The New Environmental Frontier

It Isn’t Space. It’s the Inner City.
Lately the concept of “interim uses” has begun to receive a lot of attention. It’s a wonky phrase most often uttered by scholars and city-hall bureaucrats. Nevertheless, it represents a dynamic set of ideas about how cities can become more sustainable, even in the face of a recession.

As I have written before, a convergence of factors—including deindustrialization, the rise of suburbs and, most recently, the mortgage crisis—has emptied many inner-city neighborhoods. These were once colorful, diverse, dense communities that lent cities their defining urbanity. Think of the New Orleans wards or Chicago enclaves where distinct classes and ethnicities rubbed elbows. Too many of those neighborhoods are now ghost towns.

So what should mayors do with all this space? In a phrase, “interim uses” refers to the possibilities, from pop-up markets to community gardens to Occupy encampments.

Activists, artists and entrepreneurs have converged to claim the emptiness as what it is: an unprecedented opportunity. Land hasn’t been this cheap in many cities for more than a century. Why not start a business, plant a garden, build a park? The inner city is America’s new frontier.

I am constantly looking for creative ways that people have reclaimed empty buildings and space. Here are a few favorites from Chicago. I hope you’ll email me with examples of your own.

Urban agriculture is the great beneficiary of urban decline. In addition to the many community gardens planted on vacant lots, more than a few old buildings have been repurposed for agriculture. For the last year, I’ve been watching as a seven-acre truck depot morphs into a farm. And a former sausage factory—dubbed, simply, The Plant—has turned into a “vertical” farm with room for fish tanks, grow lights, brewery and worm business.

Pop-up businesses have also taken advantage of the slumping real-estate market. In my neighborhood, a collective called the SHoP rotates among empty storefronts, where it hosts a writers’ group, screens films and offers carpentry lessons.

• Disused buildings can prove attractive canvases for young artists. Take, for instance, a photo-mural project called See Potential, the brainchild of a young photographer named Emily Schiffer. Funded by Kickstarter pledges, she will erect black-and-white murals as big as billboards on vacant buildings.

• Combining existing trees and new plantings, informal orchards like this one have sprouted.

• Seeking to make a political statement, more than one group has installed homeless families in foreclosed houses.

• Even big-name artists have piled on. Last summer, the Dave Matthews Band Caravan held concerts on the site of an old steel mill.

In addition to their cultural and economic benefits, these efforts also make great environmental sense. They recycle existing buildings and space. They bring people, fresh food, culture and dollars to the city core—its densest, most efficient district. They might even attract new residents, thereby slowing the tide of suburbanization.

The big question is this: Which, if any, of these activities will survive when property values finally begin to rise again? Will these provisional institutions (an oxymoron, I realize) hopscotch to newly abandoned places? Or will they disappear, a brief movement possible only in these tough times?