Urban challenges and resilient cities: A teachers’ guide
teaching tips
Challenge 6

Utilising vacant urban space

Vacant lots, empty buildings and abandoned parks are a significant burden on everyone. While producing nothing they cost money to maintain (a burden often borne by the public), reduce the vitality and value of neighbourhoods, and potentially aggravate social problems. Revitalising such properties is generally good news all round: landlords reduce maintenance costs; local residents get a more convivial, attractive neighbourhood; shopkeepers get more foot traffic; and the city gets more tax revenue. There’s no shortage of community groups in need of inexpensive space, and many cities now recognise the potential of granting them temporary use of neglected or abandoned spaces. However, many challenges prevent a major breakthrough in this process.

Use the activities below to design a teaching session on using public spaces. 

10 minutes

Keynote

Watch this space!


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Explain to students that, although temporary projects clearly don’t offer permanent solutions, they might pave the way to a more inclusive planning system in which civil initiatives are invited to take part in urban regeneration. By reactivating vacant spaces for the public good, community groups help City Hall to achieve certain goals — for example reducing crime or joblessness. An important element in cooperation between the city and project implementers is trust. The various participants in such initiatives (e.g. civil society organisations, design studios, real estate developers and municipal departments) need to be transparent about their motivation and objectives — and have to follow through with commitments. Otherwise, such projects can’t work.

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Introduce one or two case studies to help your students understand the benefits of bottom-up city revitalisation.

case study

Freetown Christiania: Radical re-imaginings in Copenhagen

PDF | 699 Kb

case study

Szimpla Garden, Budapest

PDF | 865 Kb

20 minutes

Let’s talk!

The talking waterfall


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Identify a disused building or vacant lot in the vicinity of the school (perhaps an abandoned cinema, disused warehouse or undeveloped plot). Prepare by bringing a few large-format photos of the space and gathering some basic information about it.

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Ask your students to propose ideas for using the space for the benefit of local young people. Ask them what they need most. Use the “talking waterfall” method to generate ideas. The talking waterfall is based on students inspiring each other — the technique supports students’ abilities to think unconventionally and bring spontaneous and unfiltered ideas to the table that other students can build on. The talking waterfall is built on the following principles:

  • The goal is to create association chains that other students can build on, without long pauses in the conversational flow.
  • Students are encouraged to interrupt and build on each other’s ideas.
  • Students are not allowed to say “No, but…”. They can only say “Yes, and…”.
  • The discussion lasts between five and seven minutes and ideas are noted on the blackboard by the teacher. These notes serve as a summary of the discussion.
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An example: How would you transform an empty warehouse into a youth community area?

“You should clean it so it doesn’t look so dirty and abandoned…”
“Yes, and you should also invite some graffiti artists who can make it look colourful and friendly — maybe they would do it for free ...”
“Yes, and it could be a part of woodwork classes to build wooden shelves and furniture that we can use…”
“Yes, and skateboard ramps could fit in the corner — we don’t have any good places to skateboard in this neighbourhood ....”
“Yes, and we could also have tools for bike repair… and a table tennis table.”

15 minutes

Role play

Clinching arguments


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In this activity, you play the role of city mayor. Divide your students into groups of five and give them five to seven minutes to prepare arguments to persuade you, the mayor, to transform the empty space into a youth centre.

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Ask them to compile a list of reasons to support their claim: What benefits does it bring to the neighbourhood, the city and the mayor? Ask each group to present a few arguments and challenge them as you see fit.

Follow-up

Plot developments


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Read the case studies from Copenhagen and Budapest, and visit a local community that works on a bottom-up urban rehabilitation project.

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Organise a 120-minute workshop using the World Café methodology with six invited experts and six student teams. Focus on finding good use for three different vacant areas. This could take about an hour, with three 20-minute workshop rounds. World Café is a simple, effective, flexible format for hosting large group dialogues with interesting ideas and outcomes.

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Ask students to identify an abandoned building in their city and write a short essay or school newspaper article in which they propose a better use for it. Alternatively, they could write a fictional letter to the mayor, outlining their plan and asking for the mayor’s permission for the project.

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Launch an urban gardening project with your class.  Cultivate a small part of the school garden or a small plot nearby, plant vegetables or flowers, and install some handmade street furniture (e.g. a bench).

case study

Freetown Christiania: Radical re-imaginings in Copenhagen

PDF | 699 Kb

case study

Szimpla Garden, Budapest

PDF | 865 Kb