Sweet Water Foundation

“Regenerative neighbourhood development”
A foundation and extensive set of built prototypes for “Regenerative Neighbourhood Development”: ecologically-driven transformation of left-behind areas in post-industrial cities


The description of left-behind urban neighbourhoods as decaying, rotting, or blighted makes use of ecological metaphors to suggest a quasi-natural process whereby an environment can no longer sustain life. This language attempts to hide the often far more deliberate and human forms of abandonment that lead to dangerous and deleterious conditions arising in these areas, including: financial inequality, absentee property owners, racist and otherwise discriminatory urban policies, removal of security and agency from residents, and gutting of local economies. Such conditions are typical of many post-industrial cities in the second half of the twentieth century, as the slowing or off-shoring of large-scale industry left former “boom towns” without jobs and rapidly depopulating. In areas of the United States’ midwest, this manifested in large swathes of vacant buildings and sites, typically in urban poorer areas which had been systematically disinvested by city administrations. The damage to these areas is both social and ecological, as both communities and ecosystems are deprived of the means to repair themselves. 


Working in Chicago’s South Side, Sweet Water Foundation (SWF) seeks forms of collective healing and re-growth in socially and ecologically exhausted spaces. Its ecologically-driven approach to neighbourhood transformation—based upon building collective infrastructures and shared support systems—seems to annul the rhetoric attack of blight on its own terms, by asking: how can we “create safe and inspiring spaces and curate healthy, intergenerational communities that transform the ecology of once-blighted neighborhoods?”1Architecture Foundation, ‘100 Day Studio: Emmanuel Pratt – Sweet Water Foundation’, YouTube, 26 Aug 2020 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwirmoNeRiQ> [accessed 28 June 2023]. Co-founder Emmanuel Pratt makes the question – what is or is not valued – central to SWF’s work, which operates through art, architecture, agriculture, education, and culture to redefine what is valuable beyond the norms of the market. There is a strong focus on regenerative approaches: practices such as sustaining spaces from which to build capacity rather than maintain dependency. 

Since 2014, SWF’s work has been focused around the transformation of a set of formerly vacant lots into a series of mixed-use community buildings, growing gardens, open spaces, meeting places, and workshops. This “Regenerative Neighborhood Development campus”, called The Commonwealth, took over land from a previous attempt by the municipality to build an urban farm without community involvement.2‘The Commonwealth’ Sweet Water Foundation <https://www.sweetwaterfoundation.com/commonwealth> [accessed 28 June 2023]. For a virtual tour see <https://my.threesixty.tours/app/v/9383um/57z806> [accessed 28 June 2023]. At its heart is a meeting house raised during the Chicago Architecture Biennial following the tradition of community barn raising. The campus provides space for intergenerational programmes and events revolving around collective imagination and future possibilities, as well as more practical training in agriculture, aquaponics, and carpentry. The most recent extension, “[Re]Construction House”, is an experimental retrofit of a formerly vacant townhouse, developed in part through a residency at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art. The House provides accommodation as well as a gallery space to host exhibitions and celebrations of “Regenerative Neighborhood Development”. 

SWF’s work extends well beyond Chicago, through long-term collaborations with other rust belt cities such as Detroit, where SWF recently helped raise a meeting house along the same model, and the development of online resources such as urban ecology course “Seeding the future”.3Seeding the Future <https://sites.google.com/sweetwaterfoundation.com/seedingthefuture/home> [accessed 28 June 2023]. SWF’s work is about creating robust frameworks and infrastructures to support the open-ended development of new neighbourhood economies in “forgotten/disinvested” areas, at the same time as providing the material support and education that the municipality has failed to, and giving citizens an active and powerful role in the next step.4Sweet Water Foundation, ‘chaord’, Biennale Architettura 2023 <https://www.labiennale.org/en/architecture/2023/dangerous-liaisons/sweet-water-foundation> [accessed 28 June 2023]. SWF argues that what is needed for the new neighbourhood already exists in various ways and places, but needs to be surfaced through canny cultivation. By responding to histories of racial segregation and disinvestment in cities as their catalyst for ecological regeneration, the Foundation redefines the purpose of the neighbourhood as sustaining life in its broadest sense, and not simply to generate economic value.5reSITE, ‘There Grows the Neighborhood with Emmanuel Pratt’, YouTube, 9 June 2020 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JeKaIXPg-k> [accessed 28 June 2023]. This is a paradigm shift in ways of thinking about regeneration—towards nurturing personal, social, and planetary health.