Vacant, neglected lots are a common scourge for former industrial cities that experienced decline during the latter decades of the 20th century. As enterprising citizens begin to take advantage of cheap downtown buildings that are in good shape, open up businesses, and begin the slow, unsure process of revitalizing the downtown, the buildings that are too far gone often fall victim to vandalism, decay, fire, or demolition – and in many cases, a progression of all four. The empty lots that are a result can act as an impediment to real growth and development downtown. Over the last few years, creative solutions have been popping up in some interesting places. The Project for Public Spaces (PPS), an organization dedicated to creating and sustaining public spaces, has set out to share ideas and resources for using vacant lots to build community. Many ideas and examples of success stories can be found on the PPS website.
For example, in 2012, a group of teenage girls worked with the organization Demoiselle2Femme to construct a playground on an abandoned lot in a tough Chicago neighbourhood. One of the first things they did was build tables and chalk boards to get the community involved in the design of the playground. Community input and participation are vital components of the Project for Public Places philosophy for designing new spaces. The Chicago Tribune described the results of the playground project:
They heard from children and residents who said they wanted a safe place that was colorful, accessible, clean and well-maintained… what they didn’t expect was the response they got from people who frequented the liquor store and hung out in the lot across the street. “The first thing we noticed was that they started cleaning up their lot (across the street),” she said. “We looked up, and they had brooms and bags and were picking up the bottles and paper.” She said some of the loiterers started coming over to help the young women…
In some places, shipping containers have become a popular approach for fixing up vacant or underused lots. The Scadding Court Community Centre in Toronto has employed shipping containers to turn a formerly bleak strip of Dundas St. into a thriving community. The purpose of the project is to create “micro-entrepreneurs” who are charged a rent of $10/day for a container-shop. The idea is that perhaps people with ideas, but not necessarily a lot of money (or confidence) will be encouraged to set up a business & try things out. Successful businesses might then go on to open up in traditional “bricks & mortar” storefronts downtown. In fact, this has already happened with some of the Scadding Court shops. Further details about “market707” can be found on the Scadding Court Community Centre web site, along with their “Business in a Box” toolkit.
Project 24 is a project that placed shipping containers in a derelict, unused part of the town centre in Bangor, Northern Ireland. The containers were transformed into art pods – multifunctional spaces where artists are inspired to create and exhibit work. Around the art pods are community gardens where all members of the community, regardless of age, are encouraged to meet and grow their own flowers, fruit, and vegetables. The Project24 website contains a time lapse video of the initial transformation.
a great hub and resource for ideas about inventive uses for vacant property, and for actively engaging communities in the process. The organization provides comprehensive online tools that enable residents to: identify vacant properties and plot them on an interactive city-wide map; link to municipal data sources to find ownership status; learn about government programs and legal options for adopting the management of a space; connect citizens, build community groups and assemble resources to improve the spaces; and advise and support the creation of long-term sustainable management.
Are any of these projects possible in Welland? Of course they are. Are they desireable? Therein lies the question. There are 3 examples of long-neglected vacant lands that stand out:
Former Atlas Steels (East Main St.)
The closure of Atlas Steels in 2003 was a death blow for manufacturing in Welland and left a huge scar of unused industrial land in need of decontamination and cleanup. The decline of Pittsburgh’s steel industry left a similar, though larger-scale situation in that city. The redevelopment of Pittsburgh’s brownfield lands has played a key role in its economic diversification and rebirth. The gaping wound on Welland’s east side where Atlas Steels used to stand shares characteristics with Pittsburgh’s formerly vacant industrial properties. What can Welland learn from Pittsburgh’s experience? Perhaps the first lesson should be that brownfield redevelopment, though not easy, is not an insurmountable task.
Former Welland High School (West Main St.)
The tragic tale of Welland has been used to warn others about what can happen to a city’s core when its downtown high school is shut down. Since arson claimed the empty Welland High building in 2011, the site near the corner of West Main St. and Prince Charles Dr. has existed as an empty pile of rubble and weeds. This is a large tract of land in a residential and commercial neighbourhood.
Corner of East Main St. & Hellems Ave.
Why not start small? The poorly-maintained Guardian Express building at the corner of East Main St. and Hellems Ave. was torn down in the summer of 2013. There is a mural (cut off on the left side of the picture) on part of the adjacent wall, as well as a big, ugly section of brick wall that seems to be screaming out for some sort of adornment. This triangular-shaped lot seems like an ideal size for a public space. A quick, cheap fix could turn this piece of land into a usable community space overnight. The Project for Public Spaces has shown what is possible in “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper: A Low-Cost, High-Impact Approach.”
What can be done with these lands? All are privately owned, but that hasn’t prevented community neighbourhood projects in other cities. Can the principles of the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) be used to turn these sites into forces for good in the community? Would the owners of the lands be willing partners in this? Solutions exist. The question is whether the owners, municipality, and community-minded individuals are willing to work together to create something. The results could be something great.