For all its vaunted grandeur, the Hudson River Valley is a landscape locked in existential crisis. Littered with slaughterhouses and gas plants, old traprock quarries and Superfund sites, riverfront burgs like Poughkeepsie, Kingston, Hudson, and Troy—and their long-suffering cousins on the Erie Canal—are poster children for New York’s upstate downslide. For decades, this realm of strapped municipal governments and tumbling population has been tilting toward the economic abyss. Beyond the weekenders’ paradise of five-and-dimes and post-hike pubs, there lies an even grittier Hudson Valley begging for a business plan. What if, instead of a tombstone to the industrial past, this might be prime territory for the reinvention of our region’s future?
Seeking to “rethink the evolutionary capacity” of shrinking postindustrial places along the Hudson River and Erie Canal, New York architect Meta Brunzema has advanced an outsize idea to turn the social and economic tide. Working with a small team of collaborators, Brunzema has conceived a decade-long effort tentatively titled Building Exhibition Hudson Valley/Erie Canal, 2014–2024. Still in its early stages of development, the project aspires to create prototype projects across the region’s second-tier cities, harnessing the power of architecture and urban design to help re-energize society.
That may be a tall order for a region in an epic funk. Of the 46 cities in upstate New York with a population under 50,000, 38 are shrinking. The “bright flight” of young adults is especially acute in this land of dwindling opportunity. While New York City may still snag ambitious upstarts, young people are fleeing the state at four times the national average. With the exception of college hubs like Ithaca, Poughkeepsie, or Saratoga Springs, a major chunk of New York’s human capital is languishing in hock.
Courtesy respective students
How to turn the valley’s sand pits and cement plants into zones of catalytic culture? Brunzema has borrowed a page from Germany’s famed International Building Exhibition, known as IBA, which over the last century has leveraged design intelligence to tackle urgent social and urban challenges. These farsighted efforts include monumental housing built by Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer, and others during the 1957 Interbau, and the “critical reconstruction” of Berlin’s historic core in 1987, which pioneered sensitive alternatives to slash-and-burn urban renewal.
The Hudson Valley version draws on two more recent IBA editions that boasted region-scale ambitions. The first, known as IBA Emscher Park, was a ten-year program launched in 1989 to jump-start the reinvention of the decaying Ruhr district, once the nation’s industrial powerhouse. Carried out jointly with 17 cities, it produced 120 different projects—many the result of separate design competitions—that formed the basis for a sprawling system of landscape parks, rebuilt wastewater infrastructure, and a tech- and culture-fueled economy conjured from defunct coal mines and machine halls. And early this century, IBA Urban Redevelopment 2010 launched an equally bold effort to rethink the future of 19 shrinking cities in the former East Germany, managing population loss through a process that combined social and economic initiatives with architecture and landscape innovation.
Brunzema, who co-curated an exhibit on Emscher Park in 2000, and later collaborated on Beacon’s floating River Pool, grew intrigued by the idea that upstate New York’s cities could be bootstrapped by an IBA-style adventure. Like Emscher Park, which used the Emscher River as a framework to stitch together planning and development projects across more than 300 square miles, an upstate exhibition would use the Hudson River and Erie Canal—the historic sources, after all, of the region’s industrial heyday—to reconnect them as an integrated economic network. And importantly for an area dominated by Albany dysfunction, the ten-year exhibition timeline transcends political cycles, while focusing collective resources, energy, and ideas toward a hell-or-high-water deadline.
Under study since 2009, the Hudson Valley exhibition got a boost last semester, when Brunzema took a crack at imagining how the region’s industrial legacy could be remade as an economic engine for “green growth.” Working with eight graduate architecture students at Pratt Institute, she helped envision a prototype “pioneer district” to be sited within Poughkeepsie’s Clinton Point Quarry, which since 1880 has disgorged things like railroad ballast and riprap. Still in active use by the aggregate maker Tilcon, the 1,200-acre property has been eyed by local planners as a tempting redevelopment opportunity.
The student group’s proposals, recently on view at Pratt’s Higgins Hall, replace old-school, extractive industry with projects intended to drive sustainable business growth and create a critical urban mass near Poughkeepsie’s historic downtown. Affordable, prefabricated housing would be designed to densify over time; a municipal waste plant transforms trash into green products; a high-tech manufacturing complex takes advantage of water, rail, and air links to global networks—the whole site crossed by cable cars and packing in as many as 10,000 residents. In this vision, Poughkeepsie becomes one node in a network of “polycentric regional towns” prepped to compete on the global playing field.
As much model urban design, a Hudson Valley building exhibition would tap new economic development ideas like “economic gardening.” Pioneered in Colorado in the 1980s, the concept promotes the entrepreneurial spirit of local citizens instead of simply handing out tax-break bonanzas to bargain-hunting corporations. Through a building exhibition, “creative competition” between cities could stimulate hundreds of projects to incubate industrial and commercial innovation, with funding awarded for proposals that demonstrate high-quality planning and design. The entire initiative would culminate in 2024 with a yearlong series of exhibitions, forums, boat tours, and other events.
Such a deliriously ambitious program calls for scores of public, private, and nonprofit partners. Brunzema’s team has begun reaching out to potential collaborators like OurHudson and Empire State Future, groups deeply engaged in cultivating vibrant upstate communities. And building exhibitions aren’t cheap. The Emscher Park effort was stoked with $1.5 billion in public funds (all, incidentally, deemed wisely spent). A Hudson Valley exhibition would need to rely far more on private support, coupled with public investment bundled, as in Germany, from existing funding streams.
America is desperate for just this type of urban innovation. Aside from the brave and still unfolding saga to downsize Detroit, our nation has shown tragically little willingness to confront, through large-scale planning and design, the postindustrial present. A building exhibition to retool the Hudson Valley would give the region’s communities precisely the resources they need to begin shaping their own economic destiny. It would give all of us the faith that upstate New York has a future, and it’s more than just gravel.