Finding Opportunity in Leftover Urban Spaces

Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities / (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

In Local Code, Nicholas de Monchaux pushes us to assign new value to forgotten pieces of our urban fabric – the dead-end alley, the vacant corner lot; infrastructure’s leftovers. While many cities deem vacant parcels as unusable remnants of development, Local Code makes the case for aggregating them to build urban resilience.

To visualize the opportunities, de Monchaux, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley, uses data on vacant public land in four cities – San Francisco; Los Angeles; Venice, Italy; and New York City. He then translates the data into a series of diagrams and drawings that show the scale and types of these dormant landscapes.

Flow diagram of proposed interventions, San Francisco case study / Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Additional proposals, San Francisco case study / Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

In San Francisco, for example, what the city’s department of public works refers to as “unaccepted streets” – right-of-ways the city does not maintain — make up the equivalent surface area to Golden Gate Park (over 1,000 acres). New York and Los Angeles have “underutilized parcels.” Los Angeles also has space under billboards, while Venice has a “lagoon” of abandoned islands.

De Monchaux highlights what he calls the “institutional invisibility” of these spaces, showing how they coincide with higher levels of household poverty, urban heat islands, crime, and asthma. Then, de Monchaux shows how bioswales, drought-tolerant planting, and porous paving could help reduce these problem areas.

Intervention for vacant parcel, New York City case study / Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

The result is a multitude of diagrams and drawings that demonstrate a scope of opportunities, rather than predetermined results. By addressing sites where these issues are most acute, de Monchaux argues that cities can build a spatial network to improve environmental circulation and function of urban ecosystems, which can even help cities spend more wisely on public works.

Proposals also focus on intertwined social issues. In New York City, where as de Monchaux notes, there have been many resiliency-related rebuilding efforts since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but most of which haven’t focused on improving quality of life in low-income neighborhoods. De Monchaux writes: “Combining stormwater and heat-island mediation with the creation of shared public space, the investment proposed here is one equally focused on the everyday resilience of communities as in episodic resilience to disaster.”

Vacant alley at 1717 Lincoln Place, New York City case study / From Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Scattered between the case studies are essays about the lives and professional contributions of three key figures – artist Gordon Matta-Clark, urban theorist Jane Jacobs, and architect Howard Fisher. In recalling these stories, Local Code acknowledges the painstaking data collection efforts of visionaries in urban design before the instant gratification of geographic information systems (GIS), which makes possible the book’s 3,659 proposals.

These essays make up a substantial portion of the text and give Local Code a character-driven quality to an otherwise data-heavy book. De Monchaux acknowledges in the introduction that “an abundance of data is not knowledge.” To that end, the historical essays give context on how cities function and adapt in response to environmental and social change.

To fully grasp Monchaux’s planning and design proposals may require experience in design, or at least visual communication, but the historical essays speak to a broader audience interested in cities, as does the optimistic approach to vacant parcels. Ultimately, Local Code encourages us to read between the lines, or buildings, and see new opportunities in forgotten spaces.

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