Empty Lot Syndrome

Cities explore temporary uses for vacant lots.
by | February 2010

Cities don't like vacant lots. While some are turned into parking lots, others, trash-strewn and surrounded by chain-link fences, look like scars on the landscape. At their worst, they accentuate the perception of urban blight.

In boom times, vacant lots are mostly a short-term issue that disappears when developers arrive. But with the sagging economy, the vacant city lot problem has grown considerably, affecting even the most robust urban environments, including New York City; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; and Boston.

The problem's particularly bad for cities that have struggled even in the best of times; they're now covered with vacant lots as development stalls and commercial and residential foreclosures make a bad situation even worse. The typical large city has 15 percent of its land sitting vacant or abandoned, according to the National Vacant Properties Campaign.

But the days when a lot stood empty until a developer moved in are ending. A movement called temporary urbanism is filling the void, turning blighted lots into instant parks, outdoor markets, short-term retail outlets and event locations.

Nationwide, examples of temporary urbanism abound, but there's no better place to look than Cleveland, where urban designers, public officials and activists are revitalizing vacant land and buildings. Last year, in the city's Industrial Flats section, which has been on the cusp of renewal only to see plans sputter out, a group called Pop-Up City held an event on vacant property that drew hundreds in midwinter.

Terry Schwarz, an urban planner with the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, one of Pop-Up City's partners, describes her approach to temporary urbanism as short-term, high-impact efforts to draw public attention to underutilized areas. "Temporary use of vacant lots is not a new concept," she says. "What's new is the idea of harnessing the power of a temporary event or use of empty space on a large scale."

For some, the goal is to fill an empty space with something attractive, inexpensive and clearly temporary. On the whole, the hope is to draw people's attention to the potential for these vacant sites and for urban life overall. The more adventurous urban designers see the vacant spaces as a blank canvas on which to test new ideas for urban living. The goal's to look beyond temporary use, beyond the next big development project and to engage the public about their city's future, which is changing, even shrinking.

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