When “Displacement” Isn’t a Dirty Word

Displacement has traditionally been a dirty word in community design and planning. Urban renewal was the very embodiment of that word, on a massive scale. In New York, Robert Moses’ legacy is littered with broken communities, where his highways, bridges, and tunnels rammed through vibrant, long-standing low-income and working-class neighborhoods, uprooting and displacing millions of lives. Today, architects and planners continue to grapple with Moses’ lingering impact.

In the beginning of the pandemic, after being numbed by endless virtual meetings, I decided to catch up on how my colleagues integrate inquiry and research into their design process, and I made a surprising discovery: I found inspiring examples where interpreting displacement as an act of design not only led to restored and new low-income communities, but also a more balanced relationship with our natural world. 

In Rob Rogers’ monograph of his firm’s work, Learning Through Practice, he describes how Klein Hall at Rice University considers the displacement of stormwater in a 500-year floodplain. Much the same way a submerged section of boat displaces an equivalent volume of water, the lower portion of Klein Hall would displace and spread flood waters. In the initial design, that volume was calculated and offset with two stormwater management techniques: a subsurface drainage system and a depressed courtyard retention area.

Top: Rice University Kraft Hall for Social Sciences by Rogers Partners. Above: Courtyard at Kraft Hall. Photos by Luis Ayala.


The university subsequently broadened the strategy to a district model and developed a wetlands area that banked enough compensatory floodwater for not only Rogers’ project, now called the Kraft Hall for Social Sciences, but for future campus buildings as well. Going forward, the displacing volume of the new buildings will draw down equal credits from the wetlands “bank,” neutralizing their impact in the floodplain.

This past spring, I read about how a different sort of displacement was addressed—that of people and communities—by Lacaton & Vassal Architectes after they were awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize. A few years ago, as Lacaton & Vassal, Druot, Hutin, they renovated three buildings at Cité du Grand Parc, a housing complex in Bordeaux. Working with the residents in a participatory process, the design team’s clever solution was to wrap the buildings while they were occupied with new balconies and winter gardens, thus expanding living space and increasing the natural light in the dwellings. Displacing the residents during construction was avoided, and a much-maligned model of typical urban housing was transformed into one that provides generous and pleasant living spaces. The New York City Housing Authority, the agency in charge of our city’s public housing, should start modeling this example immediately, and well beyond the fledging public/private partnership program recently profiled in the New York Times by Michael Kimmelman.


Top: Before and after photos of Cité du Grand Parc by Lacaton & Vassal, Druot, Hutin. Bottom: New play area and balcony at Cité du Grand Parc. Photos by Philippe Ruault.


The previous two examples use displacement as a tool for better buildings through careful analysis of a project’s impact on the environment and the community. This is real progress, since displacement historically correlates with entitled communities fighting to maintain the status quo under false pretenses. One doesn’t have to look very far to find this rancorous debate still playing out across New York, and elsewhere.

I am an active member of my Brooklyn community, where the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup of the Gowanus Canal is under way and there is a proposed 82-block rezoning of the neighborhood around it. One of the primary goals of the rezoning is to create more affordable housing. The ideological epicenter of this initiative is a 5.6-acre site called Public Place, occupied in the early 20th century by a manufactured-gas plant that leeched coal tar into the soil and the canal. National Grid, with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and EPA’s oversight, has been tasked to clean up the property so it can be developed for future residential and community use.

There are two competing visions for the site. One is a grassroots effort to create a park that spans Public Place and a large swath of privately owned land. At first glance, it’s an interesting idea since there is a dearth of park space in our neighborhood. However, upon a closer look, there are significant hurdles to overcome: no funding, no buy-in from the Parks Department, a lack of active recreation spaces, no mitigation of combined sewer overflow into the canal, and no strategy for the acquisition of the private land that comprises more than 50% of the proposed park’s footprint. 

A different vision was presented in a master plan for Public Place several years ago by Rogers Marvel Architects (Rob Rogers’ former firm). More recently, Marvel fleshed out the initial plan’s goals and designed a terrific mixed-use development project with affordable housing, supportive housing, senior housing, low-income housing, a new school, and … a public park. Of the development’s 950 residential units, none are market rate. This project, called Gowanus Green, has been presented at several community meetings by a development team composed of Jonathan Rose Companies, Hudson Companies, Fifth Avenue Committee, and The Bluestone Organization.

Top: Aerial view looking southeast at proposed Gowanus Green development by Marvel on Public Place. Above: Site plan of Gowanus Green. Images courtesy of Marvel and Scape.


The consequence of the grassroots effort to create only a park on the site started to crystallize for me during a public online presentation late last year. While listening, I received a direct chat from a colleague and community activist, Tracey Pinkard, who lives in the nearby NYCHA Gowanus Houses campus. “Is this displacement?” she wrote to me. “No, they’re just trying to advocate for a park,” I responded.

Setting aside my naïveté for a moment, it’s clear that of the two competing visions, the merits of the Marvel proposal easily carry the day: everything about it speaks to designing a more equitable and inclusive community, particularly for those in the lower income brackets. However, opponents to the rezoning and supporters for the bigger park are pushing back, claiming that while living in a multi-story building or attending a new school on a remediated site poses health risks, lounging in the grass and allowing children to roll around in the remediated dirt is totally safe. Perhaps a more accurate and rather troubling assessment of some of their views can be found in recorded public meetings hosted by the local community board and the EPA’s Community Advisory Group. Residents compared our mayor to Stalin and declared that Gowanus Green will be like living in a gulag or with local drug addicts. (I wish I was making this part up.)

Part of an architect’s challenge is to be curious and inquisitive. We find solace by working out the details, exploring concepts with models, spatial analyses, and informed inquiry. This is more than a technical exercise: it includes environmental research and community engagement. At first glance, the buildings and spaces we design are seemingly indifferent. Yet they can be anthropomorphized as silent witnesses to our culture, reflecting our intentions by integrating the extraordinary human achievements in humanities, science, and mathematics into the built environment. When designed well, they also serve as a backdrop to sustainable, vibrant communities, displacing environmental and social injustices wrought by the privileged few.

Initially, I didn’t fully grasp Tracey’s question, but after reflection and listening to the bizarre comments from the mostly white anti-development crowd, I realized that she wasn’t referring to the impact of the park design itself. She was referring to the efforts to cancel a future community. I have learned quite a bit in my meetings with Tracey and others living in the nearby NYCHA campuses. They are justifiably frustrated with the ongoing negligence and failure by the City to provide them with decent homes. Now the NIMBY folks are hiding behind an underdeveloped park design and using shameful rhetoric to maintain the status quo. Their fight against development has a glaring blind spot rich in irony: noxious views are used to displace a comprehensive effort to clean up the toxic waste of our industrial past and start integrating our neighborhood. If we allow a forward looking proposal to be derailed by a coalition of voices fermenting in self-entitlement, we kill hope for designing a better community.

I didn’t move to New York City more than three decades ago to live in a charming little village. This place is magical precisely because of its imperfections. Sometimes things are done well, other times they fall short of our expectations. When this happens, we must hold those in charge accountable and push ahead. Nevertheless, a community should celebrate together when design inquiry quiets the biased voices of entitlement and creates a hopeful future for everyone.

Many thanks to the following individuals: Rob Rogers, Founding Partner at Rogers Partners; Elisabeth Amorin, Lacaton & Vassal; Guido Hartray, Partner at Marvel; Paul Healy, Associate at Marvel; Andrew Foley, Associate Director of Development at Jonathan Rose Companies.

Featured image: Cité du Grand Parc by Lacaton & Vassal, Druot, Hutin.


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