Vacant Lots Can Catalyze Positive Change

At Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, a conference in New York City hosted by the City Parks Alliance, Nate Berg, a staff writer for The Atlantic Cities moderated a session that explored approaches for dealing with vacant urban land. Through sensitive design, a number of panelists who are working around the world explained, vacant sites can become catalyze positive change.

According to Tamar Shapiro, Senior Director of Urban and Social Policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States,  Germany has undertaken a number of successful strategies for dealing with vacancies stemming from deindustrialization in Germany.

The City of Leipzig, located in eastern Germany, (seen above) experienced a complete industrial collapse after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Rapid suburbanization and migration to the west led to a drastic loss of population, resulting in massive vacancy rates across the city. In 2000, Leipzig had an overall vacancy rate of 20 percent, and many neighborhoods had vacancy rates of over 50 percent.

To address these vacancies, Leipzig employed a strategy where the city would enter into 10-year contracts with property owners to temporarily reuse vacant land as green space. Citing numerous examples, Shapiro made the point that while temporary, these green spaces were carefully designed and strategically located. She argued that in order for a park to help turn a neighborhood around, it cannot simply be a lawn. Instead, the park must be professionally designed. By heavily investing in the design of these parks, Leipzig has seen dramatic reinvestment in many of its urban neighborhoods.

Heather McMann, Executive Director of Groundwork Lawrence, spoke about her organization’s efforts to improve the City of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Vibrant but economically distressed, Lawrence has long been a gateway community. Most recently it has been a destination for immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Once a thriving mill town, de-industrialization has left Lawrence with significant vacant properties. McMann described how Groundwork Lawrence led to the development of the Spicket River Greenway Plan, “helping the community achieve the dual goals of riverfront restoration and neighborhood revitalization.”

Several components of the greenway have been successfully built so far, including the redevelopment of an abandoned mill site as Dr. Nina Scarito Park. McMann explained the success of these projects depended on extensive collaboration with multiple community and governmental organizations.

Walter Meyer, Founding Principal of Local Office Landscape and Urban Design, spoke about his work on Parque del Litoral, in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. Given the river was turned into a concrete channel and the creek buried, this urban waterfront site contained seven stormsewer outfalls that sent the city’s runoff and sewage directly into the Caribbean Sea. To address these issues, Local Office analyzed virgin rivers in undeveloped areas of northeastern Puerto Rico. Meyer described how this exercise was not about nostalgia; instead, their goal was to replicate the performance of these virgin rivers in an urban context. Local Office observed several critical river systems such as meandering curves, tree roots, and dunes. Applied to Parque del Litoral, Local Office’s design employs an extensive system of terraced plantings (filled with phytoremediating plants that remove toxins) to filter stormwater, protected by a new system of dunes. Developed as part of the preparation for Mayaguez’s hosting of the 2010 Central American Games, many elements of Parque del Litoral are designed to be repurposed and reused. For instance, parking areas for the Central American Games can be converted into a variety of uses including garden plots, sports facilities, and playgrounds.

Meyer also discussed his work on Miami Grand Central Park. Located on the old Miami Heat Arena site, the park is built on a 2 – 3 year lease and is therefore a potentially temporary use. The park is designed for maximum flexibility, allowing program to change quickly to generate revenue. Meyer described how it can contain a farmers market in the morning, accept overflow parking during the day, and host film screenings and concerts at night. Designed to be inexpensively built and maintained, the park utilizes a rainwater collection system for irrigation. Despite its temporary nature, the park has been the site of numerous concerts and social events, and is already starting to have a transformational effect on its surrounding neighborhood.

Throughout all the presentations, the benefits of temporary uses came up repeatedly. Tamar Shapiro explained that short-term leases and temporary uses allow for real flexibility, a critical quality in areas where the futures of vacant lots are unclear. As demonstrated in Leipzig and Miami, these potentially temporary parks can provide tremendous benefits to their communities, even if they are not necessarily permanent works.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) City of Leipzig / Permaculture and Regenerative Design News, (2) Groundwork Lawrence / Hammer + Walsh Design Inc, (3-4) Local Office Landscape and Urban Design

2 thoughts on “Vacant Lots Can Catalyze Positive Change

  1. ca 07/19/2012 / 11:14 pm

    They should be made to be permanent then that way the community and surrounding neighborhoods will have green space in the ever increasing laying of asphalt! Community gardens or why not bamboo tree stations as air filters as well. They remove toxins relating to smoking.

  2. jotaro 07/22/2012 / 8:29 pm

    great post – temporary landscapes have been something i have been exploring the last couple of years, so it’s great to see it get more attention. don’t suppose there’s any recordings (video or otherwise) of any of the speakers featured?

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