Reactivating inner-city vacancy: Four steps to more lively downtowns

And now, a break in the gender content 😉

How do we reactivate vacant buildings, for example in inner cities? And why have these spaces become unattractive?

Unfortunately, beyond a certain point, vacancy and blight become a downward spiral. Once there is nothing more to visit downtown, why should I go there? And so the remaining shops that were holding on are starved of the remaining foot traffic. And of course, the increased shift to online shopping, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, hasn’t helped matters.

Revitalizing our inner cities means thinking about what our inner cities are for. Are they merely spaces of consumption and travel, or are they also spaces for meeting, recreation, even sports?

And it also means taking a nuanced perspective to user groups: their needs, preferences, and reasons for going to or avoiding spaces. For example…

  • Who decides if young people are a nuisance and how do we create spaces which welcome and provide designated and attractive areas for young people in our inner cities?
  • How do we make inner cities attractive and accessible for people with mobility issues, baby carriages, packages, or walkers?
  • How do we promote positive behaviors such as bike traffic and make it easy for people to leave the car home, or make it the most logical and simple choice to use low-carbon transport options?

In order to revitalize our inner cities we need to attract people to them, and that means we need a minimum critical mass. This is important for anchoring commercial interests, but also for feelings of liveliness, which promote feelings of safety and comfort.

Dortmund’s pedestrian zone is buzzing on a sunny spring day.

That means we need to start with visibility measures – create a buzz, create interest, create a destination, and link up with events and local actors who are looking for inexpensive space.

The Freiraumgalerie in Halle (Saale) creates visual interest through large-scale street art.

It is important to then sustain this activity through pioneer uses. Traditional commercial interests won’t be able to survive on the low foot traffic and will be risk averse to investing in a space which is still in transition. This is the perfect chance to offer space to actors in the cultural and creative industries and more experimental pioneer uses. After all, as Jane Jacobs said, “new ideas need old buildings” or, more precisely, they need undesirable and therefore inexpensive real estate. One good example is the Kreativquartier in Munich.

It is critical at this point to approach the cooperation with creative industries not only as a temporary revitalization, but rather also as a more permanent way to anchor creative industries in your city center. After all, a small-grained diversity of uses, users and sectors will ensure long-term sustainability and create more resilience to shocks.

Local hubs and incubators can be a good way to create a more permanent ecosystem of creativity and start up culture, such as this additional example in Munich, a creative shop in the ground floor of the building hosting the city’s municipally-funded creative industries incubator.

Now is the moment to begin a site analysis. What have these measures brought? What has their impact been? It is important to gather both qualitative and quantitative data for a variety of user groups. Observe how many of which types of user groups are present over the course of the day and on different weekdays and ask them their opinions. What do they like or dislike? What is missing? What are issues that still need to be tackled (such as public infrastructure)? What makes the space attractive or not? What might make it more attractive?

Look also at the public space. Are there enough places to sit? Is there greenery? Are the surroundings for the buildings you are trying to revitalize attractive?

A pocket park off the main pedestrian zone in Dortmund offers a place to sit and creative play options for small children.

Finally, economic promotion can begin moving towards an incremental and mixed use shift. How long it takes to get to this point will depend entirely on the specifics of the site and the intervention(s) that have come before.

I love the topic of revitalization and the way it also crosses over with my other specialties like urban commons and diversity and inclusion. If you want to read more about my work on the topic, check out my project for the German Marshall Fund on reactivating vacant buildings, where I go into even more examples from Germany and the US.

And if you want even more, check out the work of my dear friends at the ZwischenZeitZentrale in Bremen.

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