"The city has put millions of dollars into these really fancy looking parks, but the box—it doesn't dwell on looks," explains Nick Lavelle, the landscape architect behind "It's in the Box." That's because Lavelle's multifunctional community space, which has scored a final spot in SXSW Eco's Place by Design competition, is made of shipping containers and sustains itself on found objects from Detroit's many abandoned, industrial lots.
The box doesn't look like much, but it serves as a multifunctional Inspector Gadget-like space for public use—a mobile unit that morphs into a rainwater capture facility, community meeting space, or urban garden, depending on the wants and needs of the neighborhood it serves.
While Detroit's once-booming population has plummeted by 57% over the last six decades and took $173 million of the tax base with it, Lavelle points out that one of the main misconceptions in the narrative of the Rust Belt City is that there's no one left.
But for many of the communities that remain, dysfunctional city infrastructure and economic depression means that meeting basic human needs—food, water, safety, and shelter—is a daily struggle. Rather than trying to invite jittery suburban populations back into the city, the box aims to empower existing, underserved neighborhoods with cheap, moveable tools to improve social and environmental infrastructure.
Lavelle first began marinating on the idea of the box while pursuing his masters in landscape architecture at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment. In 2011, one of Lavelle's professors, Beth Diamond, invited him to design a community art space for Detroit's Heidelberg Project, a two-block community art project that uses found objects to transform neighborhood blight.
"All these small [grassroots] things starting up are really bright lights of hope for Detroit. The Heidelberg project is one of those small interventions," Lavelle explains. "I wanted to build something [mobile] as a part of this project, but then I decided that a mobile trailer was too limiting—then we thought big. We thought, how can we put this at the city scale of Detroit and help out a lot of people with this?"
As a result, the box—which currently exists only as a 90-page thesis explaining its different functionalities—includes planters, solar cells on the roof (possibly), a merry-go-round that could serve as a pump and a generator, and a set of monkey bars Lavelle designed from sterilized industrial food dye crates.
"This first box would be a community meeting house where meetings would be held as to what functions and aesthetics people would want," Lavelle says. "And then all the designer would have to do is draw from the kit of parts. It's the first building block, and then in order for it to be a successful place, the people would have to add their own aesthetics and function on it to survive."
Lavelle says that his inspiration comes from a number of small social justice projects that tackle problems at a hyper-local scale. He cites Auburn University's Rural Studio, which launched in 1993 to give architecture and design students an opportunity to coordinate projects with western Alabama's poverty-stricken Black Belt communities, as one.
"'It's in the Box' is meant to be small, one part of a solution to an overall problem of vacancy and the Rust Belt City falling away. It's not meant to be a comprehensive solution that's going to fix everything," Lavelle says. "But it helps."
Lavelle is still tinkering away at the "It's in the Box" execution and prototype, but you can read his plan here.