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Marie Law Adams and Rafi Segal


Urbanism After Extraction

Poland was a world leader in coal production until its transition to a market economy and the restructuring of the industry in the 1990s. Following the transition, economic decline and unemployment impacted many cities across the Upper Silesian Coal Basin, including what is known as the Katowice agglomeration, an area of several towns and cities in southern Poland with approximately 2.5 million inhabitants. While the agglomeration’s political leadership has recently incentivized foreign investment in industries such as technology, light manufacturing, service, and cultural institutions, the area still faces significant challenges related to widespread unemployment, environmental degradation, a shrinking population, outdated Communist-era housing, and continued reliance on diminishing coal reserves for its power supply. As the European Union promotes higher targets for clean energy, the agglomeration is faced with a twofold challenge: how to reclaim a highly degraded post-coal landscape for the future while transitioning to a new energy and economic paradigm.

In the design studio, “Urbanism After Extraction,” taught at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning in 2017, students used the Katowice agglomeration as a site for investigating contemporary themes of postindustrial transformation, dispersed patterns of urbanization, and planning for change without growth. Understood as interdependent issues, these themes called for an integrated social and environmental approach centered around the following core questions: can we imagine strategies for environmental reclamation that carry ambitions for social reconstruction, and in a way that one supports the other? Can architecture, landscape, urban design, and public policy be combined to structure new narratives for change? Can design help shape and promote a different attitude towards the environment, buildings, and landscapes? And, how can design aid people and institutions to establish visions and platforms for a healthier environment and better quality of life? What lessons are particular to Upper Silesia, and how can they inform design and policy in other dispersed urban environments?

To that end, the studio challenged students to think beyond the design of static form and conventional building and infrastructure approaches, and to consider how we can creatively utilize the broader forces that shape the urban environment, including emerging development models, the role of public and private actors, and new forms of social engagement and community organization that would operate across multiple scales and timespans. The studio was correspondingly structured in parts that focused on relationships between the physical realm and societal systems: first, precedent studies of housing and landscape projects; second, an in-depth spatial analysis of the current features of the Katowice agglomeration; third, a studio trip which included site visits, lectures by local planning and architecture educators, and a design workshop with students at the Silesian University of Technology; and fourth, a final project proposal. The various perspectives gained through cross-disciplinary exploration culminated in a set of projects that demanded not just a physical intervention in space, but also a proposal for a process and policy that could help shape the future of the agglomeration as a viable and desirable post-coal urban environment. The class was recognized with a 2017 Studio Prize from ARCHITECT Magazine. The list below features some of the readings and projects below that inspired and supported the studio.

[Image from “Silesia by Nature,” by Nayeli Rodriguez and Mario Giampieri, at MIT.]

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