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Activating Spaces

With the emerging challenge of vacant properties, creative approaches to temporary use could be part of the solution

Vacant spaces and properties have been on the rise in cities across the country, creating a unique set of problems that urban planners have been eager to solve. Many planners have touted creative temporary uses as a way to draw people in and activate spaces. This introductory piece examines the origins of the problem, why it’s important, and the various tools available to combat the effects of vacancy.

Isolation

For more than a century, Main Street signified the heart and soul of a community. It’s been the space where people gather in public for commerce and social cohesion. In 2019, fewer and fewer communities have bustling centers and it is increasingly common to drive down a town’s main drag and see empty storefronts. Many have started to wonder, “what’s the problem with this phenomenon and what can be done to stop it?”

With the proliferation of e-commerce, people have less incentive to drive downtown, search for parking, and shop for items at multiple stores. Now, we never have to leave our living room. In some respects it’s the dream we’ve always wanted, but in other ways it has left us feeling empty. While it might be easy to point to e-commerce as the direct cause for the decline of Main Street, there are other factors at play and the effects are not limited to city centers. Retail markets have changed across the urban landscape and it has altogether resulted in fewer opportunities to engage in public life. Perhaps the greatest loss in all this is the sense of community. Many Americans drive alone to and from work, and spend the rest of the day sitting in front of a screen. Without much social interaction throughout the week, it’s easy to see how many might report feeling alone. A recent study revealed that close to half of American adults suffer from loneliness. In stark contrast, Danish people consistently rank the happiest in the world — in large part because social interaction in public spaces is a vital component to daily life in Denmark. It’s good to be around people.

Bringing back Main Street

Urban planners understand the benefits of public space, which is why they have been utilizing policies that aim to bring back some elements of Main Street that have been lost. One popular policy tool requires ground-floor commercial space on new multi-family developments. In some cases, however, it has done more harm than good. Many of these ground-floor spaces end up sitting vacant for years because the market does not always support commercial use in these locations. It has become such a problem that some cities have contemplated vacancy taxes to assist the struggling retail market. Others have taken a more creative approach to the problem of vacancy. A recent CityLab report highlighted the Boston nonprofit, CultureHouse, which “facilitates the creation of public social infrastructure through the transformation of unused spaces into vibrant places to work, play, and foster connections.”

CultureHouse utilizes vacant space as a way to engage people. Next month, they are hosting events for trivia, workshops, art shows, and social mixers. In the interview with CityLab, CultureHouse co-founder Aaron Greiner said they are trying to create an “element of stickiness” in spaces that otherwise sit dormant. The real-estate company that owns the space allows CultureHouse pop-ups to operate rent-free because it sees the ultimate benefit of activating the site. This type of agreement is becoming increasingly common as landowners across the country start to see the value of temporary uses on vacant spaces.

Getting tactical with urbanism

Creative temporary uses have been examined as alternative solutions to the problem of vacant space that often lead to unexpected public spaces. A recent Portland State University student report titled No Vacancy, explored the practice of temporary use in the Central Eastside Industrial District of Portland (CEID). The award-winning[i] report said temporary uses “occupy a space during the time between other uses or fill spaces that, in their current state, cannot support a permanent use.”[ii] Active use on an otherwise vacant property can yield positive benefits for the project and the community.

Where temporary uses belong on the spectrum of property use (Source: No Vacancy, 2009).

Vacant space can present real problems for cities and property owners- research shows a link between vacant properties and decreasing property values, increasing crime, increasing risk to public health, and increased cost to municipalities. A study by Lin Cui, Department of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh found that “violent crime within 250 feet of a vacant property is 15 percent higher than the rate in the area between 250 and 350 feet from the property. In addition, longer periods of vacancy have a greater effect on crime rates.”[iii]

Providing public access can lead to positive social, economic, and health benefits. Studies have shown that sites with public access parks, trails, open space, etc. prove to be safer because higher foot-traffic displaces potential abusers.[iv] In addition to reduced crime, other studies suggest public access improves social relationships, enlivens community atmosphere, and encourages healthier lifestyles.[v] Furthermore, public access can increase property values[vi] and municipal revenues. Interim access can also provide benefits to the property owner. As the property garners attention, potential retailers, tenants, and large sponsors may develop a keen interest in the site and begin investing in its future.

Whether it’s an arts festival at an abandoned automotive plant in Flint, Michigan, a pop-up shopping center at a parking lot in San Francisco, or guided tours at a defunct paper mill on the Willamette River, temporary uses are being used across the county to attract people and activate empty spaces into vibrant community centers. There are low cost approaches too, many of which can be found in the guide for tactical urbanism. These urban “experiments” can lead to a more permanent use on site, serve as catalysts for economic development, and deter negative activities such as trespassing and vandalism.

What works for me

While the benefits of temporary use have become clear, less clear is what type of temporary use would be successful at specific locations. In the effort to find a prescriptive solution to an individual problem of vacant space, land owners should look inward first before trying to replicate something that was successful elsewhere. What is readily available? What is your comparative advantage? What are the community needs/interests?

Link2Lift can help identify a path forward. Let’s talk!

Eric Hawkinson is a journalist-turned urban planner working at a consulting firm specializing in land development throughout the Portland metropolitan area. He holds a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning and is passionate about urban issues.

References

[i] No Vacancy won the American Planning Association national award for its contribution of planning to a contemporary issue.

[ii] Dann, Becky; Somerfield, Beth; Rice, Emily; and Meier, Briana, “No Vacancy” (2009). Master of Urban and Regional Planning Workshop Projects. Paper 35.

[iii] Levitt, R. (Winter, 2014). Vacant and Abandoned Properties: Turning Liabilities Into Assets. Evidence Matters: Transforming Knowledge into Housing and Community Development Policy. pg. 3-5

[iv] Parks Canada. 1996. Best Practice for Parks Canada Trails — A Spectrum of Appropriate Trail Activities, Services, and Facilities. Ottawa: Canadian Heritage — Recreation Association of Nova Scotia. 1992. Converting Abandoned Rail Corridors to Trails in Nova Scotia — A Position Paper.

[v] Active Living — Go for Green. 1996. Developing Communities for Active Transportation The Active Living and Environment Program.

[vi] Lindsey, Gregg; Man, Joyce; Payton, Seth; Dickson, Kelly, “Property Values, Recreation Values, and Urban Greenways.” Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, Fall 2004, Volume 22 Number 3, pg. 69–90

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We believe community transformation happens when people, architecture and technology are leveraged to create thriving cultures of collaboration.