Finding Opportunity in Vacancy: A Kit of Parks
by Ruth Currey, Associate ASLA

Vacant and abandoned properties are commonplace in the urban environment. The sight of them can evoke feelings of despair and avoidance. They are the markers of ruined hopes and economic failure. Yet many urban planners and designers see beyond the blight; they see promise, potential, and a palette of spaces in which to enact community life and ecological recovery. For a master’s thesis in landscape architecture, I investigated innovative projects including “Lentspace” [New York City], “Pavement to Parks” [San Francisco], and “Pop Up City” [Cleveland] as the precedents for turning vacancy into opportunity. While these projects differ from each other in design, duration, and intent, they are all experiments in temporary or transitional use of disused urban spaces.

I looked at how such spaces might actually be transformed: with what physical elements, by whom, and at what cost? How would it be possible to make the transformation temporary because the space might eventually be developed into something else? And could the solution be elegant, contemporary, and functional?

The end result of this investigation was to create a “Kit of Parks.”  Based on the need for economy, durability, modularity, and portability, landscape elements had to be designed from commonly available materials, some of which might be sourced on the site itself. These elements could be used to create planters, seats, stages/platforms, colonnades, and retaining walls. They needed to be easily assembled and disassembled and, if necessary, installed on a site where no excavation or creation of footings was possible. This last characteristic would allow municipalities or community groups to negotiate the interim use of a transitional or vacant property without proposing the kind of significant structural changes that might prove to be a disincentive to the owner of the site. The concept of a negotiated temporary use defined by a written agreement was also key to encouraging owner involvement. Thus, the owner would not be simply allowing informal occupation of a site with the attendant possibility of future conflicts over ownership and usage.

All of the pieces of the kit can be stored and transported to the site in a standard shipping container (8’ x 8’ x 20’). The container itself can be retrofitted once in place to provide storage and/or washrooms, and a surface on which to mount solar panels or to collect rainwater for use on-site. Assembly of the various elements does not require a high degree of skill. Once assembled, however, the pieces are heavy and durable enough to discourage abuse.

Vacancy Figure 1

Gabion bench with composite decking seat.
Image courtesy of Ruth Currey

Vacancy Figure 2

Steel planter showing one face assembled.
Image courtesy of Ruth Currey

A vacant strip mall in southeast Albuquerque was used as the potential site to test the usefulness of the kit, and to develop conceptual and schematic designs. Elements of the kit were used in the design to establish a plaza/performance space, playground/active recreation area, community garden, skate plaza, and an extensive colonnade that served double duty as a part of the water distribution to planters. If implemented, the proposed project would be a large-scale undertaking involving additional strategies to reinvigorate the site. However, the kit itself is scaleable and useful for smaller, more typical urban in-fill lots.

Vacancy Figure 3

Sample schematic for typical small urban lot.
Image courtesy of Ruth Currey

A number of interesting urban parks and public spaces have been created in vacant or abandoned lots using found or donated materials and volunteer labor. This kit has been designed to enable communities to build, store, transport, and install their own set of attractive, robust furnishings at an affordable cost. And it is presented not as the ultimate one-size-fits-all answer to the opportunities afforded by vacancy and abandonment, but as a potential tool in the search for solutions to urban decay. It is but one comment or possibility in what is proving to be a lively and continuing conversation on the creation of vibrant urban spaces.

Vacancy Figure 4

Photo of Ruth Currey. Image courtesy of Ruth Currey

Ruth Currey, Associate ASLA, is a recent graduate of the MLA program at the University of New Mexico and is a member of the ASLA Emerging Professionals Committee. She is currently seeking employment, entering design competitions, and studying for the LARE examinations. She can be reached at:

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