Back to Basics: the Diggs Town Public Housing Revitalization

Some of the most effective solutions in urban design involve the simplest design changes. Revitalizing public housing is difficult, but not impossible, as shown by Ray Gindroz and his team at Urban Design Associates in Norfolk, Virginia.

Read Time: 13 minutes

December 15, 2014, 10:00 AM PST

By Robert Freedman

We’ve all experienced those incredible moments, just like in the cartoons, when the light bulb suddenly clicks on and something that you've read about or studied—that you’ve understand in a theoretical way—suddenly becomes real. My visit to the Diggs Town public housing "project" in Norfolk, Virginia in the spring of 1994 was one such moment for me. An affirmation of how crucial and effective a few simple urban design strategies can be to the success of a neighbourhood.

I had been working at Urban Design Associates (UDA) for about two years when I attended a weekly design review session on the Diggs Town public housing revitalization initiative, presented by Founding Partner Ray Gindroz. Referring to the drawings pinned to the wall, he outlined a simple strategy for turning around this troubled housing project, which consisted of inserting a few new streets, adding fences, and making some façade improvements. The initiative appeared so straightforward that I was surprised it had been selected for review. Not exactly what I would call cutting-edge design—and we certainly had many higher-budget and higher-profile projects in the office. Why review this one?

About a year after that, we were back in Virginia working on an initiative in Portsmouth and, with some time to kill before our flight home, Ray suggested we cross the river (the Elizabeth River) and take a drive through Diggs Town to see how it was doing now that the work was complete and the grass was growing. I was totally unprepared for what I was about to see. The "before" images in the office presentation had depicted a sadly typical low-rise public housing project, with large areas of weed-covered open space into which a series of graffiti-tagged, barracks-like buildings had been arranged in a "train wreck" pattern.

Not a trace of the wreck remained. Instead, as we pulled into the neighbourhood on that sunny, spring afternoon, we were greeted by a young police officer playing tag-football with a group of kids in a well-manicured, grass-covered, public park. Streets framed the park, and the streets in turn were lined by low-brick buildings, punctuated by a series of sturdy front porches looking out over front lawns and flower gardens all neatly contained by white picket fences (yes…white picket fences!). A perfectly ordinary neighbourhood scene, astonishing only in contrast to what it had looked like just a few years before. Public housing is not supposed to look like this.

Prior to the revitalization, Diggs Town was considered one of the most problematic public housing developments in Virginia. Residents told stories about having to move their mattresses onto the floor for fear of getting hit by stray bullets flying through the windows at night. The drug gangs had taken over and the residents were being held hostage. The police confirmed that the majority of troublemakers were "from the outside." They came to Diggs Town—like they came to similar housing projects—because such places were ideal environments for selling drugs, due to their proximity (and highway access) to a large Metropolitan area, their isolated, mega-block site plans, and their large expanses of open space between buildings, providing great site-lines and convenient escape routes when the police showed up. The residents had no control of any of the public areas inside the buildings or out, so the gangs moved in and filled the vacuum.

When UDA began their work on the troubled housing project it quickly became apparent that the budget was inadequate for a complete neighbourhood redevelopment. (The more extensive demolition and rebuilding of entire projects become common later under HUD’s Hope VI Program, which was heavily influenced by Gindroz’ work.)  In addition, David Rice, the executive director of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Assoiation (NRHA), insisted that interior renovation work (where most HUD revitalization dollars had been spent in the past) was at best a band-aid solution. To make a real difference, the site-design and image needed to be completely transformed.

As a result, Gindroz and his team had to zero-in on what really mattered—what would have the greatest impact for the least cost. Working very closely with the residents through a comprehensive charrette process, the participants identified the key problems and offered excellent suggestions about how to fix them. One key theme identified during the public consultation was the desire to live in a "regular neighbourhood" not in a "segregated project." Another theme was to gain control over the dangerous "no-man's" land between the buildings and, finally, the desire to create outdoor places where neighbours could get to know one another.

The design team and the residents came up with a plan that employed three key urban design principles, all tried-and-true tenets of traditional urbanism, tested in cities around the world over millennia: 1) create a connected street network lined with houses, 2) provide a clear distinction between public and private space, and 3) create "houses" not "housing."

Back to Basics – 3 Key Urban Design Moves

1. Create a connected street network lined with houses.

Diggs Town, like so many other public housing developments built in the 1940s and '50s, was conceived as a "project" set apart from the surrounding neighbourhoods. Based loosely on Garden City ideas—the concept was to separate cars and pedestrians and to place buildings in a less urban, park-like super-block. It was an idea that sounded good in theory but rarely worked in impoverished inner-city locations.

The elimination or reduction of streets created a number of problems. First, the resulting super-blocks became disconnected, isolating the residents from the surrounding neighbourhoods and adding to the feeling of stigmatization. Diggs Town residents talked about how everyone knew they were from "the projects" because the whole area—the site, the buildings, the landscaping—looked different from everything around it. In addition, the lack of vehicle access and street addresses meant that many of the things people take for granted—e.g., being able to unload groceries close to your front door, getting deliveries, calling a taxi—become complex or impossible. Super-block projects were labeled as "no pizza zones" because of the unwillingness of pizza drivers to deliver in areas without street addresses.

The UDA team made it their highest priority to introduce a street grid into the neighbourhood. They carefully examined the site plan and found that by demolishing a limited number of buildings they were able to insert several new streets and to provide street address for the majority of units. The team selected street locations so that the existing buildings would face each other across the street, purposely avoiding a situation with problematic front-to-back, or back-to-back, relationships. All of the streets were designed to include two-way traffic, sidewalks, on-street parking, and trees.  The results of these modest improvements: connecting Diggs Town to the surrounding neighbourhoods, making it easier for cars, bikes, and pedestrians to move through the neighbourhood, creating more parking (conveniently located near the units), and enhancing neighbourhood safety (additional "eyes on the street."). Finally, the creation of conventional street addresses for all units happily ended Diggs Town’s days as a "no pizza zone."

2. Create a clear distinction between public and private space.

The second major issue with Diggs Town (and many of the housing projects from this era) was that all outdoor space within the project boundary was considered public. Long-time residents described how the neglected outdoor space—originally intended as an amenity for residents to enjoy in common—was allowed to deteriorate into empty lots full of weeds and dirt. Without clear boundaries the open space failed as usable park space and quickly deteriorated into dangerous territory. In addition, without streets, sidewalks or front lawns there was no transition from public to private space. Anyone could wander up to a building and look in the window. Everything becomes publicly accessible, right up to the walls of the buildings.

The residents noted that even though the surrounding neighbourhoods were also low-income, the gangs didn't take over areas where properties were maintained or fenced. Instead, they migrated to and exploited areas of ambiguous out-of-the way open spaces. Their recommendation therefore was to make Diggs Town look more like a real neighbourhood, with houses that had front- and back-yards. They requested fences, to make clear what areas belong to the individual units and what areas did not.  

We’ve all heard the old adage "good fences make good neighbours." It turns out to be true. After careful consultation with the residents, the design team came up with solutions to secure areas associated with both the front and backs of all units. The area behind the units was considered too small to subdivide into individual backyards, so the residents suggested creating a common area between the backs of the buildings, fenced at either end, and accessible, via a locked-gate, only to residents of the block. One simple move eliminated cut-through escape routes for the drug dealers.

For the fronts of the buildings, the design team called for the installation of low, white-picket fences enclosing the "front lawn" in front of each and every unit. I remember that when I saw this presented in the office I thought it was a joke—sure to ignite or add fuel to the wrath of every anti-New Urbanist from coast to coast. "Leave it to Beaver comes to the 'Hood." But seeing is believing. The fences created real front lawns and gardens that were being carefully tended by the residents. Most cities have spent years perfecting their fence by-laws—where they can be placed, how high the can be at the front, rear, and side yards, what materials they can be made of, etc. In most communities, the ideal front-yard fence is located at or slightly back from the sidewalk, tall enough to deter people from easily stepping or jumping over, but short enough to allow eye contact. It's not a privacy fence; it's a boundary fence. The front lawn, as defined by the fence, acts as a transition zone between the public streets and sidewalk to the semi-public porch and the private unit. It gently defines a more private territory in front of the house without screaming, "Keep out!" The message is subtle, but clear—you may be welcome, but you should wait to be invited in. The lawn remains public to view—a shared visual amenity—but not to use or access. This is enormously important in all neighbourhoods but particularly crucial in environments where crime is a real or perceived issue.

3. Create Houses, Not Housing: The power of front porches and residential façade design.

The final big issue facing Diggs Town was the stigma associated with living in sterile, institutional housing units (something that I was to hear over and over again in my work on public housing projects in the years following). The residents complained that their housing looked nothing like houses in the surrounding neighbourhoods. The low-rise, barracks style buildings with little or no ornament, small windows, and lack of outdoor space were easy to identify and made them feel different. There's no hiding that you're "from the projects." Such buildings are easy to spot because they all look the same. Residents are immediately get labelled. Most people don’t realize that the troublemakers for the most part don’t live in the projects, as we heard many times, but then the residents suffer from the bad reputation.”

The solution to this problem (again, suggested by the residents) was to transform the housing units into "houses." The residents said they wanted their units to look like real houses—with front porches, nice details, and front lawns and gardens. There was some resistance to the idea in the initial conversations between UDA and the client group at HUD. Traditionally, HUD public housing revitalization efforts had focused almost exclusively on interior upgrades or repairs. There was a high-level, unwritten HUD policy against making the exterior of units look too good for fear that non-resident taxpayers would see it as a waste or mis-use of tax dollars. The reality, however, is that when residents (whether owners or renters) are given a sense of control over their environment they tend to care for it—there's a pride of ownership. That idea was a completely foreign concept at the time (and would later change under the HOPE VI Program).

In spite of the reluctance to spend money on exterior improvements, the team forged ahead, exploring and documenting the surrounding neighbourhoods and measuring the details of the houses, porches, eaves, windows, and doors. With a careful eye on the budget, the team proposed a number of façade improvements that would radically transform the look and feel of the buildings. Each unit was given a new street presence with well-proportioned windows, sturdy front porches, and normal (non-institutional) front doors. 

The team felt it was extremely important to "nail" these key design details. For the front porches that meant the correct height and depth so that people can sit comfortably in chairs with a small table and enjoy the shade. The porch columns (like the ones in the surrounding neighborhoods) are sturdy and classically proportioned, and railings are wide and comfortable to sit on (in contrast to the typical spindly metal railings used in most institutional projects across North America). The windows are good quality, operable, and designed with vertical proportions. While all of these details cost more than was typically spent on exterior upgrades, it turned out to be a great investment that had a huge impact on the quality of life of residents. The porches in particular have turned out to be very well used.

The Final Word

The physical transformation of Diggs Town was extremely important, but ultimately it was just a catalyst. It's the people who make a neighbourhood work. As the design team worked through the redevelopment process with the Diggs Town residents, it became clear that while there was huge support for the proposed design changes, the residents were nervous about the increased responsibility of having to care for their units, porches, front lawns, and gardens. The majority of residents had never owned their own homes and had never had to take on that kind of responsibility. The solution was to offer tenants training in basic home and garden maintenance—how to cut a lawn, how to create and maintain a flower garden. The majority of tenants embraced this new responsibility and, with the assistance of a strong Tenants’ Association, have continued over the years to keep their porches, lawns, and gardens in great shape. The day I visited, the Association was just putting up the signs for the annual “best flower garden" competition. Who would have ever thought that was possible?

Two other programs that also contributed to the success of the Diggs Town (although there were many more) were the introduction of a more rigorous tenant screening process (to ensure that residents are a positive influence on the neighbourhood and to ensure the eviction process for those who are not abiding by the rules) and a number of youth programs combined with a great community policing effort. The tag football game I witnessed was an initiative put on by an amazing, young community police officer, Rick James, who had taken it upon himself to get to know and engage with the kids in the neighbourhood.

The successes of Diggs Town have been studied by many housing experts and sociologist over the years. It was, and continues to be, a success story. Crime was substantially reduced relative to other public housing projects and with the less hospitable environment, the drug dealers moved on. There was a long waiting list to live there and the cost of maintenance also remained relatively low. There are many lessons to learn here. For me the most important of all was the power of design to bring about positive change. Sometimes you don't need radical new ideas or cutting-edge design to transform neighbourhoods. You just need to get the basic details right and let the residents take care of the rest.

Robert Freedman, MRAIC, AICP, LSUC, is the former director of urban design for the city of Toronto and current principal of Freedman Urban Solutions—an urban design, planning and development consulting firm based in Toronto. Robert has a multi-disciplinary background with degrees in architecture, planning, and law and over 25 years of experience working in a variety of urban and suburban environments in cities across the United States and Canada.[]


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