The Latent In-Between
America’s patchwork landscape of urban and rural evokes bacteria in a petri dish - growing and shrinking throughout history. But unlike the petri dish, the boundary or “edges” of these areas are not defined by the limitations of the dish. It is here, at this threshold, that we begin to understand the complexities of this boundary, causing further speculation into the limitations of a simple contrast between urban and rural.
As a student in Cleveland, Ohio, I recognized the effects of heavy industry on the area’s growth and on the contemporary community’s urban condition. Many abandoned industrial structures littered the city as both testaments to the prosperity of the area’s industrial past and symbols of exploitation, waste, and environmental degradation. Most of these structures have long since been abandoned, leaving behind exquisite forms embedded within vast expanses of toxic contamination. As the Cleveland area continues to reclaim its urban core and the vibrancy of the surrounding exurbs, industrial sites fragment the growth of the area, dividing neighborhoods, townships, and limiting direct access to Ohio’s natural landscape. In an effort to challenge the way in which we think about the boundaries of an urban area, we can look to these industrial zones, which often function as a stark physical boundary between urban centers and “rural” enclaves, as spaces of opportunity.
This industrial boundary has the potential to transform from a hard ‘edge’ to a space of mediation in which the definitions of urban/rural/suburban and the industrial/natural begin to blur. Furthermore, as we question what constitutes the “urban” and “not urban,” we can do so with sustainability in mind. Often viewed merely as the thoughtful management of environmental resources to preserve ecological balance and mitigate the deleterious effects of urban expansion and industry, sustainability also includes the preservation and rehabilitation of our existing built environment - especially buildings and spaces that contribute to contemporary culture and highlight the complexity of the American landscape.
So, recognizing that these sites are ideal opportunities to preserve the knowledge of the implications of the region’s industrial heritage, remediate the environment, and diversify the public realm, how might they serve as a point of mediation and linkage instead of fragmentation? To start, we might look at spatial interventions such as Sloss Furnaces (Birmingham, Alabama), Gas Works Park (Seattle, Washington), Mason Trestle (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania), and Carrie Blast Furnaces (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). In each case, the industrial landscape, once a vital element of American economies, takes on an entirely new function as an intermediary, blurring both physical and visual boundaries by merging a “natural, rural” material with urban industrial relics.
The edges of the petri dish might be definitive, but the boundaries of the “urban” and the “not urban” are constantly in flux. Many of these boundaries have been drawn both in our collective consciousness and on a physical map. By reframing these perceived “edges” through the revitalization of industrial zones, we can slowly begin to dissolve these physical and cultural boundaries, softening and obscuring the way in which we characterize and classify the urban, and in doing so, the “not urban.”