"Space in between" lessons from Chicagoland’s Community Leaders

What Chicagoland’s Community Leaders Taught Us About the “Space In Between”

Marisa Novara of Chicago's Metropolitan Planning Council looks at how meanwhile spaces can make a difference to communities.   This article is part of the Social Life of Cities series with the Urban Times.

Planners often have an 'all or nothing' attitude to placemaking, where space must be developed into its best possible use or nothing at all. But what about aiming to make transitional spaces - neither vacant nor a finished product, but organic, community-led experiments?

Patience, I hear, is a virtue. I wouldn't know; I am an impatient person by nature. While parenthood and living for a year in a Mediterranean country have done wonders to temper this, impatience remains intrinsic to my DNA. Lately I've been thinking, though, that maybe patience is overrated.

I see it reflected in our "all or nothing" focus: public funding and systems of recognition - like grand openings and awards - go toward the full realization of a space. Up and down the streets of our neighborhoods, it is clear that we view the use of space in one of two ways: its highest and best use, or nothing at all. That is, either a corner in North Lawndale becomes a newly constructed, multi-family affordable apartment building, or it stays a bunch of trash-strewn vacant lots.

It seems that most of us are content to wait for the ideal, but I keep thinking that maybe there's another important place to focus our energy, creativity and funds: in the spaces that exist between the current state and the finished product.

Why not embrace our impatient side, stop waiting, and explore what could exist in between these two poles? When lenders aren't lending, when buyers aren't buying, when tax credit investors can't be found and the desired market doesn't yet exist, the question becomes what do we do with our unused, underused, misused, abandoned, or under construction public spaces? What do we do, in other words, in the meantime?

Asking this question means acknowledging that in these tough economic times, the finished product may no longer be in sight for any given vacant lot or empty storefront. Particularly in communities that bore the brunt of the recession, the housing market remains oversupplied, lenders are still loathe to lend, and retailers are skittish. Let's face it: The ideal may take a while.

What would our communities look like if instead of turning our heads from the vacant eyesores and dilapidated fencing that dot so many of our communities, or passively waiting for investors and developers to feel comfortable in our neighborhoods again, we took it upon ourselves to embrace these spaces as transitional places? What if we deliberately sought out and created low-cost, temporary uses for these spaces?

The web site TEMPLACE calls it "activity in spaces currently unsuitable or undesirable in mainstream economic cycles." According to the web site No Vacancy!, this activity "can also catalyze the 'creative economy' by...act(ing) as laboratories and incubators for art, business, culture, and civic society by providing space for experimentation."

We knew this focus on the transitional could be incredibly powerful, and we had a sense from a few examples that people were already doing it. What if we found a way to have people tell us their transformational stories? And what if, in so doing, we were able to raise the profile of this under-heralded work and the story of many small acts that could collectively, in and of themselves, be transformational?

These questions led us to form the Metropolitan Planning Council's 2012 "Space in Between" contest, which focused energy, creativity and funds on the great potential for meaningful places to exist between a vacant space's current state and its ideal, finished state. We launched the contest to learn more about how creative people around the Chicago region were taking back long-since forgotten spaces, thereby transforming the vacant and abandoned into community assets, even if - and especially if - temporary.

We had a tremendous response. Droves of placemakers from Milwaukee to northwest Indiana sent in their pictures, their videos and their stories about how they took a vacant space and filled it not with bricks and mortar, but with people. With ideas. With art. With things that grow and feed and nurture us. Shuttered retail was transformed into art galleries and bookstores. Vacant land became a canvas for community art, tales of motherhood, and rites of passage for young women. Performances were staged in abandoned railyards and long-vacant lots. And scores of community gardens grew not only vegetables, but a sense of community.

In the process, we learned so much about the power of regular people and that when those people reject a passive stance of waiting for their community to be improved and instead decide to do so themselves - in however small a manner - there is incredible power in that.

So what are we doing with this information? Well, the first thing we've done is to shout this story from the mountaintops. Part of our goal was to not only ourselves learn about the initiatives throughout Chicagoland, but to also be part of telling these stories widely, and in so doing, help to raise up this kind of work as an endeavor just as worthy of our money and attention as bricks and mortar development. To that end, we made sure that a variety of projects were featured on the news and in print, we partnered with Groupon Grassroots to assist winners with a fundraising campaign, and are working now to have a major awards ceremony for community development add an award for "the spaces in between."

I'm willing to bet that people are doing small and amazing things to transform your community every day. How are you helping to tell their story?

Marisa Novara is Program Director at the Metropolitan Planning Council. Her work directly assists communities to promote revitalization, housing in job-rich areas, sustainable development and conservation, and interjurisdictional and corridor planning. Her studies were informed by years of work on the ground in Chicago, most recently as the senior project manager for Lawndale Christian Development Corporation.

Adapted from an earlier article, Putting vacant space to use, in the meantime. (http://www.metroplanning.org/news-events/blog-post/6367)