Gresham, Smith and Partners has been retained as a strategic advisor for the collaborative effort titled RSquared. This initiative has been developed by the Louisville Metro Vacant & Public Property Administration who is currently working with the Mayors Innovation & Delivery Team and City Collaborative, a non-profit design and planning cohort. This pilot project focuses on a 135-acre area around the proposed Food Port site which is adjacent to two post-industrial neighborhoods, Russell and Portland. Like many other post-industrial, low income communities vacant properties abound. In this study area alone nearly 55% of the land area is vacant lots/abandoned buildings, with nearly one-third of every property in the surveyed area being identified as vacant/abandoned. After researching and analyzing the study area, our team set off to work directly with community residents and organizations to identify their vision for these vacant lots. The idea being that for long term sustainable success to take hold, the ideas, effort and buy-in should be hyper local, as absentee representatives are often out-of-sight, out-of-mind.
The challenge now becomes, how do we engage a neighborhood in an area where homeownership is only 40 percent, vacancy is high, and a lacking public process has historically led to plans sitting on shelves?
In addition to slightly more traditional design charrette meetings, we wanted to bring the engagement to the community. In the Portland and Russell Neighborhoods, our team identified two vacant lots that are now home to large-scale chalkboards gathering ideas from the community as to what the space should be used for. Responses range from a community garden to a playground. The main hope of residents is an addition that will create positive change and provide an outlet for the children in the neighborhood. The boards have been a huge hit, being completely covered in comments and messages about the community.
Through these chalkboards and other engagement tactics, our team is specifically seeking community driven ideas that individuals or organizations are passionate about. There will be funding through the city, and with the help of City Collaborative and the University of Kentucky Department of Landscape Architecture, we will help walk participants through the design and implementation process in an effort to get a handful of these great ideas built this year.
Vacant lots dot communities all across the country. And studies from organizations such as Smart Growth America have shown just how significant the negative impact of vacant properties can be on the viability of a community. Defined as a residential, commercial or industrial structure or lot that either poses a threat to public safety or is no longer maintained by the owner, these structures often become public nuisances due to the financial and safety burdens they place on the community. The city is forced to maintain these properties to code which is a drain on funds and resources.
Vacant properties not only function as a burden on the city but on the local citizens as well. Insurance premiums, property values and taxes are all negatively impacted. Not only that, citizens have to contend with the increased crime activity that is most often associated with the vacant lots not to mention the safety concerns if a structure is not properly secured.
People and communities are taking action.
Initiatives to repurpose these vacant properties are happening nationwide and people are increasingly aware of the benefits that can be realized. Cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans have experienced great success in efforts to revitalize once run-down, abandoned portions of their cities. Over the past 10 years, many cities have seen an increase in Tactical Urbanism. These efforts are often citizen-led with support from the city. While often centered on temporary and low-cost improvements, they are done in hopes of promoting community viability and inspiring long term results. Examples of these efforts include community gardens, parks and pop-up retail space – all meant to bring new life to what was an abandoned, life-less space.
In addition to our current project in Kentucky, GS&P also recently worked with REV Birmingham (REV), an economic development organization, on a project called REVIVE Birmingham: The Street Life Project. This initiative was inspired by the idea that short-term actions can effect long-term change and sought to bring new life to empty storefronts and city sidewalks. REVIVE Birmingham identified five commercial districts that would host weeklong celebrations for five consecutive weeks. The celebrations included pop-up food and retail shops, along with art and performance installations, all meant to showcase potential business and community opportunities.
These types of projects are not without challenges and roadblocks. It can be difficult to find organizations to jump on board initially, due to the lack of awareness and recognition of potential opportunities. There are also liability concerns on the part of the city that come with encouraging large groups of people to convene on what is still considered city property in the beginning. Many areas have the desire to make a change but lack that proper organization to get efforts off the ground.
Despite the challenges, tactical urbanism initiatives are taking off. From Raleigh, North Carolina to San Francisco, California, efforts are being made to make forgotten urban areas more intriguing and inviting. By revitalizing these areas and making them more community-oriented, burdens on the city and its citizens are being alleviated and a more viable and attractive living environment is being created. Through engaging of the citizens and community partners, I look forward to seeing the change we can inspire in Louisville through the efforts of RSquared.
How are you seeing Tactical Urbanism impact your community?