We asked graduate students from Columbia University‘s architecture and urban design program to reflect on their studio in Newburgh, NY, and what makes work in legacy cities distinct from other American cities. The second winning submission comes to us from Anais Niembro and Nans Voron. Thanks to all the teams who participated!

Working in Newburgh was a challenge for us, as students coming from all other the world. We had to face specific issues deeply rooted in the social struggles of the last 50 years in the United States. We had to quickly analyze and understand this historical context in order to identify triggers and leverage the tools that we had.

Our involvement with the city of Newburgh was also a challenge for the community. Even though many stakeholders were enthusiastic about our collaboration, addressing the local community was difficult. Many were intimidated by our “investigation”, others worried that our work would lead to gentrification and to a loss of social ties amongst the residents.

In our opinion, Newburgh, and legacy cities in general, are great opportunities for designers, planners, and engineers to be innovative and more creative. Many attempts have failed; therefore we have an obligation towards legacy cities. We have to “think outside the box” and to push the limits even further.

Most of the groups during the fall studio at Columbia challenged the “typical” urban designer toolkit, trying to find new and inventive ways to address Newburgh’s issues. We experimented to find new funding mechanisms, creative designs, and other approaches towards social and economic issues. We tried to redefine a region from its political organization and call into question the current condition of the city.

It’s by questioning our methodology while addressing those unique cities that we will define the right “urban design themes” to work with Newburgh gave us a certain freedom because we were suddenly free from market obligations, free from potential clients or developers.

Some people asked if we were designers, activists, politicians, or community members. Can’t we simply be all of that at the same time?

Is it a question of radicalism or a question of “boldness”?
We don’t think it is either/or. For us, it’s more a question of taking a stand.

A special thank you to Justin G. Moore for inviting your students to participate. Justin is a senior urban designer for the City of New York and a professor at Columbia University GSAPP.

To learn more about the students’ work, click here.

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