Revitalizing urban environments through urban design, master planning and architecture is, for Andre Brumfield, principal and Global Cities and Urban Design Leader at Gensler, the means to create places of opportunity. “We all carry our personality and personal experiences to where we are,” he says, talking about growing up in Milwaukee and the ways in which the city’s urban environment made him more curious about how cities are formed and evolve, while broadening his thinking on how race, segregation and culture influence design and development. “For me, it’s about the drive to create a more balanced and just city, one that offers neighborhoods of choice for all races and all income levels,” he says, stressing the importance of bridging the chasm between public policy and design. “As an urban designer, I feel that I can place a spotlight on the things that I care about the most and that’s how we can improve our underserved neighborhoods and transform the underutilized areas of our cities—bringing positive change where everyone has an opportunity to win and benefit.”
Tell us about where you come from. How did you get interested in urban development?
I grew up in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood, a stable, working-class community located in the city’s predominantly Black North Side. Up until seventh grade, I attended a neighborhood school across the street from my home—a school more focused on religious education than academics. Seeking a better education for my sister and me, my mother enrolled us in a majority-white upper-class suburban school, ten miles and a cultural world away from our inner-city home. The experience of taking public transportation across the city to this new school allowed me to see Milwaukee in a much different way. Through my bus window, I saw the physical transition of the built environment from an inner-city neighborhood to a wealthy, lakefront suburb.
Witnessing the disparities within Milwaukee’s urban environment made me more curious about how cities are formed, how they evolve and change, and in many cases, how neighborhoods decline. It is what drove my interest beyond the design of a building. In high school, I discovered a love for architecture and knew that’s what I wanted to do, but looking at the city through public transportation allowed me to question why certain parts of the city looked the way they did; why neighborhood assets were located where they were and where they were not; and how design could influence the city beyond a single building. It eventually made me think about where investment priorities were made, where decline and disinvestment were happening, and the widening wealth gap between the neighborhood I grew up in and the suburban community where I was educated. It forever shaped how I view cities, and broadened my thinking in how race, segregation and culture influence design and development.
In what ways has your background prepared you and how does it inform your role at Gensler?
At a young age, I knew I wanted to go into architecture. But it wasn’t until my freshman year in college that I realized I wanted to design urban districts, neighborhoods and entire cities. From a design standpoint, it became about more than just the building for me. The curiosity of how cities physically evolve and how local policy, community organizations, and the private sector shape the built environment solidified as a lifelong interest, and a bit of an obsession, of mine.
More specifically, it was a six-month internship at a community development corporation on Chicago’s South Side that impressed upon me some of the most valuable lessons that I carry to this day. The Woodlawn Organization addressed neighborhood-based issues related to gentrification, segregated housing, disinvestment and community empowerment. I learned how community organizations address these issues in partnership with institutions and public agencies, enabling change through interfacing with both residents and city leadership. I saw some advancements, but also saw stagnation and the limitations for a neighborhood-based, nonprofit organization which was trying to revitalize their neighborhood. My time there was invaluable, and it helped shape my perspective and my career.
The social and cultural aspects of architecture, urban design and urban planning have and always will be at the core of how I practice as a planner and public servant. For me, it’s about the drive to create a more balanced and just city, one that offers neighborhoods of choice for all races and all income levels. It is impossible for me to separate the cultural, social and political aspects of how a city works from how I design, and how I see all of these dynamics influencing the built environment. I’ve carried many personal experiences with me and have applied them to how I practice as a professional, and Gensler not only supports this mindset and approach; it maintains these same principles within its ethos as a firm. It’s one of the reasons why I am here.
Tell us more about what you do, your vision and how it has evolved over the years.
I’ve always been fascinated with how the built environments of cities evolve, or in some cases devolve; and how cities have been shaped over time and what influences change in the urban context. This excites me, and I remain intrigued by the intersection of design, local politics, public policy, and decisions from city leadership in shaping urban environments over time.
I’ve focused a large part of my career around the revitalization of underserved neighborhoods. There are countless examples of how policy, coupled with politics, have influenced the built environment, which ultimately led to the implementation of bad design and accelerated urban decay—particularly in our Black and brown neighborhoods. We all know the significant role that redlining, restrictive covenants and the implementation of federal highways has played in segregating our cities and limiting the investment into our inner-city communities. While the general public may not be aware of those histories, it is known. What is not known, or what isn’t talked about, is the role of design and urban planning, or lack thereof, influencing the built environment that we see today; and more importantly, how planning can be infused with a different mindset and approach as it relates to public policy. The two fields must get closer.
Take high-rise public housing and how fateful decisions that were made in the 1930s through the late 1950s impacted cities like Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Detroit or Baltimore— physically impacting many Black and brown neighborhoods. Despite many high-rises being demolished fifteen to twenty years ago, the scars left behind are still visible and continue to serve as barriers to fully revitalizing many communities. When you are trained as an architect, you are taught that good design can solve everything, but that’s not always the case. Design can, however, be a transformative tool, in concert with planning, public policy, the development community, and most importantly, our city leaders, to collectively create a better city and urban environment for all.
There has always been a chasm between design and public policy. Until recently, many city planning departments focused primarily on efficient and appropriate land use and zoning codes to further development. Extensive thought wasn’t given toward encouraging better design from developers or architects. The closest approach we’ve had to integrating the two is form-based code, which, when applied at a city scale, tends to limit design flexibility for the architect, developer and a project’s design guidelines. I see an opportunity to integrate design with public policy, where both work together rather than one being forced to react to the other. We’ve all seen the consequences of what happens when these related fields are not speaking to each other, and perhaps this is where my vision has found purpose over the years. There’s an opportunity to push the boundaries of design and public policy to bridge the gap that currently exists between the two entities. If working together seamlessly, design and public policy can push design boundaries, positively influence how cities operate, and better serve constituents. The more people in city government who understand the potential of these disciplines working together, the better the built environment will be.
You cannot legislate good design, but I believe the chasm between public policy and design must be closed. This is my vision—for design to truly have an impact beyond a single building, beyond a ten-year plan for a neighborhood or large site. This outcome is not solely accomplished by a designer or architect, but through a collection of champions and disciplines coming together to make it a reality.
You have said that “a city is only as good as its neighborhoods.” What parameters do you have to consider undertaking an “urban makeover” that would manage to win over locals, national or international visitors alike in a global city such as Chicago?
In order to create a whole, more just city, you have to identify the areas that are underserved and create ways to invest and revitalize those communities. A healthy city must have balance, a thriving city must offer choices for all urban dwellers.
Chicago will always be a national and international destination. It was only fifteen years ago, with the ascent of President Barack Obama, that Chicago woke up and realized that it was a second-tier global city. Despite some of the challenges that we face, it is still a second-tier global city and a major economic influence in the Midwest. But the real essence of any city isn’t in its downtown. It’s in the neighborhoods. In order for cities to grow, attract and stabilize talent, the communities across the entire city must be seen as viable choices for current residents and future populations. When entire areas of a city are perceived as undesirable or minimally invested in, the city at large becomes susceptible to declines in employment, economic growth and population.
Since 1980, Chicago has lost nearly 400,000 Black residents, and more than 200,000 since 2000. That means this city has lost the equivalent population of Cleveland or New Orleans in the last forty years; Birmingham, Alabama or Salt Lake City in the last twenty years. With Chicago being one of the most segregated cities in the country, this loss is clearly concentrated in Black communities on the South and West Sides. The relevant question being asked is how to stop the loss of our Black population. But the real question that we should be asking is how are we going to repopulate our Black neighborhoods? Answers and solutions need to address both.
Here is how I ask the question: How can we create neighborhoods of choice for all Chicagoans, both our existing and future residents? A complete and holistic city will always offer a reasonable range of choices for current and future residents to thrive through different stages of their lives. Regardless of income and class, Black and brown residents of Chicago have been historically limited in terms of where they could live. Contract homes, restrictive covenants and redlining tools were destructive forces, and decades of negative perception continue to brand these neighborhoods as undesirable, making them less attractive for all regardless of race or income.
Programs like INVEST South/West offer a strong step toward addressing this issue, where local government is deliberately making equitable investment and development a priority in our Black and brown neighborhoods. Both the public and private sectors need to also be a part of creating solutions to address these challenges. When we create a Chicago that is more equitable—where neighborhoods are open to current and future residents and displacement is minimalized as revitalization takes place— we will have a stronger city. One that is more resilient, more attractive, and more balanced, and one that will bolster Chicago’s status on the global stage.
What are the greatest challenges faced with bringing the “twenty-minute neighborhood concept” to life, that is, giving people the ability to meet most of their needs within a short walk, cycle or public transport trip?
The twenty-minute neighborhood concept, when properly executed, can make our cities more resilient, vibrant and stable. It can ward off gentrification while allowing current residents to benefit from the positive change that is taking place in their neighborhood. A well-planned twenty-minute neighborhood surrounds its residents with everything they need to build a full and complete life—education, employment, healthcare, etcetera—and can provide support at every stage of life.
The greatest challenge our cities face is taking the concept beyond the emerging and trendy neighborhoods that are reaping the benefits of new development and a surging population. The twenty-minute neighborhood concept has never been applied to underserved neighborhoods that happen to be Black or brown. Rather than talking hypothetically about the theory behind it, we need to understand what the real issues are in struggling areas of our city, and how we can create investment strategies (both from the public and private sector) to bring much needed assets to the community. The needs, and therefore the solutions, vary greatly depending on the unique makeup of each community. Public sector investments in infrastructure related to transportation, roadways, sidewalks and the public realm may be what is needed in some neighborhoods. Others may require more housing, retail and commercial development, or employment centers closer to working-class populations. The task ahead for all of us is to move beyond theoretical-speak and apply the critical themes of a twenty-minute neighborhood in places where acute challenges need to be solved.
What are the most pressing issues we are facing as today’s cities get more advanced?
Economic segregation and the increasing wealth gap. These two drivers influence the ever-present issues of racial and social equity and directly link to our biggest challenges in urban America: education, transportation, affordability, investment infrastructure and employment opportunities—and even our attitudes in responding to the growing threat of climate change.
What do you find most exciting about working in an urban planning capacity?
A city is never static; it is always evolving and transforming. As a result, there is always something new. Urban design and planning are so closely tied to architecture, yet it offers a unique view into politics, public policy and the social issues at that time. This is what excites me about what I do, and the constant demand for problem-solving in the built environment is what keeps me going. You’re never going to have a “complete” city, but you strive for it and hope that each project that you take on is part of a larger series of building blocks to achieve positive change—a more perfect or more complete city.
When do you get a sense of achievement?
For urban design and master planning, feelings of achievement come at different stages of what are often long-range initiatives. Early on, it’s exciting to see the planning process working—for me, this means that residents and stakeholders feel a sense of ownership and involvement in creating a vision for the future of their neighborhood. That’s when we know we’ve worked as true partners, ensuring voices are being heard and needs addressed.
Yet creating a shared vision is only the beginning. The real work comes once implementation begins, when the plan is formally approved, and the first phase is implemented. It’s those moments where you see the plan come to life. Often, that may be three to five years down the road, and that’s okay. We, as urban designers, do not think about our efforts in a typical architectural schedule. We often design multi-year visions where lasting change may take ten years to unfold. The work on Stateway Gardens, a former public housing development in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, for example, is the result of a plan that I designed in 2000. Today, it is known as Park Boulevard, and it is still being implemented more than twenty-one years later.
The sense of achievement comes with the process: was the community involved and did we capture their vision? Is the development respecting the initial plan, and how are we protecting the integrity of the plan as time goes by? Is this creating the change and having the impact that we hoped for? Achievement in our field is associated with completion, and in many cases, that may be left for the next generation to judge.
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