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Rethinking Highest and Best Use

Aug 12, 2009

by Catherine Calvert, VIA’s Director of Practice + Director of Community Architecture

I recently had the opportunity to visit upstate New York and to learn about cycles of urban decline not only associated with our current economic downturn, but that are the result of decades of post-industrialization. The conference I attended, organized by the Association for Community Design, included presentations by representatives from Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Troy, Flint, Rochester and others – all cities that are trying to figure out what to do with a surplus of vacant urban land at a time when hope is scarce.

Here in Cascadia, our cities look very different. Not only are we relatively younger, but even in the most economically challenged areas, land values remain high and neighborhoods are for the most part occupied. Not so in these eastern and midwestern cities, where a downward spiral of job loss, population decline, property abandonment, repossession and eventual demolition of individual buildings erodes at the integrity of once-intact neighborhood fabric. Cities find themselves as owners of a sizeable land bank of empty lots, owners adjacent to vacant land watch as their own property values decline, and inner cities become less and less viable places to live.

Associated with the decay of neighborhoods comes a lack of choices about food supply. Many public markets once prominent in most major urban centers have been lost to private enterprise over time. When neighborhoods are no longer considered to provide adequate catchment area for a grocery store, they are left with only corner stores and convenience markets as their primary food source. This results in “food deserts” that have serious public health and social justice implications.

Urban agriculture is a hot topic at the moment. Farmers markets and the demand for local food are exploding across America. Many cities actively support the creation of P-patches so that residents without access to land are able to grow their own vegetables. Gardening matchmaker websites offer to pair land-challenged urban gardeners with underutilized-yard-owners. But personal food production is not the only reason to utilize vacant land for non-traditional uses. To paraphrase Matt Potteiger from SUNY, conventional landscape architectural practice remains focused on food supply for species other than our own. We are clearly at the tip of the iceberg in terms of utilizing the full potential of the urban spaces between buildings. What if “highest and best use” referred not to development potential, but to social and ecological potential?

As designers and activists we can have a positive effect on the physical relationships between land uses, access to food supply, and the design of our communities to restore ecological function. Some fascinating initiatives are taking place in other cities. What these all share is a reframing of the problem; turning decline into an opportunity to put back what may be missing, but at the same time busting out of conventional notions of what is viable urban space:

  • In Buffalo, a program called the Massachusetts Avenue Project runs an urban agriculture and aquaponics program for youth that focuses on farming education, business training in food marketing and peer communication on healthful eating habits. The resulting health and educational benefits support the entire community.
  • Joan Iverson Nassauer’s study of Genesee County, MI looks at their urban land bank as an opportunity to restore much of the ecological function that was lost during original urbanization. The resulting community resource actually improves land values and prepares the city for its next stages of evolution and urban vitality.
  • In Pittsburgh, a group of students is using empty lots to grow plant materials for biofuels.
  • In Philadelphia, the Community Design Collaborative is looking at developing smaller urban infill outlets for local produce that are more permanent than farmers markets.

Image Credit: Pic 1, Pic 2, Pic 3

One Comment

  1. Nice article – we need examples of the many benefits that sympathetic, collaborative design and planning can bring. We also need to be realistic about the incredibly hard work that is needed to start, to sustain these projects and to get them into mainstream thinking and policy. It would also be nice to know who benefits from them: do they reach poorer families and households? Keep the examples coming – all best – Ben