Friday, February 05, 2010

The Wasted Spaces of Bureaucratic Amnesia

Since writing my last post about the opportunities of empty lots in our city, I've come across a couple of other articles on the subject. Funny how this idea is cropping up different places simultaneously.

Although I've been thinking about this for a while, this article by the editor of Governing magazine is what motivated me to finally write about it. The article suggests trying lots of different, temporary uses for the nation's proliferating empty and abandoned lots, in a sort of urban laboratory. But the most striking part of the piece was this sentence: "The typical large city has 15 percent of its land sitting vacant or abandoned, according to the National Vacant Properties Campaign."

This is nuts - especially when we consider that most large cities also have real estate that sells for millions of dollars an acre. This is a clear indication that we have some serious market failures interfering with things. All this land could be used for jobs, or housing, or parks. But as long as they lie fallow, our cities are going to suffer from more income disparity, crime, homelessness, budget cuts, unemployment, and environmental problems than necessary.

I found the Governing article via a Twitter post from, a newish urban-issues blog from London that looks very promising. If you enjoy The Vigorous North, you should check it out.

Finally, the same day I published my post, the excellent Opinionator blog on ran a similar post from architectural critic Alison Arieff. Her piece, "Space: It's Still A Frontier," talks about how Geographic Information Systems are giving cities new tools for identifying and inventorying the empty lots and in-between spaces that have been filed away and forgotten in the bureaucratic purgatory of City Halls. She writes:
"Neglected at the local level because they neither provide nor generate revenue, these sites are markers of larger patterns of neglect (much as we’re seeing with homes abandoned to foreclosure). In San Francisco, they often outline the shape of entire, mostly lower income neighborhoods like Hunter’s Point, Bayview and the Outer Mission. Abandoned by traditional development, such areas are precisely those in need of ecological and social attention."
Arieff also profiles an architecture school project in Berkeley called "Local Code," which has culled forgotten places from a San Francisco city database and proposes "a systemic re-greening of leftover pavement space on a large scale."

Empty lots in San Francisco, courtesy of Nicholas de Monchaux. Via the New York Times Opinionator blog.

The professor leading this project, Nicholas de Monchaux, and his students found 1,625 distinct sites throughout San Francisco - various overgrown lots and informal parking lots with "a combined surface area of more than half of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park."

This in a city that might have the nation's most acute need for affordable and middle-class housing - unbelievable.

De Monchaux repeated the exercise in other big cities:
“When we examined all the leftover spaces in San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, Minneapolis — we found the same thing to be true in every city,” de Monchaux says. “You had a whole archipelago of city-owned lots lying fallow. In New York they add up to the size of Central Park and Prospect Park together. It’s a massive untapped resource that’s impossible to visualize without these contemporary tools.”
Granted, these empty and forgotten spaces can be really interesting as they are, as tiny refuges for urban wildlife and inner-city forest succession. That doesn't mean they couldn't be improved, though, and put to a better use while also enhancing their value as inner-city habitat - even if we redevelop some of them for new housing or space for businesses, which are critical components of urban habitat in their own right. De Monchaux's project actually calls for transforming San Francisco's forgotten lots into neighborhood-scale environmental infrastructure: small greenspaces designed to capture stormwater, clean the air, and reduce the heat-island effect.

As much as I love visiting abandoned places like these, I'm discouraged at the staggering scale of their proliferation. The fact that we've forgotten 15% of the landscapes in which billions of us live and work every day testifies to a general attitude of environmental neglect in our cities. Environmentalism calls for us to embrace a sense of stewardship and responsibility for our landscapes; these places owe their existence to a complete absence of stewardship or responsibility. It's the polar opposite of Aldo Leopold's land ethic.

We need to do better.

1 comment:

James V. Hillegas said...

You've written a thought-provoking post on a timely topic.

As a resident of The Other Portland, I thought I'd bring your attention to two initiatives here to identify and make some use of vacant lots in our city:

** The Diggable City project to inventory and prioritize vacant lots potentially suitable for urban agriculture, community gardens, etc.

depave, "created to inspire and promote the removal of unnecessary concrete and asphalt from urban areas."

Solutions need to be found, for sure!