Landscape May Be Architects’ Best Tool for Tackling Inequality

This past July, Ross Barney Architects hosted a Think Tank discussion on inequality that included representatives from the Metropolitan Planning Council and Related Midwest, as well as moderator Susan S. Szenasy.
chicago inequality ross barney think tank

The Chicago Riverwalk, designed in part by Ross Barney Architects (RBA) and Sasaki. Courtesy Kate Joyce


Often described as the most American of American cities, Chicago has developed a particularly virulent strain of what is perhaps the chief malady afflicting the nation: inequality, which Think Tank moderator Susan S. Szenasy called “the essential city and place conversation of the 21st century.” Parts of Chicago function as red-hot venues for real-estate speculation and redevelopment (one quarter of its households earn more than $100,000 per year) while vast swaths of its South and West sides resemble hollowed-out and disinvested Rust Belt cities like Cleveland or Detroit.

So a conversation on how design can soften the edges of inequality couldn’t be more at home than in Chicago—or more precisely, the Metropolis panel discussion “Designing Cities for Equity and Justice,” hosted at the downtown Chicago offices of Ross Barney Architects.

The conversation began with a rare bit of data on the toll that entrenched and thoroughly normalized segregation takes on the city. The Metropolitan Planning Council’s (MPC) 2017 study on the cost of Chicago’s segregation, introduced by panelist and MPC president MarySue Barrett, was a way for the non-profit urban planning organization to push back against objections that fixing inequality is simply too expensive. “We asked ourselves: What does that status quo cost us?,” she said.

Compared to median rates of segregation, the bill is measured in billions and beyond, according to the MPC. Most basically: lost income ($4.8 billion in African-American income alone), lost lives (30 percent fewer homicides), and lost potential (83,000 fewer bachelor’s degrees).

“We have to quantify benefits so that we can debunk this idea that it’s more expensive to do balanced, mixed communities. It’s actually more expensive to continue with what we’ve been doing,” said Barrnett.

chicago inequality ross barney think tank

Left to right: Szenasy; Carol Ross Barney, founder/design principal, RBA; MarySue Barrett, president, Metropolitan Planning Council; and Ann Thompson, senior vice president of architecture and design, Related Midwest Courtesy Kate Joyce


“You do it because it’s the right thing to do, but you also do it because of the economic benefit,” said panelist Ann Thompson, senior vice president of architecture and design with developer Related Midwest. Her firm worked with the MPC and Ross Barney Architects on projects that position public spaces as the ultimate arena for integrating people across socioeconomic lines, beyond the mixed-income, private-financing model that has dominated affordable housing for decades. “The space between buildings that allow people to congregate, to gather, to see themselves in a common space [together] is invaluable,” said Thompson.

Ross Barney Architects’ Chicago Riverwalk is one such venue. (The firm collaborated on the project with Sasaki.) A series of landscaped urban rooms that offer visitors places to rest, converse, and kayak, the Riverwalk points the way to a much longer ribbon of riverine landscapes. Known as a lakeside city, Lake Michigan’s shores are dwarfed by the 150 miles of riverbank provided by the Chicago River, which runs through many neighborhoods that are “environmentally deprived” and suffer from a lack of green spaces, said panelist Carol Ross Barney.

The wide range of the river means that it can act as a focal point for local color and culture from neighborhood to neighborhood, and that’s good in “a city that has many [cultures] and celebrates many,” said Barrett.

“We can talk about the whole city in terms of systems, and how justly they serve different neighborhoods,” said Ross Barney.

The notion of landscape as a locus of community across socio-economic borders is even more pointed at Lathrop Homes, a 1930s public housing project that’s being repurposed into mixed-income housing by Related Midwest, and survives today as one of the city’s best examples of well-designed subsidized housing. A Jens Jensen landscape, it’s centered on a wide community lawn and borders the Chicago River. The project, which will feature landscape architecture by Brooklyn-based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, will encourage residents to explore this landscape together with its kayak launch and boathouse. It’s been a wildly complex project, balancing housing equity with landscape and architectural preservation.  The panel mused about how much less of a fee Van Valkenburgh might have been willing to take for the prestige of working on a historic landscape and building and the charitable nature of its mission. But Ross Barney said that’s backwards. “The real hard problems,” she said, “are the ones we should pay for.”

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Categories: Cities, Landscape, Planning, Think Tank

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