s seen it work. While at Sasaki in 2013, he was assigned to a project that centered around the development of Uptown Cincinnati.

Gray’s hometown is Ohio’s third largest city (behind Columbus and Cleveland), with a population of just under 300,000. The Ohio River, through trade and commerce, made the city profitable, and the population grew immensely during the 19th century, with a wave of German, Irish, Jewish and African American immigration. It grew to be one of the ten largest cities in the US. Since the 1950s, however, the city has experienced a sustained population decline.

Beginning in the early 2000s, when population decline was at its height, different organizations around the city began cropping up to combat the issue. One of these was the Uptown Consortium, formed in 2004 to focus specifically on reinvigorating Cincinnati’s uptown area. The Consortium is a nonprofit made up of organizations including Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, UC Health, TriHealth, Inc. and the University of Cincinnati which together employ—and serve—a large segment of Cincinnati’s population.

To help make improvements to the Uptown area, the Consortium petitioned the state to fund the construction of a new interchange at Interstate 71 and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Uptown Cincinnati Planning Map. Key: Green = Publicly Accessible Open Space; Pink = Neighborhood Centers; Blue = Uptown Institutions

“[The Uptown Project] was an opportunity for me to actually go back to my hometown and revisit my thesis, essentially to test it in real terms,” Gray says.

The Uptown Project was based on a study published by the University of Cincinnati in 2012 that outlined the economic benefits of creating the new interchange, including the potential creation of 7,000 full-time jobs in the area and the improved transportation for motor vehicles, pedestrians and bicycles. The Uptown Consortium saw this economic and social impact and their proposal was funded by the state in January of 2013, allocating $2.4 million to the project. In many cases, says Gray, this would be “the end of the story.”

But the Consortium wanted a more thorough understanding of the project’s impact before work began. Specifically, the nonprofit was interested in conducting further investigation into the impact on the surrounding community and inviting local organizations to have an equal seat at the table in the project’s steering committee. While such an all-inclusive model might sound ideal, it was not easy to get the community to come together.

Neighborhood residents were uninterested, says Gray, if not suspicious of the entire process. More than 50 percent of Uptown residents, primarily composed of people of color, lack access to a car, and the area’s ratio of residential land to surface parking was, at the time, about 1-to-1. Communicating how these neighborhoods would benefit from an interchange running through their backyards was a major hurdle.

“We’re asking people in communities that don’t have access to vehicles because of socioeconomic status, and are perpetually surrounded by surface parking lots that seem to expand and grow every year, to consider the positive impact of a new interchange,” Gray says.

Gray and Sasaki were hired as subconsultants by local firm GBBN Architects as part of these investigations into how to maximize the impact of the new interchange. The early stages of conversation with community members were about building trust and finding ways to get the community excited. The initial directive for Gray and his team was a traffic study—to develop a plan for the new streets: how many lanes they should have, what the street design should look like. But as Sasaki got involved, more issues arose that needed to be addressed, and the scope of the original project grew.

“This is the nature of urban design,” Gray told his audience during a lecture at the University of Waterloo earlier this year. For example, once the the community got involved, they vocalized concern that the interchange would prevent the reinvigoration of their neighborhood centers. On the other side, one of the biggest clients in the study came forward and expressed interest in incorporating more parking outside of their facilities. Gray’s firm worked to address each concern in turn with the needs of the larger community in mind.

Cross-sector working session.

Consistently, throughout the course of the project, representatives from the more than 40 local groups involved were invited to every meeting regarding the project. When the visioning for the project was completed in 2015, every community group submitted letters of support.

“We’re going in the right direction,” Ozie Davis, a community leader from Avondale closely involved in the project, told USA Today.

The ability to involve this breadth of stakeholders and truly understand the context of the city’s needs contributed to the success of the project—that is, the unanimous agreement on a plan that serves priorities across the community. With it, the city has a clear direction for moving forward in improving Uptown. Gray hopes that this process, what he calls place-based stakeholder land visioning, is one other cities try to emulate with similar projects.

Resilience Planning for the Future of Boston

Boston, where Gray lives and works now, is a city he hopes will follow Cincinnati’s lead in its own project centered around resilience planning—that is, developing a strategy for the city to remain adaptive, whether in response to change over time or damaging events.

Boston is one of the oldest cities in the US, and the challenges it faces when tackling resilience are numerous. Rising sea levels and flooding are a concern, as much of Boston is built on landfills, while gentrification of many areas across the Greater Boston Area (which includes several dozen towns and makes up close to 4.8 million people) leads to a the lack of affordable housing and often a lack of access to public transportation for many.

At the heart of many of the city’s challenges is its growing social inequality. Boston has a long history of racial segregation and disparity. A dot-map using 2010 census data illustrates the uneven distribution of people of minority groups in Boston. People of color are concentrated in areas like Mattapan, Dorchester and West Roxbury—areas where housing prices are low and crime is high. As gentrification increases, this is set to get worse.

Racial Dot Map 2010, close-up of Greater Boston area, via U.S. Census Bureau.

“Racism for me is specifically about power,” says Dr. Atyia Martin, “The disproportionate burden of issues on communities of color, disproportionate allocation of resources to white people.”

Dr. Martin is Boston’s Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) and is in charge, as her title suggests, of leading the city’s resilience planning. She was appointed as part of a grant from 100 Resilient Cities, a nonprofit created by the Rockefeller Foundation in 2013, designed to help cities around the world combat the social, economic and environmental challenges of the 21st century. Abbreviated 100RC, the group has funded 100 cities worldwide including London, Buenos Aires and Nairobi. Most of the roughly $1M in grant money allocated to each city goes towards creating the CRO position. Once selected, the CRO oversees the research and planning phases of that city’s resilience efforts. Mayor Martin J. Walsh appointed Dr. Martin—previously Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Boston Public Health Commission—to the role in 2015.

Dr. Atiya Martin

Gray works closely with Dr. Martin as co-chair of the resilience collaborative, a group formed to guide the formidable undertaking. Dr. Martin’s goal, in-line with Gray’s findings from Cincinnati, is to ensure as many voices as possible are heard in Boston’s resilience initiative. Between September 2015 and February 2016, the resilience collaborative involved over 2,500 individuals through workshops and presentations. And she’s particularly focused on involving those who have been marginalized.

“When we have more diverse groups coming together, we come up with better ideas, products, and services,” she says.

Dr. Martin leads working session with Boston community members.

In 2016, based in large part on these diverse conversations, Boston’s resilience collaborative released a Blueprint document—a preview of and framework for the larger resilience strategy that will be released this year. The blueprint demonstrates how the city will orient its planning efforts around this issue of social inequity. In the opening letter of the Blueprint, Mayor Walsh writes that promoting equality will be at the core of every one of the City’s resilience efforts: “The strategy will connect the issue of race with other major challenges we face due to urbanization, globalization, and climate change.”

Gray, along with the rest of the collaborative, is currently working to develop ways to assess progress in the next five to ten years.

“Stephen has been really instrumental in helping us to stay strategic, think big picture and not fall into the usual pattern of behavior with the planning process,” Dr. Martin says.

And though Gray is working closely on and supports 100RC, he’s wary of its influence in Boston—as it’s one of many private stakeholders taking part in the region’s development. When a foundation is giving sizeable funding to a city, they can bypass certain processes, such as open selection. And they can influence government. The 100RC initiative, Gray points out, has created a cabinet position in 100 cities worldwide.

Maintaining a balanced, broad involvement of stakeholders and consideration of interests in these projects is the best way to ensure both equitability and viability—as seen in the case of the Beijing and the Cincinnati project in different measures. Understanding this web of interconnectivity involved in Boston’s urban development is the first step toward realizing the plan he, Dr. Martin and others in the community are working to assemble.

“What we need to do with the city is say, what are the different networks? How are they connected or not connected? What are the challenges that they’re facing? Where are the opportunities where there are groups in different sectors that care about the same things but aren’t necessarily talking or collaborating?” Gray says he’s already talked with Dr. Martin about finding some sort of software program that could both gather the data and turn into a visualization to help the collaborative—and anyone working on the project in the future—to understand who is represented and who isn’t, as well as what issues are and aren’t represented.

“They really need to be thinking as more of a commonwealth,” the urban designer quips of the city which our founding fathers once called home. He pauses, and adds with a smile, “Who woulda thunk?”

Shami Barooshian, Senior Editor
Shami joined Original9 with a background in PR, working with tech startups on content programs and media relations. She loves finding ways to tell inspiring, meaningful stories. In her free time, she enjoys cycling and doing crossword puzzles.