Temporary Urbanism: A More Responsive Approach to Vacant Land Utilization

Graham Herbst 

Original article:  https://www.huduser.gov/portal/periodicals/em/winter14/highlight4.html

Vacant land is a common problem in the United States. Large cities or small towns, rural or urban, Midwest or coastal, our approach to building cities is transforming in response to the failures of past thinking. As infrastructure installation and maintenance costs rise, planning practices have changed and continue to slowly move away from an emphasis on sprawl in order to bring new thinking to the old, forgotten corners of town that were left to languish while adding to municipal work load.  In the post-2008 era of “staycations” and concerns about access to jobs, healthy food and outdoor spaces, citizen groups are bringing new thinking to the unused spaces around them in order to do more with less.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Julian Castro, wrote an article in 2014 that summarizes the state of vacant land use nation-wide, with a focus on temporary uses. The term temporary is not defined by the nature of land use strategies but by the intent of the user in conjunction with the municipal agencies that oversee the property and can be as short-lived as a single day of festivities or span over a number of years. The creativity and capacity of citizens to create new uses for vacant space is one major factor influencing decision-making in these projects and city planning departments have displayed varying degrees of support and willingness to allow “out-of-the-box” initiatives to be implemented.

Philadelphia is a shining example of resilient land use initiatives supported by both the city and its citizens where land use paradigms have expanded beyond the typical community garden into a project called The Porch which incorporates local food and crafts vendors, public art and leisure space into a parking strip adjacent to an Amtrak station.  By bringing together elements of transportation, commerce, public space and art, Philadelphia’s University City District now has a thriving hot spot, (documented with periodic usage data collection) that is invigorating the area with amenities and activity that is attractive to home-buyers and businesses alike.

Temporary land use projects can also help to empower segments of the population that are often unheard or marginalized by providing projects and spaces that instill pride in the area and can subconsciously raise the bar for how the adjoining neighbors care for their own property. The temporary nature of these projects allows for exploration of project potential while minimizing necessary investment of resources. Although an attractive community garden or pocket park cannot be depended on to overcome economic factors in blighted areas, they can create a “sense of place” that improves perceptions and may reduce stress. Place-making has an important role to play in determining what amenities are most desirable in the area and likely to garner participation from those in the neighborhood.

Not all vacant land utilization projects are successful, and there are a few different factors at play that must be aligned in order to reactivate land that was previously unused or underused. An individual or group will initiate the project by coming together on an idea for implementing a project in a specific place or series of places.  In these early stages, it is critical to have agents in place that define the context of the project and work with city officials to agree on parameters for activities on the proposed sites. This often takes the form of an MOU or annual agreement that defines the length of time of the agreement, maintenance and signage requirements, a process for dealing with complaints about the property and general use restrictions. Deviating from this agreement is the most obvious way for a land utilization project to fail. A city opening up vacant land for use by interested citizens presents some level of risk under the insurance policy that citizens are covered by while using public land but also provides a framework through which lower-income citizens gain access to one of the most important resources there is: access to land.

Another important factor for utilization projects is the city’s policies regarding vending, food sales and music ordinances. In order to develop critical mass for success, projects will often seek to engage and outreach to people in the area that are not directly involved in project activities through live music, impromptu street sports, weekly markets and educational series.  As Castro notes, “Because landowners are ultimately responsible for the safety and security of their property, the risk involved in making their property available to others often deters them from allowing these temporary uses.” The last important group to consider is the public.  Without public interest and acceptance of the project, little momentum is generated and projects fizzle out. Whether a group is reaching out to a specific niche group or the general public with goods for sale or educational/recreational opportunities, the project deliverables must be desirable and accessible to the target audience. Social networks, and local print/TV media are crucial tools in expanding the reach and visibility of projects in order to attract participants, new board membership and customers.

Community gardening is the most common and well-known form of temporary land utilization and also has the deepest roots in American culture. While many recall the publicity campaigns urging citizens to implement “victory gardens” to support the war effort by improving self-reliance, the first cases of citizens using public land in major cities to grow food likely occurred in 1970’s New York with the Green Guerillas, a group that utilized “seed bombs” to beautify the fenced-off buildings and lots that had been abandoned during the fiscal crisis of the early 70’s.  Liz Christy is known as the founder of the group and quickly began establishing a community garden in the East Village that still stands today, despite escalating land prices and monumental pressures to redevelop the site. As the movement grew in support and impact, the Green Guerillas ushered in the beginning of a new approach to relations between Lower East Side citizens and their city government that is being continually adopted and adapted by US cities today, providing an early model for community engagement and land utilization that continues to be utilized and expanded upon today.