Bring Life to Vacant Spaces

If you’ve been keeping up with the posts to date, you’ve probably thought of at least one site in your community that would be a good candidate for a placemaking project. But if you still can’t identify a site, you may want to take a look at any vacant lots or spaces as there is a good chance that they can be transformed into people-friendly places for the community to gather.

Vacant spaces provide a blank canvas to create community gathering spots for cultural activities, socializing, gardening, playing, events, live music, storytelling, relaxing, art displays and much more. Vacant lots can be transformed from ugly eyesores into desirable destinations.

Nationally, as much as 15 percent of the land in some large American cities is vacant. But efforts are under way to change that and you may want to be part of those efforts.

In Detroit, local community organizations and others are helping to transform vacant lots into miniature parks, urban farms, and stormwater retention areas.   One of these efforts is a partnership between the University of Michigan and the city where innovative gardens are being built on former sites of vacant homes.  These gardens not only help manage stormwater but are also addressing neighborhood blight.  “We anticipate that having the gardens in their neighborhoods may help the overall neighborhood look more well-cared-for, enhance the property values of homes nearby, and increase residents’ sense of safety. Having the gardens may also encourage people to get outdoors to walk more and get to know their neighbors better,” said Joan Nassauer, landscape architect professor in U-M Ann Arbor’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.

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 On the East Coast, Philadelphia’s LandCare program addresses the widespread challenge of land vacancy plaguing city neighborhoods. The LandCare program cleans, greens, and stabilizes vacant lots to help return them to productive use. Since its inception, more than 800 properties have been developed into new uses, including housing, commercial properties, and green space amenities. The “Clean and Green” program targets vacant parcels in key target areas throughout the city and includes neighborhoods with public safety issues and ones that lack open space and green amenities.

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 And in Baltimore, the Adopt-a-Lot program helps residents identify empty lots and transform them into a community oasis.  Residents can apply for permits for temporary structures such as tool sheds or gazebos and the city provides assistance and advice on planting, fertilizing and overall garden planning. The organizers of the program believe that adopting a city-owned vacant lot not only improves living conditions in a neighborhood for all but also will help the City to become a beautiful and productive place to live for everyone.

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Vacant lots can also be temporarily activated until a permanent development is in place.

“When lenders aren’t lending, when buyers aren’t buying, when tax credit investors can’t be found and the desired market doesn’t yet exist, the question becomes what do we do with our unused, underused, misused, abandoned, or under construction public spaces? What do we do, in other words, in the meantime?”  Marisa Novara, Metropolitan Planning Council

Spaces in Between was a contest organized by the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) to recognize individuals who turned places that were forgotten, ignored, vacant, transitional, blighted or misused into community assets.  It focused energy, creativity and funds on the great potential for meaningful places to exist between a vacant space’s current state and its ideal, finished state. MPC launched the contest to learn more about how creative people around the Chicago region were taking back long-since forgotten spaces, thereby transforming the vacant and abandoned into community assets, even if – and especially if – temporary.

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Gap Filler, an organization based in Christchurch, New Zealand, creates temporary activations of vacant lots to facilitate a wide range of temporary projects, events, installations and amenities in the city. Dance-O-Mat is one such project.  It was created to respond to the lack of spaces for dance post-earthquake and bring people, life and energy back to the central city.  Dance-O- Mat is a coin-operated temporary dance floor that allows anyone to plug in their own music device and start a public dance party or performance in a vacant space. To use the Dance-O-Mat, people bring any device with a headphone jack such as an I-pod, phone or Mp3 player and plug it into the converted washing machine and then inserts $2 to activate the power and get dancing.

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An easy, quick approach being taken by many cities to activate areas in need of revitalization involves food trucks. “If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food,” William Whyte wrote in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. More and more cities are allowing food trucks to do business in struggling districts of a community as a way to enliven an area.  Truckeroo, in Washington, DC, began on an empty lot in an area next to Nationals Park which was undergoing re-development.  It is now a monthly festival that showcases the hottest food trucks in the DC area. Held April through October, Truckeroo is family friendly event and features live music, cold drinks, games, and more

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Sometimes these projects can have a dual purpose.   Demoiselle 2 Femme , a community-based program for girls on the far south side of Chicago, assists adolescent girls in a successful transition to womanhood via self-discipline, hard work, commitment and service to their community.   For one project, teenage girls were empowered to transform a vacant lot in their neighborhood into a safe place for children to play.  The young women, ages 14 to 18, helped to build the playground in one of the toughest sections of the Roseland neighborhood. The project also motivated residents and local groups to clean up adjacent public spaces. This demonstrates how one project could lead to more placemaking activities in a community and keep the trend going.

Roseland, Chicago, IL. Courtesy of Demoiselle 2 Femme.

Roseland, Chicago, IL. Courtesy of Demoiselle 2 Femme.

And in cities that are experiencing skyrocketing real estate prices, which can pose a challenge to the creation of public space, opportunity still exists. In Mexico City, Under Bridges is a project created by city planners that transforms vacant, trash-strewn lots beneath freeways into thriving public plazas, outdoor cafes and playgrounds.

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Photo courtesy of Inhabitat.com.

In our own REALTOR® Community, the Suburban West REALTORS® Association received an NAR Placemaking grant to help convert a municipal parking lot in Lansdowne, PA into an outdoor gathering space for residents and business patrons. The plaza was activated with cafe tables and other furnishings and is now also serving as a walkway to Veterans Park.

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And the Akron Cleveland Association of REALTORS® used the grant to partner with the East Akron Neighborhood Development Corporation, which transforms communities to be safe, vibrant, economically secure, and self-sustaining.  Together they transformed a vacant lot into the Minson plaza which includes seating, artwork a stage and games.  It is the home to a local farmer’s market.

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There are plenty of resources to get you started and keep you motivated.   Philip Winn, with the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), points to New York’s 596 Acres which is “a great hub and resource for ideas about inventive uses for vacant property, and for actively engaging communities in the process.”   The Center for Community Progress has lots of information on how to turn vacant, abandoned and problem properties into vibrant places.

Now is the time to transform that neighborhood eyesore into a vibrant place for the community to gather.

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