Repurposing spaces left vacant by COVID-19 could breathe new life into cities, says researcher

Art Lab, a free public space for artists that occupies a vacant storefront in the Old Town district of Fort Collins, Colorado, is an example of how

Art Lab, a free public space for artists that occupies a vacant storefront in the Old Town district of Fort Collins, Colorado, is an example of how “reactivating” empty spaces can benefit both building owners and the community, according to a U of A researcher. (Photo: Art Lab)

In the wake of economic fallout from COVID-19, urban centres could see a sharp increase in abandoned spaces as some businesses are forced to close.

But vacant space doesn’t have to sit idle, according to a research associate with the University of Alberta’s Wirth Institute. If managed properly, it could spark a cultural revival of sorts, said Jim Morrow, who co-wrote a practical guide for urban planners called Activating Space along with urban geographer and Tory Chair Rob Shields.

“Activated spaces give back to communities by accommodating social uses that bring people together, ” said Morrow, who describes himself as an environmental sociologist.

“They are places where people can provide for each other,” bringing the neighbourhood back to life. “When people gather, they have adventures, form relationships, innovate and build resilience,” he said.

An exterior “meanwhile” lot might accommodate a pocket park or community garden. A retail space could house a social worker “who only needs a desk and a couple of chairs,” said Morrow, adding former bars and taverns could be turned into youth clubs.

“They’re already zoned to make noise, and accommodate a large community presence.

“It just takes a willingness to negotiate between community members, property owners and the city. Each side has to be open.”

Even when used temporarily as “meanwhile spaces” until a commercial use becomes viable, reactivated spaces build community, encouraging “behaviours or actions that break from everyday routine, promote a sense of social belonging, a cultural rather than commercial kind of use,” he said.

The principles behind Activating Space are rooted in the German concept of Gemütlichke, meaning warmth, friendliness and good cheer.

“‘Comfort when amongst other people’ is really the best translation,” said Morrow. “We know that a good city or a great city is built on strong social connections.”

Abandoned warehouses could offer multiple uses, benefiting larger numbers of people—for drama troupes to rehearse, for artists to set up studios or as event venues, he said.

“In every place I’ve lived, I’ve been involved in versions of reactivating space,” said Morrow, who was educated in Germany and the U.K., and has witnessed some dramatic transformations.

Examples

One of the most successful examples is Sheffield, England, where Morrow spent years growing up. The former industrial city was for centuries famous for its steel mills, producing half the world’s cutlery.

During Margaret Thatcher’s de-industrialization program in the 1980s, however, Sheffield fell on hard times as the mills closed, throwing huge numbers of people out of work. The city responded by transforming its warehouses, called the “Works,” into artists’ studios and concert venues.

“In their second life, the city’s many Works became crucibles of culture,” producing, among other things, multiple hit albums, including Human League’s Dare and Pulp’s Different Class, said Morrow.

“In its darkest moment, when unemployment was roughly 40 per cent, you have this Full Monty situation, generating nothing but number-one records,” he said, referring to the hit movie set in Sheffield during de-industrialization.

“It wasn’t just angry youth. It was angry youth with all the space in the world.”

Morrow also points to successful examples of space reactivation in Germany, Belgium, Cuba, South Africa, Ecuador, Denmark, China and the United States.

“There’s tons of empty spaces always available, and they’re meant for public use.

They’re already code verified, and the fire warden doesn’t mind a certain number of people in them.”

In Montreal, about one in six retail units lie vacant, he said. In London, England, more than 20,000 properties currently sit empty, “and the number is rising.”

In Edmonton, the housing vacancy rate dropped to roughly one in 30 in January, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which estimates those numbers will rise to 1 in 20 in the wake of COVID-19.

Roughly one in six businesses are currently unused, according to city planners, often with spaces of more than 2,500 square feet.

Enterprise Square is a prime example of vacant space, said Morrow. With the library gone, more than three-quarters of its ground floor is available for reuse, including space formerly devoted to the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Those vacancies are likely to increase in coming months. The Edmonton Journal reported in April that an Edmonton Chamber of Commerce survey revealed nearly half of Edmonton businesses expect to permanently close as a result of COVID-19.

15-minute municipalities

Beyond social cohesion, reactivating space can also help to reduce one of the most inefficient byproducts of development—urban sprawl.

“It bothers me that it takes an entire day to run all your errands, when 50 years ago you could do it within 15 minutes from your front door, and have time to talk to a neighbour,” said Morrow.

Aiming to recapture that urban lifestyle of the past, Paris has recently designed a 15-minute inner city, he said, and plans to eventually transform the entire city into smaller 15-minute municipalities.

For the past two decades, many cities have favoured new development over reuse, he said, designing spaces primarily for rent extraction, real estate speculation and transportation.

“The neglect of community needs has intensified inequality. Cities are for transactions these days, and we’ve lost the trust communities are built on.

“Thinking more creatively about reusing space fosters a culture of experimentation and innovation,” said Morrow.

Activating Space has so far been offered up to the Strathcona Business Association in Edmonton.

“After COVID-19, it is possible that half of the storefronts on Whyte and Jasper avenues may sit empty,” said Morrow. “These are places that already had a large number of vacancies and a lot of turnover.”

City planners are also using it to help rehabilitate the Rossdale Power Plant.

The guide has also been used by planners in Australia, Germany and a few other places, said Morrow.

“For many, the biggest barrier to testing ideas or finding purpose is a lack of a place where they can engage a community at large.

“All it takes is co-operation, social partnership and a willingness from property owners and city officials to open doors.”

/University of Alberta Release. View in full here.