Empty lots fill the spaces we meander through daily, adding little or no amenity to our communities and occasionally detracting from the environment that surrounds them. They’re strewn about cities, seemingly stagnant in time and hidden beneath the shadows of buildings, often going unnoticed. They rarely harbor visitors except for the occasional bicyclists cutting through, or when providing an inconspicuous hiding place for those who would rather remain unseen. These spaces sit desolate, waiting to achieve the factors necessary for development; even when successful, this process can often take years, and as a result these unused lots continue to sit idle. But why must this land sit vacant until its bigger dreams are realized? Why do we allow such potential community benefits to remain untapped? What if designers looked beyond the desire to leave our permanent signature on the landscape, and instead focused on having these empty spaces contribute to the community, if only temporarily?
It can feel counter-productive to create something that isn’t meant to last, particularly when we hold a strong personal conviction to shape our communities’ futures through design. Temporary landscapes don’t impede that conviction, but rather focus more on the importance of immediate community benefits and the future amenities they can inspire. Temporary landscapes vary vastly in type, with one of the most common being a community garden. Neuland Koln is a community garden that sits a few kilometers south of Germany’s famous Cologne Cathedral. The site belongs to a local university that plans to construct a building there; however, in 2011, three years after acquiring the land, they realized it would be years before the college was ready to expand. Aggravated by the unused space, nearby residents joined together with the university to develop an agreement to temporarily give the land to the local community until the university was ready to develop it. Now, rather than sitting vacant and unsightly, this space is providing urban agriculture to an area that severely lacks it.
A more unusual example of a temporary landscape sits nearby, on the northeastern edge Berlin Tempelhof Airport. This airport, a beautiful piece of architecture with an eerie, war-torn past, graces 909 acres of land filled with miles of wide concrete runways and stretches of green lawn. It was built in the 1920s by the Germans and remained in operation until 2008. The city of Cologne juggled the option to either preserve the historical site or tear it down to sell the land for development. However, when Cologne realized this debate would not be decided in the near future, they gave the site surrounding the building over to the people temporarily. Their only investments on the site were maintaining the grassland and site fence. Despite that lack, the public fills the site. The long stretches of runway are often filled with bicycles, remote-controlled cars, kite land-boards, and hobbyists who were previously searching for a space vast enough to provide the infrastructure they need. Community gardens also grace this site and local events are often held there. These numerous acres, for years causing nothing but strife and financial downfall for the community, now provide a center of activity and profit.
Organization and funding for these temporary landscapes can be as varied as the spaces themselves. While new infrastructure at Neuland Koln and Berlin Tempelhof Airport is funded by community members, other temporary landscapes, such as Douglas Pop-up Park in Wichita, Kansas, are financed by city bonds. All of these sites fill the same basic need: providing a community amenity that gives back to its users and deterring hazards that come with undeveloped land, such as vandalism and other illegal activities.
So how do we as designers utilize this type of landscape? One clear opportunity is when designing a multi-phase masterplan. Areas on the site are already scheduled to remain undeveloped for a period of time, but clients may not be aware of the positive ways they could impact their community during its time of vacancy or of the benefits provided them by doing so. While developing a temporary landscape may not be appropriate for every client or site, it is up to us to recognize these opportunities and to educate our clients about them when applicable. Pursuing these opportunities may go beyond what we typically think of as our scope of work, but it is well within our moral obligation as shapers of the public realm.
Allison Pate is a designer in the Houston studio.
Image of Berlin Templehof Airport, in Cologne, Germany, courtesy of Dick Hoyt via Flickr Creative Commons.