Contributed by: Helen Leung, Director of Social Impact at LA-Más.
Often times, traditional processes to transform vacant spaces take a lot of time and money, requiring complicated permits and professional services. In many of these instances, there are meaningful opportunities to exercise a bit of creativity. My home, the river adjacent community of Elysian Valley located in northeast Los Angeles is home to the annual Frogtown Artwalk, a community event celebrating the creativity of the artists and makers in a hidden neighborhood mixed with residential and manufacturing uses. While the City of Los Angeles is developing a signage plan along the LA River, requiring months of planning, the Elysian Valley Arts Collective worked with LA-Más on an alternative strategy. With the help of local students, we implemented a temporary signage solution for Artwalk participants with a low-cost DIY approach using laser cut boards and colorful cans of spray paint. As a result, several months later, the series of DIY street signage remains the only wayfinding system along the river.
The concept of low-technology DIY solutions that have a high community impact is compelling. As focus on transforming vacant and underutilized space heightens, we encourage this approach as a short term alternative that engages community members and inspire creativity. We recognize that there always a myriad of rules and regulations associated with some of the ideas below. However, we hope that these ideas spark conversations and acknowledge that great ideas may occasionally walk the line between asking for forgiveness and asking for permission. Here are some favorites from the LA-Más team:
1) WiFi Hotspots
As the City of LA continues to debate the merits of free Wifi, many low-income communities continue to face high barriers to internet access. Imagine creating an outdoor WiFi hub coupled with benches that provide an opportunity for citizens to send a quick e-mail without having to buy a cup of coffee. One strategy includes WiFi sharing by neighbors of vacant spaces.
2) Public bike repair stations
With bicycling use on the rise in the city, there is a growing demand for bike services. However, what happens when your local bike shop is closed? In Cambridge, several free bike repair stations providing a pump and an assortment of tools were installed. With costs at $1000, community members can seek support from their Neighborhood Council or local businesses. A local bike station could serve as a sponsor. By identifying vacant spaces adjacent to bicycle lanes, communities can target sites strategically.
3) Little Free library
The growing popularity of little free libraries provides a community-oriented alternative to the Kindle revolution by creating a free book exchange network while sprinkling charm to places across the nation, including our very own Grand Park. For less than $200, you can purchase a little library, but with places like MakerCity LA, why not build your own?
4) Tools library
In vacant spaces that have an existing structure, there is an opportunity to create a library of other sorts. A tool library enables community members to borrow or rent tools and can be seeded with support from home improvement companies. Communities with or adjacent to manufacturing or industrial businesses may find that spare tools are plenty. Funds generated from rentals or late fees can help support ideas for other vacant spaces.
5) Public art
The installation of public art such as kinetic sculptures and interactive displays can encourage social and community activity. Michael Todd’s four year long outdoor sculpture installation at Barnsdall Art Park re-conceptualizes how public space can provide delight-driven opportunities for children and young adults by encouraging endless climbing, ducking, and peering.
6) Late night theater
Pop up events are a popular tool to bring together different people in unexpected places. Perhaps a theme that resonates most with vacant spaces is the concept of activation. A successful way to activate a space is through thoughtful entertainment. For example, the LA River Revitalization Corporation hosted a series of free movie screenings last summer at Marsh Street Park along the LA River, encouraging participants to bike to a residential neighborhood, activate a space that would otherwise be vacant in the evening, and connect with neighbors.
7) Community composting
The composting movement is stronger than ever, especially with organizations like LA Compost testing new models for transforming yard materials and food scrapes into an educational tool and business enterprise. With a simple compost bin in a vacant space, communities members who have never before composted could be encouraged to use someone else’s yard. This is a great option in places where community gardens are abundant, but composting space is limited.
8) Soil remediation
Many vacant lots face various levels of contamination. In Detroit, a diverse community effort, including a soccer team and Wayne State University, created a soil remediation system using specific plants, such as a sunflowers and tomatoes, to remove hazardous materials and toxins. An educational public forum was created, drawing attention to both the history of the site and the important of the remediation for the future.
As the LA Open Acres’ initiative continues to develop a strong platform and toolbox for transform vacant spaces, we hope that organizations like ours can work with community organizations on creative strategies that build and engage community while transforming spaces in both time and cost efficient ways.
Author: Helen Leung is Director of Social Impact at LA-Más, a non-profit design firm working in the intersection of community development, the built environment, and public health in low-income communities. Helen can be reached at helen[at]mas.la