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2011 Place Design Award The Steel Yard Klopfer Martin Design Group

The Steel Yard is a community-based non-profit focused on technical training in the industrial arts that is located in a blighted neighborhood characterized by abandoned and contaminated industrial lots and dilapidated housing stock.

The design team was tasked with tackling the RIDEM mandated brownfield cleanup while also creating an identifiable place with varying sized spaces to accommodate limitless possibilities for activities. The collaborative design process required understanding the complexities inherent to a community nonprofit with a variety of stakeholders. In addition to meeting programmatic needs, the design team met other challenges including the preference to retain contaminated soil and manage stormwater on site despite limits to infiltration. The innovative solution married these issues with success, providing a site that both solved the environmental issues and fosters the Yard’s organizational flexibility and growth.

Contribution to Transformation
Most cities with industrial pasts inherit problematic environmental futures. The Steel Yard’s cleanup is an inspiring example of place-making in a tough environment. The project is a public intervention that upends commonly held notions of blighted neighborhoods and shows the potential for real, applied, not simply ‘adaptive,’ re-use. Along with a growing group of community projects, including artist housing, an office complex built out of repurposed shipping containers, a charter school, and a sustainable technology company, the Yard is a leader in the intentional reclaiming of Providence’s “Industrial Valley.” As the only one of these projects that is open to the public, the Steel Yard serves as a point of education for this exciting local reclamation. Beyond Providence, the Yard’s unusual story and the project’s design success are being seen as a model for other, similar urban places.

Significance to Constituency
Simply put, the site’s level and style of usage displays its importance to its inhabitants. As a de facto public park and programming space in an otherwise asphalt landscape, the Yard serves diverse audiences seeking diverse activities. To date the Yard has hosted many popular and growing-in-attendance public events as well as educated increasing numbers of individuals each year. In 2011 in addition to offering expanded education and training opportunities, the Yard will serve as a venue for music, dance, art markets, movies, a writers’ series. These new events are publicly funded, user driven and volunteer run opportunities for community engagement and neighborhood development.

Social Importance
The Steel Yard’s mission, and thus the intent of the cleanup, is focused on community redevelopment through an economy built on vernacular creativity. In the last 7 years, the Yard has steadily recast artists as laborers and laborers as artists. This work required a site plan to match. The bold marriage of strong, innovative design with environmental sustainability (on a small budget) matches the Yard’s mantra of teaching by showing.

At the Steel Yard, the design team developed and advocated for a strategy of containing contaminated soil on site while also allowing stormwater permeation. The Steel Yard’s innovative remediation approach was profiled as a case study in the 2010 book Principles of Brownfield Regeneration, which aims to inform future brownfield redevelopment. As the body of research into brownfield reclamation grows, future projects will benefit from understanding the techniques advanced by projects such as this one.