Temporary Can Still Be Valuable

Richard Florida, the innovative thinker about cities, once said that economic development is about the hundreds and thousands of small things done at the local level. In a few examples of those small things that together have a big impact, Marisa Novara, Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), brought out a set of fascinating temporary projects that show how to make vibrant, valuable places in the left-over spaces in between buildings, in all those vacant, abandoned lots that dot cities. At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago, winners of MPC’s “Placemaking Chicago” contest explained their approaches to DIY urbanism.

Novara learned that rehabilitating buildings “takes a long time. There are lots of professionals involved. Lots of financing is needed.” So, given all the hassle, there must be better options. Novara said that “just because there’s a vacant space, it doesn’t mean there has to be a building there.” She believes that those space in between buildings, particularly those with iffy property ownership situations, can be used as temporary public spaces. “Temporary can still be valuable.”

To find out how communities in the broader Chicagoland are using spaces in a temporary fashion, her group launched a contest. Submissions could be projects that just popped-up over a weekend, or could be semi-permanent. Some 46 entries were received, with the majority from Chicago. Navaro said the broad categories of projects sent in were vacant building transformations, “vacant concrete transformations,” programming, and community gardens / farms. A jury picked winning projects, while more than 11,000 public voters picked the people’s choice award.

One project turned a vacant Border’s store into a writers’ workshop and local gallery. Another turned vacant concrete into a parklet. Lots and lots of community gardens were created. Interestingly, Novara said some went “far beyond getting together to grow vegetables. There was a continuum of engagement.” A few examples were explored in detail, by the actual people who put together the gardens.

Avers Community Garden 

Karen Trout said the Avers Community Garden (see video above), which received an honorable mention in the competition, has transformed an “impoverished neighborhood.” In a dead-end street filled with lots of “bad activities,” Trout and her group reclaimed the block with a new community space cherished by all its neighbors. The church-owned space had been vacant for more than 20 years. Exploring how to purchase the space, Trout found there was no one to be found so they “ventured out with the idea that if we turn the space into something productive, perhaps we can own it later.” This is because Chicago actually has a program that turns over vacant land to people who maintain it and use it productively. Her team found a fence on Craigslist, added flower beds, and a track for bikes for the neighborhood’s kids. Removing garbage, they also added mulch, a pavilion, and picnic tables. The space is now used for “parties, family get-togethers, and gardening.” A wall was painted with the text, “Something good grows in the ‘Hood.” Trout said the idea behind the sign, and really the garden overall, was to “reclaim the space with positive energy. This helps displace all the negative energy.”

An adorable local middle schooler, Deanna Shields, showed a photo of herself playing and said “this was me 6 years ago.” Last summer, she became one of the guidance counselors, helped in the garden, and took training classes. She took compost and planting workshops (8 hour classes). She made the point that “children don’t like to see vacant unproductive spaces either.”

Laura Michel, Lawndale Christian Health Center, another garden founder, said the community garden has gotten a lot of positive attention from other blocks in the neighborhood. “Everyone wants to know about it.” But, perhaps counter-intuitively, once the garden got into the press, including local TV, “bad activities,” including drug dealing and late-night trysts, started to happen in the garden. To fight criminals in the garden, the whole block came out and met there for an emergency meeting in “the dark and rain.” Some 30-40 people decided to take turns watching the space, day and night. A fence donated by Home Depot also helped secure the space. Slowly, over time the neighborhood reclaimed the space, once again.

Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm

The Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm in Logan Square won the popular vote, said Margaret Hartmann, the force of nature behind the project. She said the lot had been vacant for 30 years, but found that the owner was open to using the space for art and food (at least, until he moves to Florida, which he threatens to do every year). Hartmann said the organic food movement is great but “not everyone can afford to go to Whole Foods.” So to access to healthy foods, they decided to create a “corner” garden because they believe every community should have  a corner garden like they have a corner store. Opening the garden also boosted the amount of  public green space in a place with nearly the lowest per-capita green space in Chicago. Bringing in local activists and artists, Hartmann’s team created big sweeping forms — berms — along with raised planting beds to avoid the lead in the existing soils. They purposefully left it “open access,” without fences, so anyone in the neighborhood can gain entry.

The garden itself has evolved over time. Gardeners grow vegetables collectively, which are then turned over to the local food pantry. Herb gardens are available to all, because “Whole Foods charges a ridiculous prices for herbs.” There’s an educational program for kids, with treasure hunts to “find the sunflowers.” Their goal is to bridge “social, cultural, generational gaps.”

Brienne Callahan, a co-creator of Altgeld farm, said gang activity was a big problem in the neighborhood in the past, but the garden has helped end the problem, at least in their block. Citing the “broken windows” theory of crime prevention, which posits that “if something doesn’t look well cared for, people won’t care about it,” she said adding green space people do care about has made the community safer. “It’s open 24 hours a day and there are no drug dealers there.” Still, the neighborhood, which has one of the hottest real estate markets in the U.S., is gentrifying, so there are other issues: rents are rising and a growing share of the community faces daily food insecurity.

Since winning the popular vote, there’s been rapid growth in the number of volunteers, particularly among those 6-8 blocks from the garden, and the team is scaling up and starting other temporary gardens on other sites (some of which they hope will become permanent). In another garden they’ve set up, they are exploring a new model: gardeners get to grow vegetables in one plot for themselves if they also grow one for the food pantry.

Climb, Jump, Leap, Imagine

This amazing project won best in show from MPC. This is because this model really should be replicated in as many other places as possible. According to Stephanie Morris, a local high school student who was involved in putting it together, “we got to use power tools.” Smiling, she said, “we built a table.” Stephanie wasn’t alone in this work. A team of middle and high school girls were collected by Katherine Darnstadt, a Chicago architect and urban designer, and set loose on the community to gather feedback about what to do about an abandoned, derelict lot between some buildings in south side Chicago. Morris said “lots of people gave opinions. Hundreds of people gave input on slips of paper.”

Based on the community feedback, Darnstadt and the girls decided to create a playground called “Switzerland in Chicago,” a peaceful, “neutral” space where everyone can come. “It’s a place where people can relax.” In a community with a lot of drugs and violence, more neutral spaces are what’s needed. The girls used their “science and math skills” to create the playground design, with mountain peaks made of rope, and decks around the site. “Someone gave us $20 dollars so we decided to do a fundraiser.” The girls eventually brought in $250 for new benches. Morris said this was quite a feat since “people in this neighborhood have to hustle to make $2 a day.”

Once the neighborhood saw that the girls were out there designing and building something, word got around. Harold, a local out-of-work carpenter, provided advice, while the aptly named Big Ron “helped with the muscle work.” Roy helped “because he could.”

Darnstadt said the project helped change perceptions about what youth can do. “Teenage girls with power tools can do that.” Given the sight of girls asking for feedback on a vacant lot must have seemed so wild, the project stimulated a lot of community engagement and got many participating in the design process. Darnstadt laughed and said “wherever there are girls that age, there are boys.” The boys later brought it men to help. Given “there were all sorts of egos, with people aged 13 to 80 participating, everyone became a great psychologist.” The “soft sell” from the girls worked, with the labor done by the community. The result: a fantastic space built to withstand Chicago’s winters and that can be easily moved to a new abandoned lot.

Just to note: Darnstadt actually put her girls through an intensive two-week urban design “bootcamp,” with courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, public health, and design-build. Each day, a different professional came in and explained their role in the design process, starting with a researcher and moving all the way through the process. Darnstadt also recommended using IDEO’s Human centered design toolkit to teach “empathy and how to capture authentic input.”

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