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Temporary Urbanism: Alternative Approaches to Vacant Land

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Winter 2014   


        Vacant and Abandoned Properties: Turning Liabilities Into Assets
        Targeting Strategies for Neighborhood Development
        Countywide Land Banks Tackle Vacancy and Blight
        Temporary Urbanism: Alternative Approaches to Vacant Land

Temporary Urbanism: Alternative Approaches to Vacant Land


      • Temporary uses can vary widely in purpose and duration; their viability depends on local market and regulatory conditions in addition to the work of entrepreneurial project initiators and their supporters.
      • Common temporary projects include community gardens and other green spaces, special events such as festivals or concert series, and stores or restaurants.
      • The experimentation and reversibility afforded by temporary use practices can encourage a multilayered approach to land use and increase the likelihood that a vacant space will eventually find permanent use.

For three days in May 2013, a mile-long stretch of empty riverfront land in Flint, Michigan underwent a remarkable transformation. Known locally as “Chevy in the Hole” after the nowrazed Chevrolet manufacturing plant that once occupied the site, the vacant lot became a frenzy of activity. A host of activities — birding tours, gospel choir performances, dance parties, and even a fully functional sauna1 — drew visitors to Free City, a public arts festival organized by the nonprofit Flint Public Art Project. The organization’s program director, Jerome Chou, says that the event encouraged residents to take an interest in their city’s future, challenging them “to reimagine the city” and view abandoned parcels as opportunities rather than as eyesores.2 The low-cost, temporary nature of this initiative epitomizes a broader shift in the types of planning strategies being adopted nationwide.3 The recent economic crisis has left many U.S. cities, particularly those in the Rust Belt and Sun Belt, struggling with long-term economic decline, widespread foreclosures, and stalled development, resulting in an abundance of costly and unproductive vacant land. Too readily associated with conditions of blight and urban decline (see “Vacant and Abandoned Properties: Turning Liabilities Into Assets”), high vacancy rates have led organizations such as the Flint Public Art Project to consider innovative, temporary approaches that mobilize limited resources to bring land back into productive use.

Whether realized as an attempt to generate public and political awareness, a grassroots initiative pioneered by local groups to improve their own neighborhoods, or a larger-scale municipal or private investment intended to generate profit on otherwise economically redundant land, both the intentions and strategies that fall under the umbrella concept of “temporary uses” can range widely. This article identifies the key factors involved in creating these temporary uses, reviews some of the most common temporary use practices, and examines the positive and negative effects of “temporary urbanism.”

Just How Temporary Is Temporary?

Just as temporary land use projects are seeing widespread growth throughout the country, temporary urbanism has become the subject of an expanding body of academic literature. In the context of the dynamic nature of the contemporary city, researchers must first answer a fundamental question: What actually constitutes a temporary intervention? In other words, just how temporary is “temporary”? Although the term has multiple definitions, Bishop and Williams conclude that the concept of “temporary” cannot be “based on the nature of use, or whether rent is paid, or whether a use is formal or informal, or even the scale, longevity or endurance of a temporary use, but rather the intention of the user, developer, or planners that the use should be temporary.”4 Such a broad definition is itself a revealing commentary on this emerging field of planning because it includes interventions that are as short as a few hours or as long as a number of years, those that are both legal and illegal, and those that are community driven, state sanctioned, or privately financed.

As part of its ongoing research project, Pop Up City, the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative has identified a number of required elements for producing temporary use projects. First, the projects require a suitable site, usually vacant land, from which to operate. The type of space used can vary — possibilities include anything from former industrial areas, railroad stations, waterfront areas, and unused commercial zones to vacant residential neighborhoods and public institutions — but the desired purpose for the temporary project will affect the choice of site.5 In turn, a site’s former use is often thematically incorporated into its new use and marketed as an asset. Oswalt, Overmeyer and Misselwitz note, however, that not all vacant land will be suitable for these temporary uses; in fact, the preferences of temporary users often mirror those of the conventional real estate market. They state that “if the investment required to renovate a space is too high, if it lies too far off the beaten track, or if suitable users are unavailable, it will remain unused.”6 This point is particularly relevant for space in America’s Rust Belt, where long-term structural decline has caused high vacancy rates. In these “shrinking cities,” large numbers of younger, more active residents have emigrated, removing a potential source of both initiators and consumers of such temporary uses.

A lot in a residential neighborhood, once vacant but now an urban farm with a growing crop of vegetables.
These formerly vacant lots were converted into an urban farm by the Massachusetts Avenue Project, which has reclaimed over an acre of vacant land in residential neighborhoods on Buffalo’s West Side.
Photo courtesy: Mark Hogan AIA, LEED BD+C
This element of agency — the actors capable of initiating projects — is what the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative identifies as the second key element of temporary use projects. Initiators of early temporary use ventures had “little in the way of financial resources, but… a large amount of social and cultural capital, a high degree of energy and commitment, and great willingness to improvise.”7 As such, they tended to be newcomers to an area rather than longtime residents. The Cleveland Urban Design Collective identifies two main types of initiators: young, well-educated entrepreneurs, drawn by the low entry thresholds and the potential to establish conditions of economic, social, or cultural change, and those who have a regular income and pursue temporary use projects as more of a hobby, often founded upon a philanthropic or community ideal.8 Both groups, however, share a tendency to work rapidly and flexibly; to apply an experimental, largely improvised approach to problem solving; to operate at low cost; and to tolerate an element of temporal insecurity, whether in the form of a short-term rental agreement, the absence of a rental agreement altogether, or illegal use.9

In addition to the project initiators, the success of a temporary use project depends on several other types of supporters. The first of these are the “agents,” the group responsible for creating the framework conditions required to initially launch a temporary use, such as lease contracts, official permits, organizational structures, and political and administrative support. Their role is “to function as a bridge,” mediating between the entrepreneurs and administrators such as local authorities and the landowners.10 Although many of the agents involved in the earliest temporary use projects did so informally, in recent years municipal policymakers, politicians, and members of the private sector have also adopted temporary use practices, offering additional formal channels through which agents can operate. To some extent, this change has created an opportunity for a new class of professionals who can offer stakeholders their expertise in operations management, planning, marketing, obtaining funding, securing permits, and resolving legal issues.11

Municipal policymakers and administrators have another important, although more passive, function; every built structure, whether permanent or temporary, is subject to government regulation and licensing requirements. Michael Southworth, a professor in both the Department of City and Regional Planning and the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California at Berkeley, notes, “[T]he regulatory environment can play a major role in stimulating or deterring uses. City regulation that controls activities such as vending and the outdoor sale of food or outdoor music, art and cultural events can be crucial in supporting street life.”12 Southworth cites Portland as an example of a city whose progressive policies on food vending have transformed vacant spaces into “gastronomic magnets that attract crowds throughout the day.”13 Similarly, the owner of the vacant site also has significant power to support or discourage temporary use projects because “it is a prerequisite of every temporary use that it be tolerated — either explicitly or implicitly — or contractually permitted by the owner.”14 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.

Finally, a project’s viability also depends on its customers — that is, the public. A “pop-up” project must be able to offer a product that can generate enough popular appeal to a certain population — whether aimed at a broad and inclusive market, or a particular niche group — such that the temporary initiative generates enough “critical mass” to be sustainable, even if over only a short-time scale. Media outlets are an important part of generating this excitement, with social networking applications such as Facebook and Twitter being used to rapidly propagate an otherwise “exclusive” pop-up project to a broad or niche audience. In instances where the temporary use activities aim to ameliorate social and cultural inequality, media coverage is also essential for generating wider awareness and garnering political support.15

Social networks support temporary use projects in another sense. “As a rule,” state Oswalt, Overmeyer and Misselwitz, “temporary uses do not arise in isolation, but in clusters.”16 Capitalizing on social relationships between different groups and individuals — in particular, the sharing of knowledge, strategies, and experience — can be an important tool for fostering clusters of temporary use projects in a certain area. In addition, networking can engender new forms of cooperation; an area might develop a communal sense of identity, or members can benefit from economies of scale when negotiating permits.17

The complexity of the different actors and contexts is part of the reason why such a wide variety of temporary use projects are currently being adopted across the country. All, however, are united by a sense of flexibility in the activation of a vacant space, whether the projects may be strategically designed as a catalyst for future development of a different (potentially unspecified) nature, functioning as “secondary or provisional, a stand-in or substitute for the preferred permanent option,” or deliberately realized as urban experiments without concern for permanency.18,19

Common Strategies for Vacant Space

Among the many potential projects that meet the definition of temporary urbanism, from roller discos to honey farms, a number of practices are regularly used to temporarily reactivate underutilized space.20, 21 Urban activists have been transforming vacant land into community green space for decades, dating back to movements such as the Green Guerrillas in 1970s New York.22 Such projects continue to be prevalent in many cities and are often operated through centralized efforts and organizations. In Philadelphia, for example, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society oversees citywide attempts to map, transform, and maintain vacant land as green space. Between 1999 and 2008, the society was responsible for reactivating 4,436 individual vacant lots.23 Technological advances have encouraged this coordinated approach to greening vacant land; an online land mapping project such as Grounded in Philly, founded in late 2012, provides an open-source tool that allows the city’s vacant space and active gardens to be mapped in real time. In addition, Grounded in Philly functions as an online community, offering users a platform through which they can exchange information about landowners and coordinate their regeneration efforts.24 Jeremy Németh and Joern Langhorst observe that although using individual lots as green space can provide valuable infrastructural functions, such as stormwater filtration, their “efficiency increases exponentially if they are engaged as a system of vacant lots.”25

The types of green space being activated have expanded over time. Although the transformation of a vacant plot into a community garden remains a common practice, a growing trend has been to turn vacant space into urban farmland or even forests. While such conversions have been successful at smaller scales, they also constitute a potentially valuable strategy to transform the large areas of vacant land common to Rust Belt cities.26 For example, in October 2013, a Detroit organization called Hantz Farms was awarded the right to purchase 1,500 parcels of land totaling 140 acres to create an urban farm and an adjoining forest, Hantz Woodlands. The project will involve razing 50 derelict structures, cleaning up accumulated garbage, and planting 15,000 trees.27 Such initiatives, however, have proven controversial. Although the development of green space has historically been heralded as an instrument of social justice, particularly in marginalized neighborhoods that often lack adequate open space,28 local community activists and grassroots urban farmers have accused the Hantz Woodlands project of serving the interests of the wealthy, increasing land values by removing a large acreage of potential housing stock.29

A refurbished derelict industrial lot, now an attractive public space with green areas, where people gather for concerts and other events.
Larkin Square, in Buffalo, New York, hosts food truck events, an author series, and the “Live at Larkin” concert series, transforming a derelict industrial area into a vibrant space.
A second common strategy for developing temporary use projects centers on generating a special event or experience. In Buffalo’s Larkinville neighborhood, the site of a long-demolished soap manufacturing plant now houses a verdant square that hosts the annual Live at Larkin series of summer concerts. The increased pedestrian traffic and vibrancy in the area has spurred the emergence of related activities at the site; for example, craftspeople sell their wares to local residents and workers on their lunch breaks.30 Other strategies that focus on creating a place-based experience are being employed elsewhere. The Flint Public Art Project has pioneered the Stone Street Residency program, which provides free or low-cost housing to artists and designers interested in pursuing short-term projects in the city.31 The program is part of a larger strategy to both create vibrant cultural spaces in Flint and generate public awareness and involvement in the city’s future development. Sports, particularly street sports, also feature frequently in temporary use projects. In Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, the site of a proposed 3.3 million-square-foot mixed-use development has been transformed into the Brooklyn Bike Park, a year-round park for BMX and mountain bike riders that is free for local children to use. As with other projects of this nature, the space has attracted additional temporary uses, such as food and drink vendors, which has encouraged the park’s developers to incorporate a fuller program of community events and park space once the site has been fully built out.32

Temporary uses are also growing in the retail sector, particularly in the form of pop-up shops. Some critics have argued that the grassroots, community-development origins of the pop-up shop have been coopted by the marketing departments of multinational firms, — citing, for example, a Toys “R” Us pop-up that opened in 2011 in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood. Nevertheless, the pop-up shop remains popular among municipalities and nonprofits as a strategy for economic regeneration.33 Németh and Langhorst argue that the relatively low capital requirements of these temporary practices on vacant land can present business opportunities to those without the means to formally lease permanent space.34 Such projects can vary widely in scale, operating from the backs of vehicles, vacant storefronts, single plots, and even whole streets. PROXY, an initiative by an architecture firm in San Francisco, features a whole village of pop-up stores run by local businesses, including a coffee shop, a pizzeria, an ice cream stall, and a beer garden.35 The ability to quickly assemble and dissemble retail spaces also gives businesses the flexibility to respond to seasonal fluctuations in demand. In Memphis and Cleveland, vacant lots were transformed into a winter craft market and a winter wonderland, respectively.36 The latter incorporated a snow and ice installation, a winter forest, an ice skating rink, snowboard ramps, and a snowsuit fashion show in addition to shops, all of which were part of a strategy to create a marketable product and generate vibrancy. Incorporating such multiuse designs into temporary projects is common, as is the tendency for a single space to host multiple events over time. For example, Eco-interstice, a community garden in the Quartier Saint-Blaise of Paris, is alternatively used as a “marketplace, debating chamber, classroom, allotment, park, exhibition space, distribution center, theater, office, salon, and dining room.”37

Temporary Use, Lasting Benefits

A two-block area inhabited by food and retail vendors housed in temporary buildings constructed from recycled, gaily painted shipping containers.
Recycled shipping containers house food and retail vendors as part of Proxy, a two-block temporary use project in San Francisco.
Photo courtesy: Joseph Perez-Green
Temporary use, when successful, can rapidly and efficiently bring underutilized land into productive use, thereby reducing or removing many undesirable externalities. As low-cost and low-risk strategies, temporary projects can also respond quickly to changing conditions and demands — a particular advantage in many cities, where “political and economic conditions are uncertain, and cause a reluctance to enter potential long-term commitments, responsibilities, and liabilities.”38 For city administrators facing tight budgets, temporary use projects can be a cost-effective strategy for dealing with vacant land that yields rapid results.39

The experimentation and reversibility afforded by such temporary use practices can encourage a multilayered approach to land use. University City District (UCD), a neighborhood revitalization organization in Philadelphia, embraces this tactic with its 2011 project, the Porch. Built on a parking strip next to the city’s Amtrak station, the Porch is a heavily programmed plaza featuring colorful patio chairs and artist-designed planters. One key feature of the Porch has been regular monitoring of the number of visitors, favored uses, walking patterns, and other elements as a method of informing its future design. Based on the data collected, the space has been reshaped since its opening to include more public art, a kiosk with information on train departures and arrivals, and additional greenery.40 Prema Katari Gupta, UCD’s director of planning and economic development, says, “[T]hat’s the beauty of a lighter, quicker, cheaper project…it’s flexible and allows for layering and a gradual transition to permanence.”41

Evidence suggests that the temporary reactivation of underutilized land leads to eventual permanent use, another potential benefit of this planning strategy. Temporary uses, particularly when clustered in a specific locality, can alter existing identities for neighborhoods — or even create entirely new ones — that are attractive to investors.42 As Ethan Kent, vice president of Projects for Public Spaces, states, “[S]mall changes, sometimes built around minimum design and extensive programming, can spur momentum for larger, more permanent ones.”43 In many cases, this outcome results from experimentation with an alternative land use (or collection of uses) that defies those established under “traditional regulatory and planning systems…based on the perceived primacy of stable and certain environments for investment.”44 Németh and Langhorst argue that although cities may need time to fully adopt temporary strategies as a primary tool for generating economic growth, rapidly shrinking cities such as Detroit and Youngstown, Ohio might be more willing to experiment with such nontraditional approaches to relieve the problems caused by widespread vacancies.45

Temporary use projects can also benefit other stakeholders. Although the revenues generated through temporary use projects are unlikely to be significant, the owners of vacant land can benefit when temporary users undertake the potentially costly, time-consuming job of maintaining the land.46 Moreover, in instances where the land ultimately is returned to productive use, temporary uses can be a relatively low-risk strategy for generating otherwise unattainable long-term revenue.47 The local community can also benefit from temporary use projects. In addition to reducing the negative externalities caused by vacant land, temporary use projects typically empower marginalized communities by “instil[ling] in them a sense of participation in the creation of a ‘place.’”48 By encouraging public participation in the planning stages of temporary use projects, initiators can catalyze communities around common goals that serve local needs and create tangible outcomes.49

Potential Downfalls and Emerging Solutions

Although advocates have been quick to praise temporary urbanism, a number of academics have warned of potential drawbacks to the strategy. In places where temporary interventions have successfully empowered marginalized individuals and turned urban blight into a neighborhood asset, any attempt by a landowner or government authorities to reassert control over the site will likely be met with fierce resistance. In Philadelphia’s Point Breeze neighborhood, for example, a group of residents invested approximately $20,000 of community money as well as considerable time and effort to transform an empty plot into a small neighborhood park featuring planted trees, picnic benches, sidewalks, and fencing.50 However, when the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA), the legal owner of the property, became aware of the changes, it threatened the group with legal action unless the park was restored to its original state.51 In removing an obvious neighborhood asset, landowners and developers risk exacerbating the marginalization of the community and discourage residents from engaging in discourse about the development of their neighborhood.52 As Németh and Langhorst state, “[I]f temporary uses are suspended in favour of more profitable endeavours… [these] can become a liability in political terms of the displaced activities [of] the surrounding communities.”53

The risk of negative press or legal complications from such events may discourage developers from permitting temporary uses in the first place. A number of city governments are experimenting with policies that attempt to reverse this trend. For example, San Francisco prepared an ordinance in 2010 called the Green Development Agreement, which ensures the rights of developers to proceed with preapproved development plans provided that the land is made available for public use in the interim. This ordinance replaces a more cumbersome process in which developers were required to renew entitlements every 1 to 3 years, which put them at risk of modification.54 Other cities are following suit; in Buffalo, New York a new zoning code called the Green Code is specifically designed to encourage creative uses for vacant parcels, such as temporary urban gardens, movie screenings, and bocce courts.55 Chris Hawley, from Buffalo’s Office of Strategic Planning, states that “given the current economic climate, we see these [projects] as the highest and best use for now…the benefits have been much more dramatic than chasing after some corporate retailer. Sometimes the temporary can add much more than those kind[s] of so-called permanent efforts.”56

The Future of the “Temporary” in American Planning

As American cities continue to shift from centers of production to centers of consumption, the role of temporary initiatives, whether planned or unplanned, will increase in importance.In fact, the adoption of temporary strategies has been heralded by some as not simply a way to make productive use of vacant parcels but rather as a philosophy of city-making in itself; “a manifestation of a more dynamic, flexible and adaptive urbanism, where the city is becoming more responsive to new needs, demands, and preferences of its users.”57 The answers to a number of research questions in this emerging area of urban planning will therefore prove particularly valuable: What measures can governments take to encourage the development of temporary use projects? What types of temporary projects have the greatest economic, social, and cultural effects on their communities? How can planners respond to legal and liability issues to ensure productive and socially progressive temporary uses?58 And, finally, how do the underlying causes of vacancy — whether foreclosure or long-term structural decline — affect the success of a particular project? As case study evidence and research begin to answer these questions, more light will be shed on the ways in which temporary uses of vacant space in both the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt can help create cities that are lively, economically productive, and more equitable.

  1. Mark Byrnes. 2013. “When You Think of Flint, Michigan, Think of…Experimental Public Art?” 18 June The Atlantic Cities blog. Accessed 29 January 2014.
  2. “Flint Public Art Project: About.” Flint Public Art Project website (\about.html). Accessed 29 January 2014.
  3. Justin B. Hollander, Karina Pallagst, Terry Schwarz, and Frank J. Popper. 2009. “Planning Shrinking Cities,” 15.
  4. Peter Bishop and Lesley Williams. 2012. The Temporary City, London: Routledge, 5.
  5. Philipp Oswalt, Klaus Overmeyer, and Philipp Misselwitz. 2009. “Patterns of the Unplanned,” in Pop Up City, eds. Terry Schwarz and Steve Rugare. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, 7.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 5.
  8. Ibid., 5–6.
  9. Ibid., 6.
  10. Ibid., 10.
  11. Ibid., 11.
  12. Michael Southworth. 2014. “Public Life, Public Space, and the Changing Art of City Design,” Journal of Urban Design 19:1, 37.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Oswalt et al., 11. The illegal use of sites is an important exception to this rule.
  15. Ibid., 12.
  16. Ibid., 8.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Jeremy Németh and Joern Langhorst. Forthcoming. “Rethinking urban transformation: Temporary uses for vacant land,” Cities (, 2. Accessed 29 January 2014.
  19. Fran Tonkiss. 2013. “Austerity Urbanism and the Makeshift City,” City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action 17:3, 313.
  20. “Electric Roller DiscoTech,” Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative website ( Accessed 29 January 2014.
  21. David Lepeska. 2012. “The Rise of the Temporary City,” 1 May The Atlantic Cities blog. Accessed 29 January 2014.
  22. Cathy Lang Ho. 2010. “Hold This Site,” 24 May Architect blog. Accessed 29 January 2014.
  23. Charles C. Branas, Rose A. Cheney, John M. MacDonald, Vicky W. Tam, Tara D. Jackson, and Thomas R. Ten Have. 2011. “A Difference-in-Differences Analysis of Health, Safety, and Greening Vacant Urban Space,” American Journal of Epidemiology 174:11, 1300.
  24. Adrien Schless-Meier. 2013. “K(no)w Vacancy: From NY to PA, Urban Land Maps Support Reclaiming Abandoned Lots,” 26 July Local Eats blog. Accessed 29 January 2014.
  25. Németh and Langhorst, 7.
  26. Sean Burkholder. 2012. “The New Ecology of Vacancy: Rethinking Land Use in Shrinking Cities,” Sustainability 4:6, 1166.
  27. Sarah Goodyear. 2013. “A 140-Acre Forest Is About to Materialize in the Middle of Detroit,” 25 October The Atlantic Cities blog. Accessed 29 January 2014.
  28. Németh and Langhorst, 7.
  29. Goodyear 2013.
  30. JoAnn Greco. 2012. “From Pop-Up to Permanent,” Planning 78:9, 15–6.
  31. Flint Public Art Project website ( Accessed 29 January 2014.
  32. Sarah Goodyear. 2013. “This Might Be The Most Impressive Pop-Up Park We’ve Ever Seen,” 19 July The Atlantic Cities blog. Accessed 29 January 2014.
  33. Allison Arieff. 2011. “Temporary Is the New Permanent,” 16 September The Atlantic Cities blog. Accessed 29 January 2014.
  34. Németh and Langhorst, 6.
  35. Arieff.
  36. Greco, 18.
  37. Tonkiss, 317.
  38. Németh and Langhorst, 4.
  39. Ibid., 5.
  40. Greco, 18.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Oswalt et al., 12.
  43. Greco, 16.
  44. Németh and Langhorst, 4.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Ibid., 6.
  47. Oswalt et al., 11.
  48. Németh and Langhorst, 6.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Nate Berg. 2012. “The Tricky Politics of Vacant Lots,” 24 September The Atlantic Cities blog. Accessed 29 January 2014.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Unpublished manuscript by Joern Langhorst, cited in Németh and Langhorst, 6.
  53. Németh and Langhorst, 6.
  54. Lang Ho.
  55. Greco, 17.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Bishop and Williams.
  58. Hollander et al., 16.


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