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HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan: Architects Must Address Urban Policies of the Past with Designs for the Future

A plea for urban design activism from the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development

By Mike Singer

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan was at Yankee Stadium when Howard Cosell made perhaps the most famous call of his long sportscasting career:

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”

An 11-year-old Donovan heard Cosell’s words during game two of the 1977 World Series.

“[The arson] was so bad that when President Jimmy Carter visited, he compared the wreckage to Dresden after World War II,” said Donovan to a capacity crowd at the Friday general session of the 2012 AIA National Convention. In fact, arson consumed hundreds of buildings, leading to a population loss in the South Bronx of nearly 75 percent over the next 10 years. Even the phrase “South Bronx” became a sort of shorthand for the mid-century failures and upheavals that plagued many American cities.

Next month, Donovan will return to the South Bronx for the ribbon cutting of Via Verde, an affordable housing complex designed by London and New York-based Grimshaw in partnership with Dattner Architects. Built by Jonathan Rose Companies and Phipps Housing, the $100 million project includes over 40,000 square feet of usable green roofs and gardens. It’s an eco-friendly combination of green design and affordability that Donovan held up as the type of design value architects can bring to urban housing projects today, in the hopes that no other American city ever sees its built environment degraded to the point of immolation.

Innovation and engagement

Donovan called on the AIA to take a leadership role to encourage re-engagement with troubled neighborhoods in urban areas. He wants more architects to use their talents to bring health and efficiency to cities. Donovan decried the once-trendsetting urban renewal philosophy that viewed inner cities as unsalvageable “tabula rasa” canvases, inviting governments and designers to clear entire sections for new (and radically different) development. “Neighborhoods were once seen as problems to be solved, diseases to be cured, creating many victims of displacement,” he said. “They filtered out the diversity of uses and people that is the very essence of urbanism.”

Donovan, a Harvard-trained architect and former director of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, explained how the Bronx debacle indeed became a game changer in more ways than Cosell might have imagined.

During the 1970s, a time of massive disinvestment in central cities, master-planned public housing projects were built without regard to how they might separate residents from jobs, shopping, city services, and each other. New federally financed highways dissected the cores of many American cities. Widespread arson in the Bronx was a result of misguided urban policy, but it led to the growth of community nonprofits and community development foundations that work in concert with private investors to look at urban renewal in a new way. “They didn’t see existing neighborhoods as a disease to cure,” said Donovan. “They began by listening, by asking people in the neighborhood what they wanted.”

Donovan spoke of how his experiences as an architecture student at Harvard prepared him for a career of public activism and engagement. While at the Graduate School of Design, he worked at a homeless shelter. “The lesson is to listen and engage. In an economy built to last, everybody needs to get a shot and do their fair share.”

Urban housing policy

At a regional level, Donovan described the need for new transportation infrastructure that encourages increased urban density. A long-term overhaul of the nation’s transportation system continues to be stymied, but Donovan hopes architects will rally to support Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget request to restore funding for the Sustainable Communities Initiative at HUD. This partnership, between HUD, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency, coordinates efforts between all three organizations to steer development dollars into sustainable urban investment. According to Donovan, the partnership represents an unprecedented level of interaction between government agencies, aligning them in a way that supports economic growth and leverages the combined powers of housing and transportation to create urban renewal and change.

While the Bronx is in the midst of a long-awaited and still tentative recovery, Donovan admitted that the Great Recession has caused untold damage to the urban fabric of many already-struggling cities. “In Cleveland, there are 18,000 vacant properties and most sell for less than a new--and in some cases a used--car,” he said.

Donovan also called for support of Obama’ s Project Rebuild, a program to provide for the redevelopment of abandoned and foreclosed-upon properties in cities like Cleveland, New Orleans, and Detroit; places with skyrocketing unemployment rates. “The idea,” Donovan said, “is to create 200,000 jobs in cities that need them most.”


HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. Image by


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