Monday, 27 April 2015 11:39

Temporary use of vacant spaces and buildings

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A workshop held at the University of Sheffield earlier this year explored these issues, and was able to draw on experience from some EU Urbact and INTERREG work, showing once more how useful these EU projects can be, but also some of the limitations on the transfer of pracrtices across the continent. A key theme to emerge was that while some cities shun transience, almost as a deviation from their orthodox work, others have embraced it enthusiastically.

Research has shown for some time that temporary spaces are very important for start-up businesses wanting easy-in, easy-out cheap premises. Also we know that the ambience associated with a building and its history is a factor in its reuse, whether as a temporary studio for artists or a "permanent" conversion of a warehouse into flats or a bank into a bar.What is new is the extent to which, post-2008, urban economies are changing as they adapt to austerity and a low-growth future.

Bremen - temporary uses to combat decline

The north German port of Bremen has been losing young people, despite having universities, and is having to cope with change in its traditional industries. But vacant properties + demographic challenges = new opportunities. The city council set up a temporary uses agency, known as ZZZ, to coordinate the efforts of many stakeholders, and gave it strong political and administrative support. They brought in a team of architects with expertise in creating temporary uses and conversions. ZZZ functions as an agency outside the local council but able to draw on strong internal support.

The Bremen project shows the kind of things that need to be sorted out to make temporary uses a success. The list includes concept development and public relations but also negotiations between owners and users, rental rates and conditions, insurance, permissions and legal documents, safety, funding, marketing and, not least, community-building. 

The work of ZZZ attracted a lot of interestfrom potential new users of land and buildings.  Over 50 projects were delivered between 2009 and 2012, covering privately owned property as well as those in municipal ownership. There was a strong theme of community outreach with projects benefitting children and the elderly and addressing themes that included education, history, gardening, migration, art and unemployment.

Rome - a slave to its past?

The key qualities that make ZZZ a success are its strength, flexibility, innovative character, and insider understanding of the needs of the arts and creative sector. However, international transplants of initiatives often don't work. In particular, "soft" factors such as trust and confidence are not easy to reproduce in different governance cultures, and legislative differences can also confound good intentions

Through the TUTUR Urbact project an attempt was made to transfer the Bremen model to Rome. Rome has plenty of empty buildings, having been a victim of the boom and bust of the property bubble a decade ago, followed by years of austerity policies. All sorts of buildings are empty - schools, cinemas, offices, factories, markets to name a few. However, the city plan dating from 2008 still anticipates growth that is non-existent.

The council is broke, and regeneration and action on vacancies has been endorsed by the mayor's office.  However, the legacy of the governance culture from Rome's past is a major barrier to successful transition. Because corruption was so endemic, legislation has been written to constrain, not enable, local government actions. There is no real flexibility to work with stakeholders from outside the council. Rents of public properties are set by law and do not take account of basics like location. Thus the process of creating a new and temporary use for an empty building is very bureaucratic and time consuming. Also, instead of working together, departments within the council have been competing with each other to come up with new schemes.

What kind of planning for temporary uses?

In much of the world the idea of "town planning" is itself a victim of its history from its modern origins in Europe a century ago. Concepts and practices were fashioned to control the spread of cities as new transport technologies liberated people from living next to their work place, and freed businesses from being located next to the railway or the docks.

UK regions outside of London and the south-east have had 40 years experience now of knowing that such a system has little to offer in situations of disinvestment, where the problem is to conjure development, not prevent it. Similar regions elsewhere in northern Europe and North America have followed the route from precise and restrictive plans towards urban and rural regeneration. However, as the Rome example shows, a change in the planning culture remains a challenge in many places.

Planning systems were not conceived for an age of pop-up shops and austerity. Managing transience is a challenge to the type of planning that relies on a detailed map showing future land uses at some distant point in time. Yet in today's world many uses of land and buildings are more transient than they have been in the past, as illustrated by the current problems of the major retailers who peppered the landscape with superstores in recent decades. Conversely, in the Middle East, generations  have grown up and continue to live in "temporary" refugee camps.

Planning practice therefore needs to be increasingly focused on policy, delivery and coordination - and innovation - rather than outdated land use allocations. Those involved in planning, regeneration and development management can learn from looking the academic researcher on transience in urban development presented at the Sheffield workshop.     


From Patrizia Di Monte:

Dear Cliff, I' d like to inform you about our work in Zaragoza, we carry on estonoesunsolar (thisisnotanemptyplot) and upcycled 32 vacant lots in temporary public space, community gardens, playgrounds, under the managment of local community. You can follow us on twitter and facebook. You ll find more info in our blog Estonoesunsolar/wordpress.





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