Emmanuel Pratt on Regenerating Urban Ecology

Emmanuel Pratt, MacArthur fellow and founder of Sweet Water Foundation, regenerates neighborhoods by fusing architecture & community development.

Blight is an agricultural term, referring to a disease that causes death and decay of crops. The 2019 MacArthur Fellow and co-founder of Sweet Water Foundation, Emmanuel Pratt, uses this word to describe the communities of Chicago that are struggling for self-sufficiency, security, and sustainable development.

Pratt´s background is multidisciplinary. Perhaps the term “connector” would be fit to describe his practice. In between architecture, farming, design, and community development, Pratt´s work is well-rounded and dissolves many boundaries. It is immensely practical and accessible, above all.

Watch: There Grows the Neighborhood with Emmanuel Pratt at reSITE

An ecology of absence: an empty space to a place

Chicago has a history of segregation and polarisation that resulted in uneven development across its 77 neighbourhoods, especially on the south and west side, where the predominantly Black population resides. Unsurprisingly, as a result of deeply rooted, institutionalised racism, these communities have rarely been exposed to restorative forces, strategic urban planning and wealth gain.

The foundation’s work strikes back at what he calls the “ecology of absence” - the loss of housing, jobs and industries among deprived communities - and regenerates across Englewood and Washington Park neighborhoods in Chicago - a “direct response to the everyday chaos of economic hardships, violence, perpetual poverty, and systemic racism that pervades these communities.”

Planting seeds for urban regeneration

As Pratt said himself at reSITE REGENERATE, the ethos of Sweet Water Foundation is based on the Jane Jacobs idea that “every community has its own seeds of regeneration.” What does that look like in theory and in practice? The absence we previously mentioned gets converted into a space. Negative becomes positive; an empty lot is transformed into a vibrant community place fit for farming, workshops, education and performing. Bit by bit, Sweet Water Foundation brings stability to these neighbourhoods. They reach out, engage in education, create a collective space that gives these communities a sense of identity and ownership. By laying down innovative frameworks, they build a local economy at scale.

Every community has seeds of their own regeneration, right there. 

The workers of Sweet Water Foundation consider themselves “solutionaries,” - visionaries who find solutions to problems facing the blighted communities of Chicago. Their practices rely on feedback loops, both natural and man-made. For example, as they planted more gardens in the Perry Ave Commons, the surrounding ecology started changing too and the space saw an influx of butterflies, caterpillars and grasshoppers.

Regeneration is an active process

During his talk Emmanuel Pratt made the case on regeneration “as an active process, not a passing process like sustainability, when people don’t know where to fit in.” bringing us to the core of the organization's practice as a “think-do” tank, who interventions and activations give these marginalized communities ownership of their shared spaces.

Regeneration is an active process, not a passing process like sustainability, where people don’t know where to fit in.

They hold workshops, where children can learn how to sketch and build a simple crate - one that can be stacked to make seating or tables. Then they sell it and contribute money directly back to the community. Their living and learning labs get local schools - students and teachers - involved resulting is an art installation. They offer workshops for teachers, who then go on to teach their students, who then come back to one of the Foundation´s projects and get involved further. This model is drawn directly from nature: in order to build more resilient communities and to organise, we need to look no further than at growing and pollinating processes.

Neighborhoods as ecosytems

In nature, ecosystems rely on a whole network of ties between its participants. Capitalism and neoliberalism taught us to be largely self-reliant individuals, forgetting that real strength stems from a human connection. Pratt also criticizes this individualistic approach, especially when it comes to his artistry. He denies the “I did” phenomenon, specifically in the light of making his projects sustainable.

In order to keep Sweet Water Foundation and its many initiatives running for decades to come, he says it is better if it relies on its overall legacy and a team of people involved, rather than one of its founders. And this lesson applies to all of us. After all, we are stronger if we stand together and so is our regeneration.

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