by Katherine Ely
Urban metropolises, including our own beautiful Bay Area, are densely packed, bustling with people and energy. The cost of rent is high, and restaurants and bars are plentiful, yet space to call one’s own is limited. Why then, are there many pockets of underused or abandoned land around the city?
Unsure what I am referring to? Look around! Most individuals see what MKThink labels the ‘built environment’: illustrious infrastructure and romantic residences. What I am referring to is the converse: the empty, unnoticed spaces, exemplified by deserted parking lots, rundown parks, and abandoned structures
These gloomy gaps are part of every neighborhood in San Francisco; however, they are more highly concentrated in certain south-eastern districts of our city, such as the Mission, SOMA, Potrero Hill, Excelsior and Hunter’s Point. Although these neighborhoods are culturally rich, some are economically underserved, a plight which yields abandonment of once valuable land and beneficial fixtures. Old flower stands and newspaper kiosks have been deserted in times of economic downturn and shifts in population demographics. Unkempt parks and sidewalk space have exchanged productivity for dangerous and illegal activity as unemployment rates rise. Underused public spaces are a product of economic downturn and, when left untouched, a detriment to the progress of the surrounding population.
The key to preventing the negative effects of unused space is to revitalize the once run-down with thrift and the greater community in mind. Innovators must wonder: What does the community need? What types of spaces and fixtures promote togetherness, safety, and vibrancy?
Currently, the practical solution has been to turn deserted land lots into pocket parks, seen in various areas of the city including the Castro, SOMA, and Potrero Hill. The San Francisco Planning Department’s recent program Pavement to Parks aims to restore excess street space, claimed to be 25% of the city’s land, into neighborhood parks and seating areas. The goals of the program are three-fold: to create greater public space in underserved communities, to improve community safety inexpensively, and to test the potential success of future permanent infrastructure in the community. Pavement to Parks is able to convert these public necessities simply and economically through donation: portable tables and chairs, piping and cement rounds for planters, and the altruistic work of local artists.
Likewise, some vacant lots have been transformed into a charming sitting area, or even a sustainable food source for their surrounding communities. The Tenderloin National Forest, plotted in one of San Francisco’s most diverse neighborhoods, creates more green space in an utterly urban area. The Please Touch Community Garden, located just behind City Hall, has changed a once drug-ridden dwelling into a peaceful little farm for vegetables, herbs, and relaxing. The Hayes Valley Farm sprung from irreparable earthquake damage to the freeway. This urban farm not only provides a sustainable food and plant source for the community, but also offers classes in permaculture to anyone interested in learning. The farm showcases local artists, environmental celebrations, and plant sales.
Since 2011, urban planners in Oakland, CA. are reincarnating vacant storefronts into small, local retailers, with the goal of improving the community with short-term vibrancy and long-term economic change. This effort is made possible by negotiating six months of free rent space for local artists and entrepreneurs to bring more permanent economic vitality to the area.
These innovations, which survive despite the cost and permit requirements that temporary architectural solutions demand, inspired my thoughts about community betterment on a larger scale. Ongoing economic depression has two majorly detrimental effects on our urban area: hunger and homelessness.
Finding high quality food without paying a small fortune is a difficult task in today’s world. In many of San Francisco’s less fortunate areas, fresh or healthy food options are simply not available. Using vacant or abandoned land lots for a mobile farmers market would allow both food trucks and farm stands to relocate around the city to various neighborhoods in need throughout the week. Akin to San Francisco’s Off The Grid roaming food trucks, the market might find three or four semi-permanent locations in the city. By setting up temporary 10’ x 10’ tents, cheap folding tables, and access to power and water, both trucks and small stands could provide fresh and culturally variant food to different San Francisco communities.
Ah, but how to avoid the traditional affluence of farmer’s markets? The inspiration of this tasty solution to unproductive city space must bear in mind the ultimate goal of benefitting the community. The temporary market must be a chameleon, able to succeed in areas of different social and economic background, while providing a necessity to the area. In order to be cost effective, the market venders must support the goal of bringing discounted quality food to areas without other access. The vendors would provide local, cultural specialties, as well as fresh produce to communities in need, in turn expanding business to new frontiers.
Perhaps if we think more out-of-the-box, San Francisco’s once vacant, homeless spaces could become just that: temporary shelter for the homeless population. Made possible by food and supply donation, tarps, tents and sleeping staples could serve as a mobile or semi-permanent, homeless camp in various areas of San Francisco. Volunteers from non-profits, social services and medical clinics would provide necessary care and compassion in our city, often considered the “homelessness capitol.” Temporary urban tents could be allocated into male, female, and family designations, providing medical care and social consideration for an otherwise undermined population.
Whichever ways our valuable, unused space becomes occupied, doing so is imperative. As land sits vacant, the city becomes dilapidated, space for illegal and dangerous activity is provided, and productive space for communities in need is wasted. Temporary solutions to wasted space are not only progressive, but are useful predictors of what types of permanent infrastructure might one day succeed in our currently unfulfilled spaces.