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From Pop-Ups to Park Benches

The empty lot, the alleyway, the no-mans-land between other uses…most urban neighborhoods have at least one of those spaces, where there is nothing going on and people don’t feel safe. They may be abandoned by absentee owners, awaiting development that is yet to come, or just the result of awkward planning, but they don’t have to be dead zones in the middle of your community. Here are five ways to enliven those empty spaces and add vitality to your neighborhood:

1. Plant a garden
Neighbors in Philadelphia banded together to clean up a weed- and trash-strewn vacant lot that was being used for illegal drug activity and creating a nuisance in the Kensington neighborhood. With assistance from New Kensington CDC, Impact Services and Philadelphia LISC, residents cleared weeds, picked up trash and planted a community garden. Now the space used for neighbors’ gatherings and children’s activities. Residents work together to maintain the space and keep it free of trash and weeds and they have set their sights on other vacant lots nearby. Learn more about gardening in vacant lots with guides from Detroit and Pittsburgh.

Neighbors in Philadelphia plant a community garden

Philadelphia LISC

 2. Host events
The West Broadway Business and Area Coalition in North Minneapolis worked with the city and neighboring business owners to turn a small grassy lot adjacent to a strip of shops into Freedom Square, where they host musicians, movie nights and other community events. The organization built a “magic shed,” a pod that can be opened and used as a food counter, folded out into a stage or closed up and used as a movie screen. Adding activity has turned the lot from a blank space to a community hub and given the neighborhood a place and a reason to gather.

3. Add street furniture
The simple addition of a bench or a table and chairs can encourage people to see a space as usable when it might have been overlooked or even intimidating before. Furniture encourages neighbors to spend time in a space. The Better Block Foundation’s Wikiblock offers plans for benches, tables, chairs that can be downloaded for free, cut from sheets of plywood and snapped together without glue or nails.

4. Bring in a market
San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood is home to many immigrant-owned entrepreneurs and micro-businesses. Seeking a way to give these business owners a venue to sell their wares, the City Heights Economic Development Collaborative with assistance from LISC San Diego launched Fair@44 in a vacant lot along the El Cajon Boulevard retail corridor. The weekly market serves as an incubator for micro-businesses and brings activity to the vacant space until such time as it can be redeveloped.

Fair@44 enlivens a formerly empty lot

LISC San Diego

 5. Create a pop-up park
Pop-up parks are usually intended to activate spaces temporarily, for a week, a day or even a few hours. They are often associated with reclaiming streets or parking spaces for car-free use, but are equally effective in vacant lots or unused sidewalk spaces created by wide building setbacks or irregularly-shaped intersections. Creating a pop-up park can be as simple as setting up setting out a few chairs, tables and potted plants and as complex as installing permanent benches, planters, artwork and lighting. Check out this guide for advice on planning (and permitting) the latter.

The beauty of interventions like these is that they do not require the level of investment that a construction project would and they offer a way to make the empty space an asset rather than a detriment to your community, even in the absence of large-scale revitalization activity. They generally are temporary uses of space and can easily make way for other uses once an investor comes along to revitalize the space permanently. So gather your neighbors, spread the word and get inspired to activate the empty spaces in your community.

For more inspiration, see 101 Small Ways You Can Improve Your City, the Tactical Urbanism Guide and 5 Steps to Activating Your Neighborhood This Weekend.

Posted in Commercial Corridors, Arts & Culture: Physical Transformation, Implementing, Community Safety

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