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Engaging Urban Vacancy

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Engaging Urban Vacancy

by Jill Stoner, Professor of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley

An image of a burned-out church as seen across vacant lots once occupied by dwellings.
Burned-out church in Detroit, Michigan seen across vacant lots once occupied by dwellings.
I learned the formal principles of architecture and urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, a city center densely packed with attached masonry dwellings in the European tradition of the “figure/ground.” It was a model of urbanism that I took for granted until my first visit to Detroit in 1990, where a city center that seemed as empty and vast as an agrarian landscape captured my imagination. In the decades since I have taught design studios at the University of California, Berkeley, in which students and I have explored the social, ecological, and aesthetic possibilities of urban emptiness.

Last fall, while on sabbatical from Berkeley, I divided my time between HUD headquarters in Washington, D.C., and several American cities that have been hardest hit by abandonment. This article is the first in a series of reflections on our vacant cities and the challenges and opportunities for transforming urban emptiness through new micro-economies, ecological inventions, and institutional collaborations.

Emptiness has always been an integral part of the vast American landscape, but we are now engaging a new kind of emptiness — the abandonment and attendant vacancy of our formerly industrial urban centers. Many of these cities were supported by a single manufacturing industry, and they have suffered dramatic population loss over the past several decades. Addressing the resulting emptiness is a relatively new challenge; historically, our urban pride has been predicated on growth, and our inclination when things become empty is to fill them back up. To build back, to redevelop, to make even more than what came before — these values of growth and fullness have always been part of the American paradigm.

It is common to say that these cities are shrinking, but they are not contracting in size. Instead, the geographic area stays the same as big holes open in a once-tight fabric. As blighted buildings are taken down, emptiness spreads. As lot lines disappear beneath the weeds, once-visible benchmarks of ownership become invisible, indeterminate. In business centers, empty storefronts reveal interiors yawning into the beyond, toward unseen alleys where wild animals are beginning to dwell.

The author's representation of the previous image repurposed as farmland. The vacant lots are now occupied by a wheatfield and bales of hay.
The author's representation of the previous site repurposed as farmland.

Amidst much hand-wringing in agencies, universities, and business communities over these growing holes in our once-solid cities, innovative and enterprising residents are slowly learning how to make these spaces productive — empty of buildings or empty of permanent tenants, but no longer vacant. All across the country new models are emerging of how to patch the urban fabric with threads instead of solids—using the tenuous and temporal rather than the robust and permanent. There are experiments in infrastructure and agriculture, in performance art and installation art, in making use of local topographies to construct contiguous systems of stormwater drainage. Urban planners and biologists are collaborating on how to plan wildlife corridors through what might be perceived as a form of urban wilderness.

But what is wild, when married to the life of the city, must be carefully managed. So old regulations need to be revisited and modified as new alliances of interdisciplinary experts are being formed, slowly and organically. The empty “between” spaces are becoming a motivation for these new alliances. Many of these connections are institutional rather than physical — between arts and economics, between local interests and federal regulation, between ecology and urban design. Just as an ecosystem works through symbioses and reciprocities, so too can a complex set of organizations and individuals begin to mutually reinforce new attitudes, new practices, and new kinds of local economies. Vacancy can be transformed toward an urbanism more like loose lace than tightly woven cloth.

Many once-suspect urban experiments are approaching a state of common practice, demonstrating their tenacity by being both/and: deconstructing buildings both to salvage materials and provide job training; making paved sites into agricultural fields both to help stormwater drainage and provide local food; occupying vacant storefronts with temporary art installations both to give artists public exposure and provide a safe nighttime destination. In their complexity, these multipronged and multifunctional approaches to vacancy have the potential to become vital parts of their local economies. This, in fact, will be the true test of how we learn to embrace vacancy as an urban opportunity.


Published Date: February 12, 2013

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.