Vacant is value
Unlocking the potential of the empty spaces in the city.
Contemporary urban centers are becoming increasingly populated and the relocation of people and activities is on the daily agenda. This process often results in vacancies, but in cities where space is at a premium, empty space is costly. Three examples from London, Chicago and Madrid show possible approaches to initiate the reuse of vacant sites and spark innovation.
How to initiate the reuse?
As most of the western cities had been seeing a shift from industrial to knowledge-based societies, the spaces formerly dedicated to material production are being dismissed. Additionally, the economic crisis of the last decade led to frequent development setbacks and abandoning of construction sites. In some cases, due to the stagnation of the construction industry, buildings have been left undone or empty, posing not only economic but also social questions at the light of issues such as poverty and homelessness.
The following case studies represent three possible approaches to initiate the reuse of vacant sites: through public initiative, private developments, and community intervention. The purpose is to highlight concrete pathways that can be undertaken for a meaningful reuse of vacant spaces. Of course, cities are multilayered therefore mixing these approaches is possible and desirable.
Meanwhile uses, London
According to a report by the Centre for London (2018), more than 24.000 commercial properties in the cities are vacant. Although redevelopment plans are usually laid out, buildings stand as wasted space for months, or years, before construction begins. The World Economic Forum (2019) ranks London as the world's second most expensive city to own a house.
In such a context, leaving the land empty is inefficient for the whole real estate industry, not only for reasons associated with property taxes but also because abandoned sites increase the risks of crime and lower the general sense of security and attractiveness. At the same time, the city’s non-market sector such as the public realm, community and creative spaces - often advocated in negotiations between authorities and developers - cannot afford London’s land values.
By allowing ‘meanwhile uses’ London tries to avoid vacancy and to test models of flexible, urban development. Meanwhile uses are definable as non-permanent activities while waiting for another use on a site that stands empty. Centre for London analyzed their potential and specified that meanwhile is not synonim of temporary.
Not all temporary uses are meanwhile: meanwhile uses take advantage of a window of opportunity on a site, before and after another use. And not all meanwhile uses are short term. Some meanwhile uses are offered long leases, for instance in regeneration projects spanning decades.
The implementation of meanwhile uses in London involves all levels of public will. Some recommendations to ease this strategy could be: (1) London Boroughs publish their registers of empty units and allow licenses for meanwhile uses; (2) The government provides incentives through tax credit and regulatory systems to encourage comunity-relevant uses, for instance: spaces for co-working, ateliers, maker spaces, urban gardening, centers for art and training, business incubators, etc; (3) Landowners rent out their vacant spaces at lower market costs because tenants need to invest in fitting out the spaces but they likely won't have a long period of time to make up for the investment. Both owners and renters can belong to private or public sectors, Non-profits, foundations, or other hybrid ventures.
The Plant, Chicago
An example of a company-led transformation of a vacant site is The Plant in Chicago, America's third-largest city. The company, Bubbly Dynamics LLC, is a social enterprise dedicated to the redevelopment of industrial buildings within Chicago's Central Manufacturing District. They focus on all aspects of facility development in order to host innovative SMEs that will bring added value to the neighborhood. Their business philosophy is
re-imagining waste and abandoned resources as assets.
The Plant is the name given to the building which is now in its third life. Built in 1925 as a meatpacking facility, it made it to the 2000s as an abandoned space. In 2010, nothing more than demolition and perhaps sacking of useful materials were envisioned for the building. Instead, Blubby Dynamics decided to buy it, renovate it, and make it the workplace for business dealing with food, farming, and up-cycling of waste. Overall, the operation is bringing back jobs and giving access to healthy food to an economically distressed, food desert, community.
In its 100000 sq. ft. (9300 sq. mt.) the facility houses 20+ businesses including farms, breweries, a cheese distributor, a coffee roaster, and other food producers. Furthermore, The Plant incentives and optimizes the waste flows among the different tenants, creating biomass and combustible fuel and through an anaerobic digester. As of early 2019, there were approximately 85 full-time employees based at the facility and by 2020 the building is expected to be fully leased up.
El campo de Cebada, Madrid
Named after one of Madrid's biggest indoor market in the historic center, La Cebada market, El campo is a vibrant, festive space. Formerly vacant, the area was reclaimed by the residents of the La Latina neighborhood in opposition to the City Council plan of constructing a public facility. Residents managed to establish El campo de Cebada as an open-air community space maintaining it completely public, accessible and versatile for multiple activities.
To understand the proactive role of the residents in initiating this project, it's important to understand that Plaza de la Cebada had always been a center of social interaction since the presence of the municipal market in the nineteenth-century. In the mid-1950s the market was rebuilt and its adjacent square (5500 sq.mt.) underwent a phase of construction-and-demolition to be then left vacant as of 2009, the beginning of the economic crisis. From this moment, spontaneous initiatives of temporary appropriation started to take place.
Moved by the success of such attempts, residents came together and negotiated with the City Council, obtaining in 2011 the temporary ceding of the space. From then on, under their management and responsibility, the site was cleaned up and equipped with water, electricity and sports pitches. Handmade, movable street furniture was built, gardens planted and graffiti painted. In summer, the square hosts the Piscinazo, a big open pool, and throughout the day/year, several festivals and other kinds of socially-oriented initiatives take place. It's also possible to request the space and to know upcoming programs.
El campo de Cebada was among the 2012 finalists of the Public Space award, the European Prize for Urban Public Space. From the project description it emerges how the residents had foreseen the potential of the vacant site:
the empty space would need to accommodate all kinds of activities that would foster social relations as well as being proposed, decided and managed as the responsibility of the residents themselves.
This third case study has similarities with the two previous examples: it was turned into a space for non-permanent functions, like the case of London, and it added a great value to its neighborhood, like the Chicago project, by providing it with the kind of space that was most needed.
The true value
Government-led policies, private investment, and community intervention are pathways that can indeed complement each other to initiate transformation. As the three examples prove, the value of vacant sites lies beyond typical development schemes and has more to do with experimentation.
Empty sites can be grounds for non-permanent uses, for testing future planning scenarios, for encouraging the stability of new types of business and, ultimately, for enriching cities' cultural offers.
Hurdles are to be expected: rigid planning and licensing systems, the difficulty of creating sustainable business models, the on-site management especially under non-permanent activities. However, vacant spaces intended as laboratories for the city have the great advantage of sparking innovation and introducing a new model of collaboration between the city and its neighborhoods.
- N. Bosetti, T. Colthorpe (Centre for London) Meanwhile, in London: Making use of London's empty spaces, October 2018
- D. Bravo The Barley Field, June 2018
- A. Edenmariam (The Guardian) 'Meanwhile spaces': the empty shops becoming a creative force across the country, May 2019
- S. Fleming (World Economic Forum) The world's most expensive places to own a home, March 2019
- R. Frisk, J. Loulie, J. Frisk (Arkilab) Temporary Use 2.0. A tool for planning and developing the new urban context
- The Wasted City: Approaches to Circular City Making, Trancity, Edited by Cities Foundation, 2017