Why should we deal with abandoned urban spaces?

By Anja Graner

Cities are constantly transforming, and societal development leaves marks in urban space. When industries decline or parts of cities are abandoned due to migration, urban wastelands or gaps in the built environment are left behind. How can cities make use of these empty spaces? Anja Graner looks at repurposing wastelands and the “dense city”.

The human desire to think beyond the present is influencing our cities. We can assume future changes in the framework of cities to happen alongside many other quickly advancing technologies in the urban landscape. Economical, environmental or political changes result in the formation of untouched spaces between buildings or unusable industrial areas. Due to the decline of the coal and iron industries, such abandoned spaces already started appearing in the mid-20th century. The fast pace of technology development and digitisation means that old industries are still replaced by new ones, and physical space is vacated.

Abandoned areas will always exist as a city is ever evolving and never ceases to develop. Social and technological change will provide further modification, and historical or even modern buildings will lose the original purpose of their use. A futurist aspect of such change could be the closing down of airports due to the invention of new technologies. The development of flying cars could make these airports useless, and new purposes would have to be found for these large buildings.

Abandoned urban space in our cities
Unused urban space remains as forgotten wasteland or gaps between buildings and other constructions. These spaces have a high potential for reconstruction and repurposing by integrating them into the community, and for creating stunning spaces by distinguishing their specific character. For example, the specific characteristic of a former railway track is that it connects two districts and can be transformed into a green corridor. Depending on their location, abandoned areas can be converted into different facilities. Every city has such vacant spaces that are waiting to be adapted to the current urban fabric so that they can be part of the total cityscape.

Abandoned areas mostly depict fractures in the history of cities, for instance the decline of an entire industry. Depending on their former function, buildings that are left behind are located in the heart of a city, or at an attractive spot next to a river or by a lake, which is where most industrial factories used to be placed.

Many untouched buildings in today’s cities are empty because of speculation, with property owners hoping for an increase in their value. Ignoring an area until market prices have increased does not automatically raise the value of a building. On the contrary, leaving a building without attention can bring negative value due to vandalism or uncontrolled appropriation by people. Temporary usage of empty buildings, for example for urban gardening or as community kitchens, can have a positive affect and improve the image of the neighbourhood as well as the space itself. Buildings tend to look more attractive with a lively appearance, and are more likely to be maintained by the users. Official regulation regarding the duration of the interim usage is important to define the time frame and function, so that the eventual closing of the temporary facility can happen smoothly.

Gaps in a city can be used in different ways depending on the needs of the respective neighbourhoods. As community gardens, public or residential buildings, they can contribute to boosting the neighbourhood. If a former empty space acquires a purpose previously unfulfilled in the neighbourhood, it improves the liveability of the area as a whole.

Undeveloped land vs. land conversion
Talking about the development of abandoned areas, we have to differentiate between untouched land that remains between properties, and space that is already in use (i.e. it contains a building or contaminated soil) but is going to be converted.

In the case of undeveloped land, the challenge is to create a new mindset so that the development of land of unusual shapes brings a meaningful usage. This can be achieved by expanding people’s horizon, so that innovative and creative ways of thinking can lead to new designs beyond our current standards and ideas. The non-rectangular soccer fields that were created in the Khlong Toei district of Bangkok are a good example of rethinking urban space in an ingenious way.

The conversion of existing buildings can easily create situations that are difficult to control because of unexpected or unplanned incidents that occur during development. Especially in old buildings, harmful substances like asbestos can be hidden and released during renovation. Therefore, it is important to investigate before renovation whether such substances and materials have been installed. Amid the rebuilding, unpredictable issues such as the collapse of buildings or detecting of weak material can occur. When working with closed down factories, the investigation of the ground is important because the soil can be contaminated due to chemicals from the former production processes. The more accurately a building or the ground is examined before the conversion, the easier it is to avoid such surprises.

The development of wasteland usually brings more unexpected problems than building on new unaffected land. Monument protection causes higher expenses and time investment because of legal requirements, including restrictions to preserve the original structure of the building. The planning risk is clearly larger in the case of conversions and has to be approached with patience.

Building the city inwards and repurposing industrial areas
Different cities in different countries deal with abandoned areas in different manners, according to their specific situations. In Switzerland, urban developers concentrate on developing the city inwards, with the intention of not claiming more land for development and thereby protecting nature. Cities are forced to look for land within the existing urban areas and focus on empty spaces and buildings. Two options are available to them: to demolish buildings that are too old or too small, or to turn to in-between land and repurpose it for a new use (conversion). These actions are cost-effective, but run the risk of areas losing their history and identity. One example for successful conversion is the large former Toni milk processing building in Zurich that was changed into a location for education, culture and housing.

Germany offers good examples of how to use old industrial areas without destroying their structure and heritage. For over 200 years, the Ruhr area in western Germany was the industrial centre of the country, with coal mining as a fixed part of the working life of local citizens. Many factory buildings were put under heritage protection when the industries declined and the factories closed down. These legal acts preserve the cultural heritage and the traditional appearance of the area. In the meantime, many industrial buildings are used as cultural centres or for housing. The Widra Areal in Aachen is one of many protected factories that have been transformed into housing space. Another example is the conversion of a former industrial area in Duisburg that was transformed into a landscape park.

Among the areas that have recently been repurposed are the military grounds that were established by the Allies after the Second World War, especially by the US army. These large areas, some of them located in city centres, were closed for the public and thus cut off from the rest of the city for many years. In recent years, they have been subject to development and integration into the city. The challenge is to find new purposes for the military barracks, training areas and other constructions. In the city of Heidelberg, some parts of the military base have been turned into housing and thereby integrated into the city. The city of Bamberg is currently facing the same challenge and plans to reuse various military buildings to fulfil the current need of the inhabitants of the city. Some buildings are used as temporary shelters for refugees. The long-term goal is to offer more residential properties and facilities like schools and stores.

The benefits of a dense city
Urban wastelands provide us with the opportunity to make cities denser, so that they can accommodate the rising number of people moving to urban areas seeking opportunities and a better life. Migration to cities is a trend that can be observed all over the world, and cities are running out of space. Spatial availability has thus become a serious challenge and has resulted in modern settlement issues like gentrification.

One strategy to deal with the shortage of space is urban development inwards, which means to cover increasing demand for space through the use of existing built-up areas within cities, hence avoiding urban sprawl. One advantage of this strategy is that existing infrastructure can be used, and the spots in question do not need to be structurally developed.

By creating a denser city with better public transportation, people can reduce the distances they travel by car and contribute to reducing pollution and enhancing environmental protection. A dense city with car-free areas brings liveability improvement and has a positive effect for our habitat, unlike a widely spread-out city that relies on cars as the primary mode of transport. Living or working in a renovated ancient house can be highly attractive for people, with the unique and strong elements of old industries providing an improvement in urban life and ambience. Developing abandoned areas contributes to the aesthetic of the city because abandoned places full of trash, or unfinished or collapsing constructions give a poor appearance. From the perspective of the cityscape, dense cities improve the aesthetic of the neighbourhood; the visual appearance of a city is influenced by occupied space, and conversion breathes new life into underutilised spaces.

In the long run, focusing on the expansion of space within the city means implementing a more sustainable strategy of urban development. In cities all over the world, abandoned buildings and plots of land can be reconstructed into occupied and lively urban space.

Anja Graner

Anja Graner

Anja Graner holds a BA in Landscape Architecture from the Hochschule für Technik Rapperswil, Switzerland. She is currently studying for a Master’s degree in the Integrated Urbanism and Sustainable Design Program at Stuttgart University. Anja has a strong interest in urban life and the interactions between built environment, people and their quality of life.
Anja Graner

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By | 2017-12-01T12:55:53+00:00 November 29th 2017|Categories: BASIC INFRASTRUCTURE & HOUSING, INTEGRATED PLANNING|Tags: , , , , , |Comments Off on Why should we deal with abandoned urban spaces?