Clearly, the old model – where major developers erect mono-functional structures destined to remain unused – is no longer working and it can prove very costly to dismantle these relatively recent constructions, with adverse repercussions for the city’s image and overall atmosphere. Fortunately, many people have started to focus on this issue and come up with surprising and inspiring ideas for the reactivation of empty properties; they are willing to get involved to realize their urban visions.

SQFT, for example, serves as a virtual matchmaking service. The platform pairs property owners with potential short-term tenants – or pop-up businesses with a pool of willing helpers from the local under- and unemployed. Unlike similar projects, SQFT does not consider technology a panacea for all urban ills and the team works very hard on-site, in the Mid-Market neighborhood of San Francisco, to get existing businesses involved and to map the local conditions and stakeholders. Spawned at a design hackathon hosted by Creative Currency in April 2012, SQFT promotes a combination of technology and public sector groups, seeking to establish new systems of exchange to empower communities through crowdfunding, microcredits, and sharing platforms for the underprivileged.

According to SQFT team member Patrick Keenan, a strong small business community can greatly improve a district and add vibrancy to the experience of the neighborhood by increasing footfall and potentially attracting permanent renters. Right now, SQFT actively courts entrepreneurs in the arts, retail, and food business to host events in available spaces. And while they do not expect a lot of build-outs, SQFT focus on generating positive energy around activities, services, and experiences.

Meanwhile, Amsterdam-based architecture office Space & Matter teamed up with building developer Blauwhoed for their own stab at narrowing the divide between architects, vacant office spaces, and people willing to convert the latter into housing. An idea born out of the simple observation that The Netherlands currently command seven million square meters of unused office space – offset by demand for an additional 500,000 housing units by 2040. Fully aware of the power of social media and online platforms like Kickstarter, they decided to develop Crowdbuilding.nl, an online platform that monitors the popularity of empty buildings and matches parties willing to redevelop and inhabit them. Operating under the motto “Vacancy has never been so nice,” the online platform will celebrate its official launch in December as part of Amsterdam’s “Open Office Day.”

photo: Crowdbuilding
photo: Crowdbuilding

Providing some additional background, Tjeerd Haccou of Space & Matter explains that while many projects set out to raise awareness on this matter from a cultural perspective, often through artistic or activist interventions, these do not affect the current deadlocked position. As part of their hands-on approach, Crowdbuilding.nl aims to offer a viable business model. Strategic collaboration with Blauwhoed, an innovative developer, provides the necessary expertise, network, and financial backing for an effective and collaborative transformation venture.

Another group have set the stakes even higher: [im]possible living, a collective of young architects and engineers based in Milan, aims to create a global database of empty and abandoned buildings to enable “rescue projects” ranging from basic mapping to full-on redevelopment. Initiated by Andrea Sesta and Daniela Galvani in early 2011, [im]possible living supplies those who try to raise, discuss, and solve the problem of underutilized real estate with the necessary tools and services.

Along these lines, urban reactivation does not have to entail huge investments or top-to-bottom renovation. It could also take the form of events and temporary interventions that draw attention to the building and attract potential collaborators. A period of transition, with small events leading up to more complex interventions, is actually desirable and actively encouraged by the platform: For each building, [im]possible living provides a discussion board that allows interested parties to define specific needs and ideas for future exploration.

Summing up, SQFT addresses the issue of vacant space in a very targeted way, focusing mostly on temporary reactivation, while Crowdbuilding aims for long-lasting results and [im]possible living provides a platform for pioneering projects all over the world. Whether the focus is local, national, or global, however, the issue of vacancy obviously occupies many creative minds and offers just as many opportunities for those willing to get together and revitalize their cities.

Text: Cristina Ampatzidou
Header image: SQFT