Activating Space Field Guide

Rob Shields and Jim Morrow are excited to release the Activating Space Field Guide.

Every city has vacant buildings and underused land. These abandoned spaces burden communities with blight and cost. Worse, the longer a space goes unused, the more likely the damage will be social as much as economic.

Photo Credit: The Globe and Mail
Stackt, a Toronto shopping complex made of shipping containers
Photo Credit: The Globe and Mail

Cities often fail to make plans for derelict spaces. Their preference is for property owners to make decisions about redevelopment. Meanwhile, places go unused. In Montreal, one in six retail units are vacant. And in London, England, over 20,000 properties currently sit empty and the number is rising.

Business as usual is not an option. Shops and industrial sites have been vacated because consumerism and conventional approaches to development no longer work. So common purpose and social partnership must take the initiative.

For neighbourhoods to be vital, vacant spaces must be activated and put to use. Otherwise, it will be impossible to shop locally or support community needs.

There are four strategies for activating space:

1 Temporary Use
2 Reuse
3 Programming
4 Counter-Programming

The focus of each strategy is somewhat different. For instance, temporary use is ideal for open spaces. Or reuse functions better in places that are turnkey ready. Either way, the same objective remains: Give back to communities that have been left behind.

Any site can be activated. But, if the situation at hand is to ever improve, places need to be left better than they were found. It is, therefore, important to put in groundwork, and people fairly reward the sweat equity of those who give their time and effort.

Activated spaces give back to their communities. They are places where people can provide for each other. And it is best to invite community members to participate in decision-making and provide resources to make their own contribution.

If mishandled, activating space will be nothing more than a redevelopment scheme. It must work for a community’s betterment and fulfill local needs. Accordingly, the measure of success is whether it helps community members live richer lives.

The Activating Space Field Guide is written for individuals and community groups that need help with turning ideas about the public good into civic actions. It can also benefit city leaders and planners who need proof that the reuse of empty spaces can enrich the lives of community members.

This Field Guide is not a step-by-step rule book. There are no theoretical prescriptions about what must be done. Instead, it explains what resources are available and how some places have found success.

Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and by the Kule Institute for Advanced Study, University of Alberta.