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Our Gang: Can Design Heal Rift Between Police, People?

Our Gang: Can Design Heal Rift Between Police, People?

B     I     E     N     N     I     A     L         D     I     S     P     A     T     C     H     E     S

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by JOHN GREGERSONFourth in the series | Nov 26, 2015

Despite lashing rains, lines formed early and stretched long outside the Chicago Cultural Center on the very wet evening of Nov. 17. The draw was two-fold: a discussion of how design can affect the oft-contentious relations between police and the public they are sworn to protect, and the star power of celebrated architect and urbanist Jeanne Gang. Even before this week's viral release of an incendiary police shooting video in Chicago, the long-planned Chicago Architecture Biennial event still seemed ripped from the headlines in the wake of multiple incidents earlier this year that had sparked racial tensions across the U.S.

“Police violence has prompted a lot of discussion about reform," said Gang, citing a recent federal report from the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. That document, however, did not touch on the potential role that architecture can play in making communities safer. Her firm, Studio Gang Architects, seeks to fill that void with a design concept it is calling Polis Station, named for "polis", the ancient Greek term for city states known for citizenship and close-knit communities. 

"Our intent is to create a dialogue about the manner in which design can resolve or contribute to the problem," she explained. "Central to the issue are these questions: What is a police station? And why has it become such a fortress?”

As master of a seemingly infinite number of building types -- from highly sculpted high rises and dorms to saw-toothed boathouses and timber-framed theaters -- Gang has brought her considerable talents to bear on a deceptively simple structure: the police station. Her bold idea reimagines the station as a catalyst for community building in crime-ridden and poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Fortress Chicago? Gang's solution is anything but.

Rather than discuss theory, she presented a scheme to reprogram the 10th District police station in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood, an area she selected due to its high concentrations of crime, schools and residences. As envisioned by Gang, the station would incorporate community rooms and other features intended to break barriers between community members and police officers.

Polis Station: Vision includes shared housing, gyms, gardens, computer labs, etc. For a larger version, click here.

Polis Station: Vision includes shared housing, gyms, gardens, computer labs, etc. For a larger version, click here.

Hoop dreams: Gang joined Mayor Emmanuel this fall for opening of new community court.

Hoop dreams: Gang joined Mayor Emmanuel this fall for opening of new community court.

For instance, Gang noted that many District 10 officers had expressed interest in coaching neighborhood youth in sports such as basketball, but they live too far away. Her proposal: If they can't find time to drop by the court, bring the court to them. On Oct. 5, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and members of Studio Gang joined police officials and area residents to cut the ribbon on a new community basketball court sited within the District 10 parking lot.

During her presentation, Gang emphasized that program components are variable and, based on discussions with Lawndale residents, could include a Wi-Fi plaza, lounge, lending library, learning lab, communal table, barber shop etc. “The station becomes a community center where residents feel welcome rather intimidated,” she observed.

The intent is to engage officers and community in a manner recalling earlier eras, when police walked beats and acquainted themselves with residents via everyday interactions. But the advent of the automobile created larger precincts and larger physical structures, typically surrounded by large parking lots that pushed the public farther away. That all but severed ties between people and police, Gang explained.

of the people, for the people

Gang, being Gang, believes her Polis Station could serve as a springboard for a far more sweeping plan to unite police and community members. Acknowledging the “vast vacant territory in that part of town,” either as a result of empty lots or abandoned buildings, Gang envisions infills that would locate shared athletic facilities for police and residents across the street from the District 10 station. Her proposal also suggests converting a nearby abandoned industrial facility into a vocational training center and other abandoned buildings and vacant lots into housing for police, firefighters and teachers.

“A lot of people have said that won't work,” said Gang, alluding to skepticism that educators, firefighters and police would re-locate their families to high-crime areas with few amenities. She begs to differ.

Polis Station is a response to a confluence of events, she added, from deteriorating relations between police and community evident in so many U.S. cities this year, to that White House report on improved policing for a new century. It identified six objectives, or "pillars", for community policing, including trust and legitimacy; technology and social media; training and education; policy and oversight; and officer wellness and safety. Her attempt to “spatialize” those concepts was further informed by Studio Gang's work on a Brooklyn NY firehouse now under design. “Firehouses function so much differently,” she noted. “They share a strong sense of community among themselves, their doors are open, and they meet with people.”

Urban design specialists who joined Gang onstage following her presentation lauded the concept.

Open to the public: Polis Station is just one of many designs on display through Jan. 3 at the Chicago Cultural Center.  

Open to the public: Polis Station is just one of many designs on display through Jan. 3 at the Chicago Cultural Center.  

“This is ambitious work,” said V. Mitch McEwen, principal with Detroit-based architect and urban design firm McEwen Studio and an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan. “It's wonderful to see architects take on work that is speculative and that addresses social problems. ”

Felicia Davis, executive director of Chicago's Public Building Commission and a former policewoman, recalled that while working in a prototype district in the high-crime, Englewood neighborhood in the 1990s, one police station installed an ATM machine, making national headlines. “ATM cards were relatively new then, and there had been a rash of robberies involving them, so the thinking was, 'What safer place to locate an ATM machine than in a police station?” Davis recalled. “That small gesture brought people into police stations for non-police related matters.”

Today, she noted, ATMs populate every Chicago police station.

"Stations aren't just public buildings, but public assets," she added. “The typical officer spends only 45 minutes in the station per day, so we need to challenge ourselves to add uses and functions sorely in need of space.”

Ghian Foreman, executive director with Chicago's Greater Southwest Development Corp., lamented that many city neighborhoods remain underserved in terms of basic services. “They may never get a high-rise, but they need elements that build community – the church, the store. Today, there is no store, which is why the police station needs to function as a community builder rather than an island.”

“The more programs you can incorporate into the station, the more community members you'll draw,” observed Scott Plank, founder and CEO of War Horse, a Baltimore-based real estate investment firm currently leading a campaign to transform a Baltimore police station in a collaborative public safety facility.

“It all typifies a blurring of facilities," said Gang. For instance, "what is the role of a library today? We see so much more cross-programming these days.” Indeed, her Polis Station's uses may blur, but Gang's intent to leverage its potential societal benefits is crystal clear.

Chicago's South Side: Long a trouble spot, the area already is a daily living laboratory for 21st century policing.

Chicago's South Side: Long a trouble spot, the area already is a daily living laboratory for 21st century policing.

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