Economic Development

Post-Disaster New Zealand Finds Use for Vacant Spaces

A town destroyed by two earthquakes shows U.S. states and cities what they can do with areas decimated by natural disasters.
by | February 2013
One vacant space in Christchurch, New Zealand, was turned into a cycle-powered cinema last year. (Photo: Gap Filler)
 

On a mild evening in May 2011 in Christchurch, New Zealand, a group of 150 teenagers crowded together in a downtown venue for a concert featuring local bands. The event seemed like any typical night out in the largest city on New Zealand's south island. In fact, the gathering was far from ordinary. For many of the teens, the concert marked their first foray into the city since a pair of quakes in September 2010 and February 2011 leveled nearly all of downtown Christchurch. And the venue -- an empty lot temporarily equipped with a stage and other necessities like refreshment stands and bathrooms -- was far from a hip music club.

The event was one of the many projects executed by a program called Gap Filler, which seeks to find temporary uses for Christchurch's many vacant spaces. The organization, which is funded through grants and private donations, kicked off its first project in November 2010 with a garden cafe and outdoor theater at the former site of a restaurant. Since then, Gap Filler has found quirky uses for more than a dozen spots around town -- turning vacant lots and empty buildings into art galleries, retail shops and even, in one case, a sauna.

Coralie Winn, a co-founder of Gap Filler, says that the organization's projects have provided the locals a respite from the drudgeries of the slow rebuilding process after the earthquakes. "It was the first thing that was a positive, that people could see something real taking place," she says. "It gave people a sense of hope and excitement."

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Gap Filler isn't a public-sector project, but there's no reason cities everywhere couldn't replicate the formula. Finding temporary uses for spaces awaiting redevelopment is a rising trend in the U.S., where pop-up stores and art installations are growing in popularity. "The idea is that any use is better than no use," says Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. "From the standpoint of a shopper, a place is better than a nonplace."

That's the thinking in Washington, D.C., where the city government is pursuing temporary creative uses for the campus of the former St. Elizabeth's Hospital, which has long been slated for redevelopment. The historic site in the city's southeast quadrant is being redeveloped in phases, but in the meantime officials want to put it to better use. The city hired a developer to construct a temporary pavilion to host a variety of endeavors, including lunchtime food vendors and evening concerts. In addition to providing new retail to a traditionally underserved section of D.C., the $5 million pavilion allows the city to build and test a market for a permanent project. "It's attracting partners that will ultimately make this site successful," says project manager Ethan Warsh.

A coordinated approach to pop-ups could be especially beneficial in places, like Christchurch, that are recovering from a natural disaster. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, artist Candy Chang turned vacant New Orleans buildings into community posting boards and gathering spaces. Winn says projects like Gap Filler could work well in cities in New York and New Jersey that were decimated by Hurricane Sandy. "After a disaster, the need for this kind of thing is 100,000 times stronger," she says. "It is very symbolic to use spaces that until recently used to be someoneís home or business. I think this could absolutely be used all over the world."

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