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Architects, urban planners address gentrification of US cities through design

In response to the increasing decline in black populations in major cities, architects and urban planners are reimagining city architecture and drawing inspiration from African-American culture and traditions in efforts to preserve community history despite changing demographics. 

Susan Walsh/AP
The exterior of National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington features geometrical patterns based on historic iron grilles found in African-American communities across the American South. The building is lauded as an example of African-influenced architecture.

On a visit to Abuja, Nigeria's master-planned capital, Nmadili Okwumabua walked away disappointed by the architecture.

"We could have been anywhere but Africa," she said of the city, whose layout and buildings were mostly the handiwork of a consortium of United States planning and design firms and Japanese architect Kenzo Tange.

Contemporary architecture and urban design have failed to incorporate African and Afro-descended esthetics, Ms. Okwumabua, a Nigerian-American urban planner, believes.

But designing buildings and public spaces with traces of that heritage will allow the community's legacy to survive despite demographic pressure, argues Walter Hood, professor or landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley.

Okwumabua and Mr. Hood joined local planners for a lecture in Seattle this month to advise Africatown, a not-for-profit venture seeking to restore black identity in a historically African-American neighborhood undergoing gentrification, a national trend.

Seattle, like many major cities in the US, has seen a recent decline in black residents and a rise in white people.

The 2010 census showed that 20 large cities at least one-fifth black saw their black population shrink or grow slower than in the previous decade.

Meanwhile, traditionally black strongholds like Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, and New York City have seen their white population grow after several decades of falling, according to census data analyzed by the Brookings Institution.

As the National Museum of African American History and Culture, one of Okwumabua's preferred examples of African-influenced architecture, opened in Washington, D.C. two years ago, the capital city lost its black majority after having become the first in the US with more black than white people.

For Mr. Hood, these demographic shifts are a clarion call for black urban communities to imbue their surroundings with a recognizable heritage.

"If I go to Spain and see the churches in Cordoba, the Moors are no longer there but it exists and it inspires," Hood said.

"This is the kind of design that we need in our neighborhoods and our places," he said.

"We need to make amazing things for ourselves so that when we leave they can survive and tell our story," he said.

Leaving such traces can be challenging because architecture and design schools conform to a Eurocentric education, Okwumabua said, but recent cultural touchstones like the popular film Black Panther with its fictional African city Wakanda offer hope.

"I no longer have to prove the value of African architectural esthetic – that film made $1.6 billion," Atlanta-based Okwumabua said.

As for the wider society wowed by Wakanda's sleek, African-inspired cityscape, she said it was time to teach a different design in schools.

"If they thought Wakanda was incredible, then why not teach it in school, create those design languages, and offer those options to clients – don't just give British and French beaux-arts, give the African option, too," said Okwumabua.

For black communities themselves, the increasingly expensive urban real estate is also an obstacle, but Hood believes such communities still have options.

"The public realm exists everywhere, that's the first place you start – streets, sidewalks," he said.

Africatown, for example, painted sidewalks with a red, green and black pan-African motif to remind newcomers of the neighborhood's history.

Oakland-based Hood argues for a change in perspective to illuminate the influence of enslaved tradespeople and laborers who constructed much of the early 19th-century building stock in the United States, including prominent national buildings.

"There is an American architecture that's been heavily influenced by Africa," said Hood, whose recent projects include a park to commemorate a village where freed slaves lived outside Washington. "We can start with the White House."

Hood pointed to New Orleans' iconic shotgun house, so-called because a shotgun blast could pass from the front through the back doors without hitting a wall, as traceable to Haiti and West Africa.

"We don't need to invent something – it's all around us," he said. 

This story was reported by Reuters.  

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