How tactical preservation can save endangered buildings in Philly and Detroit

The tenets of tactical urbanism are approaching conventional wisdom territory. Start with small, temporary, DIY interventions—reclaim a street parking space and build a pop-up park, for example—and over time, your efforts may model better uses of public space, inspiring more lasting changes in the built environment.

In Detroit, Planning and Development Director Maurice Cox has begun to explore how those principles can be employed to protect the city’s wealth of underused historic buildings.

interior of abandoned building with sunlight coming in from windows
One of the sites under investigation in Detroit (Photo courtesy: PennDesign)

“We’ve coined a term: tactical preservation,” says Cox. “The idea is, if you can’t occupy 100 percent of a historic asset, could you occupy two percent, or five percent? What would it take for the financial institutions, the permitting institutions, and the insuring institutions to allow incremental occupation of a larger asset so that it doesn’t fall into ruin?”

To draw out the possibilities, Cox is partnering with the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at PennDesign.

This fall, associate professor Randy Mason is leading the first in a series of studios in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation. With $50,000 in funding from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and a generous gift from PennDesign Overseer and alumna Robin Beckett, the project, called the Detroit/Philadelphia Preservation Exchange, is investigating preservation issues in distressed neighborhoods in Detroit and Philadelphia. It will involve three fall studios over the next three years, accompanied by a series of research projects, symposia, student internships, and publications. In the first studio, two groups of around a dozen students each are working on proposals for tactical preservation projects in the Russell Woods Nardin Park neighborhood of Detroit, and Strawberry Mansion in North Philadelphia.

“Different cities have a lot to teach one another,” Mason says. “There are a lot of ways in which we could argue that Philadelphia and Detroit are different cities on different trajectories, but there are enough commonalities in the dynamics at the neighborhood level...that the situations are similar enough that there is some value to be gained in terms of connecting across cities. These neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Detroit present really urgent issues that the preservation field needs to know how to do better at.”

Read more at Penn Design News.