Welcome To The Sky Farm

A rooftop garden at a hospital in Indianapolis engages patients and staff to learn more about food and healthy living. Dawn Olsen reports

Sky Farm

Urban farmer Rachel White walked up, down, and around the raised garden beds, watering her most recent plantings. Every few moments, she would pause and scratch her arms, which were tanned from the summer sun, but itchy from harvesting. She had collected tomatoes, beans, and berries all day, working non-stop. White didn’t take a lunch; instead, she took care of the garden – a “sky farm” on the roof of an Indianapolis hospital.

The 5,000-square-foot Sky Farm, which yielded more than 2,200 pounds of food in its first year, is located atop the Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital in downtown Indianapolis. The hospital is part of Eskenazi Health, the oldest and largest public health care system in Indiana, with a mission to advocate, care, and teach, with special emphasis on vulnerable populations.

The Sky Farm, now in its third season, fully embraces Eskenazi’s mission. It teaches patients, staff, and community members how to engage with food, and it promotes healthy living. “People know what vegetables look like in a store,” said White, “but maybe they don’t know what they look like when they’re planted or growing. People come to the Sky Farm and make the connection.”

To create the Sky Farm, the hospital partnered with Growing Places Indy, a non-profit organisation that focuses on urban agriculture and provides farm support services. In addition to working with Eskenazi Health, Growing Places Indy farms several “micro-farms” in Indianapolis. At the largest site, a 13,000-square-foot U-Pick farm, community members can learn how food is grown, pick their own produce, and learn about food preparation and storage. Like the Sky Farm, it exposes individuals to urban agriculture, teaches them how to engage with food, and promotes healthy living.

Sky Farm

White emphasised that the Sky Farm isn’t “just a garden” – it’s an educational space. Dietitians hold nutrition classes there, and people can take vegetables home. And since the Sky Farm is open to the public 24/7, visitors can stroll among the garden beds, point out things they recognise, and ask questions about what they don’t. “It’s kind of like a science lab,” said White. “That’s one of my favourite things about working here. Just seeing everyone learn.”

“It’s nice for patients to have a quiet space away from their room,” White explained. “I do know some nurses and physical therapists use the space … and the patients who talk to me really like it and are amazed that it is at a hospital and on a roof.”

In other words, the Sky Farm serves as a reprieve; patients can leave their hospital room, breathe the fresh air, and bathe in sunlight. It’s refreshing. It’s encouraging. And it gives patients the opportunity to learn about preventive medicine and ways of healthy living.

Produce from the Sky Farm also goes to the cafe located on the hospital’s campus. “I like to give them things that are in their menu already so they don’t have to create new recipes,” said White.

But despite the Sky Farm’s size, it doesn’t stretch to all of the hospital’s 5,000 employees and one million annual outpatient visitors; however, there are plans to expand it. Some of the Sedum plots – which help regulate the building’s temperature – will be converted into additional beds and add about 2,000 square feet.

Sky Farm

There is also a beehive maintained by Bee Public, which is making Indianapolis a more bee-friendly city. The organisation, which does not harvest the honey its bees make, focuses on increasing awareness about honeybee plight and the link between pollinators and the food system. It gives classroom presentations and has also installed hives at four area schools, an urban kitchen, and one of the Growing Places Indy farms. As for the hive at the Sky Farm, it gives bees access to the plants and flowers at Eskenazi Health, as well as the Indianapolis Zoo.

Other Sky Farm features include 30-inch-tall beds for patients in wheelchairs, who come to the rooftop garden for physical therapy. There also are 14 employee plots, for which demand is high.

White, who is on track to harvest more than 3,000 pounds of produce this year, said she loves the Sky Farm’s ability to connect individuals – patients, hospital employees, community members – to the earth. Because the Sky Farm is more than a garden: it’s an educational space, and a spot that inspires individuals to start a garden of their own.

White scratched her arm. “Sometimes, you just have to start growing stuff and see what happens.”

Dawn Olsen is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis. She writes about architecture, historic preservation, and art and photography

Women can be city leaders, too?

In celebration of legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday, I spoke at an Urbanistas event on women’s role in city leadership, myths about gendered urbanism and the value of inclusivity

Becoming+Jane+Jacobs

The bottom-up v top-down tension in urbanism seems to be encapsulated by the clash between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses in New York, and their divergent approaches to urban development. But when we speak of the need for female leadership in cities, I think we fall into a trap of simplifying this as: women care about the community, men care about money. This, in my mind, is a reductive myth that will get us nowhere if we are to achieve better inclusivity in municipal management.

First of all, not all women champion the community and not all men prioritise the bottom line. We are all individuals, each with our own belief of what is important to make a city work. Binaries created by an assumption of “female priorities” and their male counterparts serve only to cloud and prevent progress. Saying this, there are of course experiences that some groups have of urban space that other groups may not understand, so the key is to assemble a range of voices when we make cities.

Secondly, in terms of the caring v money myth, one clearly needn’t be at the expense of the other. Community can go hand in hand with a thriving economy – and in many cases it generates it. Jacobs certainly promoted this idea with her advocacy of diverse, localised economies. If our cities are more inclusive, our economies will flourish because all people are being supported and enabled to thrive.

Myths aside, whether we like it or not there is still a gender imbalance in the built environment sector and city leadership, although it’s getting better. If we want it to keep improving, notably on a global scale to include places where it remains far more imbalanced than it does in countries like the UK, we do need to start from the bottom up. To ensure that women’s voices and needs are heard and valued in planning processes, and that capacity is built for them to have an active role in shaping their city.

I recently met Kathryn Travers, director of Women In Cities International, an organisation set up to help make sure issues around women’s safety in public spaces could be better integrated into urban planning and management policy around the world. Their Because I am a Girl Urban Programme, in collaboration with Plan International, operates in Cairo, Lima, Delhi, Hanoi and Kampala. It works with teenage girls to help them voice and map how unsafe they feel in their public spaces and transport networks, and think about what improvements could be made. At the same time, it builds their capacity for meaningful participation in urban development and governance by encouraging them to review existing city policies and propose changes.

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One of the Because I Am A Girl Urban Programme workshops. Photograph: Women In Cities International

Helping these girls to have a say in shaping their cities is crucial in a context where women around the world continue to face harassment and violence in the urban realm: in some cities, Kathryn tells me, more than 90% of women experience daily sexual harassment in public space. Of the girls that the programme have worked with, roughly a quarter of them said that they never feel safe in public places. What’s more, most of these girls felt undervalued and rarely listened to in their community, convinced they would never have a say in how their city is shaped. Globally, there is a lot of work to do on a social and attitudinal level in terms of valuing the female voice. Only when we ensure women are able to participate, can we ensure they can lead.

We don’t see a great deal of female mayors, but I think the ones we can, such as Barcelona’s Ada Colau, Paris’ Anne Hidalgo and Madrid’s Manuela Carmena, provide heartening inspiration to women and girls around the world who maybe don’t feel they could ever have such a role in their city.

One of my fellow Young Urbanist members spoke to me about the challenges she faces being a woman in the built environment industry. When she was working at a local authority, she was told by people making planning applications for large schemes that as a young woman they were unsure of her judgement. At meetings, despite being the lead planning officer on the case, comment and conversation would always be directed to her male colleagues. Even when women are present and have a central role, they can still be undermined. Although her current public sector role is better, the domination of men in the departments often means she’s the only woman in meetings.

Nevertheless, she insists, progress is being made: she’s come across inspiring female senior managers and directors in the public sector, and in policy we are seeing a more gender-inclusive understanding of experience of urban space.

Maybe we need inspiring women, like Jacobs, to lead by example until the rest of the industry, and society in general, can catch up. At which point it’s not about putting people on a pedestal, but about ensuring inclusivity is engrained into every part of growing, shaping and leading our cities.

By Francesca Perry, Editor

The ultimate ‘linear city’

In a long drive down the Overseas Highway, Charles Critchell explores the peculiar experience of an elongated island city: the Florida Keys

Illustration by Nate Kitch

Under the auspices of a southern sky, the road ahead of us unwound invitingly as Miami’s Downtown buildings and tangle of free-ways steadily receded from view. The palpable sense of escape which comes from shrugging off any big city is often compounded by the adventure of what lies ahead – in our case the one hundred mile length of the Florida Keys, starting in Key Largo and finishing in the fabled Caribbean Island that is Key West, very much the end of the road in all senses.

Along with its celebrated cousins, the heroic Route 66 and scenic Pacific Coast Highway, Florida’s own Overseas Highway provides the backdrop to one of the great American Road trips. Whereas those other routes intermittently range from perfect isolation to expansive urban vistas, The Overseas Highway presents a very different dynamic. Considering its location on such a seemingly remote string of islands, it is in fact well populated for much of its length, a tribute to the road’s importance in facilitating the growth of not only a plethora of neighbourhoods and businesses but the critical ancillary infrastructure needed to support it. It soon becomes apparent that the Overseas Highway is much more than an expansive ribbon of tarmac, but a linear city – a one hundred mile long High Street.

The development of the Overseas Highway came into being in the early twentieth century, though it was not then known as such – or even recognised as a continuous Highway. Like many road networks throughout America the route was a palimpsest of an earlier railway network, The Florida Overseas Railway. The Railway was the creation of businessman Henry Flagler’s fertile mind – the man credited as the ‘Father of Miami’ – and was envisaged to be both a key artery in prizing open Latin American markets south of Key West’s deep water port, as well as a pleasure line for wide-eyed tourists and all the opportunities of the 1920s Florida land boom.

What becomes immediately evident as you leave Miami’s wide ubiquitous boulevards and join the confluence of traffic headed South is that this road is one of business as much as it is pleasure, as wide-bodied tankers and goods trucks happily trundle along behind open top hire cars and weathered family station wagons. The two lane highway is certainly more than the sum of its parts; the thread by which a myriad of ecologies, communities and businesses hang off – dependent on its passing trade for their survival.

Strip mall, Florida Keys style

Lining the route are a proliferation of different building typologies – most comprise simple concrete or clapboard structures alongside gaudy service station architecture. It is however the repetition of three key building types – gas stations, banks and churches – which speak of the trade off the Keys has had to make between commerce and community. Head away from the main road and these communities begin to reveal themselves; from discount outlet warehouses and shiny new condos clustered around small newly developed business parks and marinas in the upper Keys, to the family-run and fiercely independent small traders and long established residential neighbourhoods in the mid and lower Keys.

Much like the typical High Street, the character of the built fabric inevitably varies as you venture further, though the juxtaposition of the mundane alongside the sublime serves as a constant reminder that this very much a functioning strip of city.

One of the major pulls of the journey south is the passage alongside the infamous Seven Mile Bridge, which straddles the middle and lower Keys. Though hailed as the eighth wonder of the world at the time of construction, it claimed the lives of over seven hundred labourers before being largely destroyed as a result of the1935 Labour Day Hurricane. The original superstructure exists today as a disused and decaying concrete deck, idling atop a mass of staunch pilings only meters above the placid Gulf.

You could be forgiven for missing it entirely though, as the roadway motorists now travel along exudes a drama all of its own; climbing steadily you are soon seemingly thrust headlong into the oncoming clouds as the water to either side drops away and the impression of speeding in some otherworldly domain takes hold for just a few seconds.

Ascent

Aside from this welcome digression, the steady procession of vehicles runs pretty much the full one hundred mile length of the keys, all reined in by the variable 35-55 mile per hour speed limit, which ensures the road can fulfil its function as a souped-up sidewalk.

The speed limit dictates that you window shop as you travel the road, giving businesses the opportunity to vie for your attention whether it be for a burger or a tank of fuel. Not all businesses fare so well however, as rust-ravaged billboards and derelict motels are interspersed throughout, simply left to bake in the incessant Floridian sun.

Indeed the effect of an extended drive seemingly sandwiched between sun and sea gives way to a condition locals call ‘island time’; the idea of embracing a more leisurely pace not to be found on the mainland. To this end I believe that it is in fact a new form of ‘city time’ particularity in the vicinity of the highway itself, as all the cues of urban life remain; the labourers toiling amid mounds of earth at the side of the road, or the gleaming red fire truck and sheriffs patrol car – both ready to be despatched at a moment’s notice.

The figurative downtown of this linear city is without doubt Key West, a seemingly self-governing principality known for its loose morals and hedonistic wants. Here the Overseas Highway tightens into a knuckle of romantically named boulevards and side streets as the familiar American grid re-asserts itself. The clamour of activity and industry soon thrusts itself upon you as the linear cities strip malls and stirring panoramas are replaced with a dense web of telegraph poles, street signage and a canopy of vegetation. The diversity of sights and experiences which the Highway presented us with confirms my belief that it is very much a city in every aspect, and one that despite running in a straight line, is in no way predictable.

Key West

All photographs by Charles Critchell

Brutal heritage: renewing London’s icons

From Tower Bridge to Buckingham Palace, Jasper Sutherland‘s montages blend the traditional icons of London with brutalist housing in a reimagined cityscape

'Twin Tower Bridge'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Twin Tower Bridge’. Image: Jasper Sutherland

What if London’s feted architectural icons were replaced with brutalist blocks? That’s he urban landscape imagined by designer Jasper Sutherland in his ‘Postcards to London’ series.

Mingling notions of tradition and monumentality, the postcard montages – created by pasting brutalist icons into ornate landmarks of London’s picture postcard history – seek to reference the often unusual juxtaposition of architectural styles in the UK capital, much of which remains as a legacy of the Blitz.

“London is both of the things in the picture – and more – but you have this layered spectrum,” explains Sutherland. “Grand wealth and imperial antiquity at one end and the changing face of modernity, often responding to social deprivation, at the other. What I find interesting is when this spectrum is compressed and ends up side by side as it is, all over London.”

“Part of my interest was sparked by the link between architecture and the ‘future’,” he adds. “We are always living in a vision of the future from the past. We do live in a postmodern city – something like a watered down 2019 LA in Blade Runner. London in the future is never going to look shiny and coherent because of its existing context. And that’s kind of what I love about it – it’s diverse to the point of incoherence, architecturally speaking. It doesn’t look ‘planned’ because things happen at distinct moments in time, in a very condensed amount of space.”

'Trellick Circus'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Trellick Circus’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'Heygate Palace / One below the Queen'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Heygate Palace / One below the Queen’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'Bovril Heights'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Bovril Heights’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'Apartments of Parliament / Second Home'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Apartments of Parliament / Second Home’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'British tele-column'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘British tele-column’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'Abbey's Loft conversion'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Abbey’s Loft conversion’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'St Paul's Terrace of Alexandra'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘St Paul’s Terrace of Alexandra’. Image: Jasper Sutherland

Book of the year: City by City

by Francesca Perry

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I began to read this anthology of stories in the summer – a distant memory for many of us now. “The weather is perfect until the city burns,” writes Jordan Kisner in the opening essay. A familiar feeling to many urbanites in summer, this is how Kisner sets the scene of San Diego: a city of extremes.

Taking us across the entire United States in reflections that are both personal and educational, City by City captures two things that are too often separated: the living, breathing urban experience – and the facts that explain why these places are the way they are.

The book takes us from the seductive, destructive casinos of Las Vegas to the black bears rifling through city dumpsters in Alaska’s Whittier. It describes the complex stories around big urban developments like Atlanta’s BeltLine, but it also immerses us in feelings, like that of returning to your home city: “as though I were preparing to watch a movie I’ve seen many times before.”

Nikil Saval charts the industrial changes in the US – from the factories of manufacturing that established cities like Detroit to the skybound office towers that define today’s working world in places like New York – and the social developments and problems that happen around this. “New York has led the way in modelling how a city based on production can be transformed into one based on services and how a skyline of church spires and smokestacks can be elevated into a jagged, Tetris-like collection of tall glass boxes,” Saval writes.

We hear about the loss of downtowns to megamalls, the loss of independent radio stations to strip bars. A process that is sometimes irrevocable, and sometimes not – as Ryann Liebenthal realised when discovering the re-emergence of a thriving cultural scene in his hometown Boise, Idaho, with its local music and proliferating public art. But when Liebenthal sees a cultural metamorphosis become his city’s “remapping of self”, we realise the perils of change.

From the “revitalisation” efforts that stamped out heritage in favour of convenience manifested by homogenised shopping malls, to new waves of “renaissance” that embrace independent culture at the risk of gentrification, there is always baggage saddling changes that we may not quite understand until it’s too late.

We are so used to this dichotomy, though: one group telling us change is positive progress; another group deciding change is bad. The reality is somewhere in the middle, both beneficial and problematic: the middle ground of the urban grey. But one thing is sure, and that is cities change, and they will continue to do so. The aspiration is that we can all be involved in these developments, and shape them to be as inclusive and equitable as possible.

Of course it is not just urban development that needs to be fair and inclusive – it is society itself. In cities across America in 2015, on streets and online, the Black Lives Matter movement continued to highlight unjust violence against black people in the country. Lawrence Jackson’s powerful essay ‘Christmas in Baltimore’ describes his trip home for the funeral of his friend who had been killed by police. Jackson contemplates the contemporary experience of being black in the US: “No one wants to accept this in a country based on upward mobility and the hope of individual distinction, but it is a fact: blackness still causes the distance to evaporate between who you are and what you have done and what the society has made you.”

City by City reflects on urban America’s history, how things are shifting now and muses at changes to come. These are immersive and often poetic dispatches; stories and history lessons without the didacticism. They chart the realities, irrationalities, wonders and injustices of US cities – and I suggest you have a read.

City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis is edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb and published by n+1 / FSG.

From Marseille to Manchester: what can we learn from ‘second cities’?

Young Urbanists Julie Plichon and Nicholas Hugh Goddard consider the characteristics, connections and changes of two ‘second cities’ 

Marseille

France and the UK are often seen as two centralised countries dominated by their capital cities. While parallels can be drawn between Paris and London, we think the same can be done with Marseille and Manchester, two cities enjoying a renaissance that can increasingly be considered as “second cities”. But what does this term really mean – and how does it play out?

Marseille

Marseille is in many ways France’s second city – even their football games against the Paris Saint German team express the underlying rivalry between these two cities. Home to 1 million inhabitants, Marseille is France’s primary port and its commercial gateway to Europe; as a result it has a hugely multicultural character. Its spectacular location perched on two bays make it an iconic place in France. Beyond this idyllic imagery, however, the city has suffered from a negative image – whether local Mafiosi, drug trade or dirt. Indeed the city is characterised by dramatic inequalities where pauperised populations are found in “quartiers nords”, those isolated urban ghettos, where the beautiful tramways and tubes that make the “Marseillais” so proud do not go.

The city has worked hard to improve this infamous status. Two years ago Marseille was the European Capital of Culture, enhancing many existing places and creating new landmarks for the city, like the Museum of Mediterranean Civilisations (MUCEM), new amenities along the Vieux Port and bringing international attention to its geographical and cultural potential. The year of 2013 and the European Capital of Culture status can be seen as the climax of a regeneration strategy initiated in 1995 called “Euroméditérannée” that aimed to position Marseille as a strong link between Europe and the Mediterranean. The project has been given the status of an “Operation of National Importance”, and financed at different public scales: local, national, and European to promote Marseille as the “biggest Southern metropolis in Europe for business”.

quartier-de-la-joliette-marseille-2011
La Joliette, Marseille

This regeneration has its dark side though. A less successful version of it can be found along the new business district “La Joliette”. The former docks have been redeveloped, with the help of some American banks (among them: Lehman Brothers) to host commercial offices and luxury housing. But the docks remain empty, and the offices are still “to let”. They have been “to let” for many years now. The political will to bring world-class investment into Marseille contrasts with the empty reality of those docks, and mirrors pretty well what is happening in the city. Perhaps Marseille is just a city that is naturally resistant to gentrification.

Manchester

The idea that Manchester is in any way “second” to any other locale is an anathema to most Mancunians. Manchester is special, unique and gritty but sophisticated and elegant. The story of Manchester is well known; the first industrial city, the dark satanic mills, Engels’ “Condition of the working class in England”. This manufacturing heritage is important, but equally as important was the nexus of the service industries such as banks, insurers and merchants that co-located in the city to serve much of Lancashire and the North West. This has left both an excellent built legacy, and an institutional legacy which enables it to remain economically competitive to this day.

Manchester Town Hall
Manchester Town Hall

Pragmatism is a key quality of the citizens of greater Manchester. Lets not forget that it was a pretty grim place in the 80s and early 90s, like many cities in the UK. However during this time it still produced the culturally significant Madchester scene, which kicked off the development of the Gay Village and the Northern Quarter, two areas that are now fundamental to the city’s life and vibrancy.

It took a bomb in 1996 for the powers that be to get serious about making the city centre a tolerable environment once again, after the grievous town planning of the 1970s. What could have been a disastrous response was turned into a triumph by the council and it is now held up as a poster child of city centre regeneration. It has not been perfect: ‘The Triangle’ (the old Corn Exchange to most people) has had a troublesome recent history, as has the Fire Station. Victoria Station has only just been improved, having been essentially ignored for years. Other areas, such as Hulme, have been successfully transformed, and Castlefields has been a phenomenal success with warehouse conversions and new builds around the dramatic viaducts and canals that were once the commercial veins of the city.

Scratch beneath the surface though, and Manchester too has its problems. About a quarter of Greater Manchester ranks in the 5% most deprived areas in the country according the Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2015. Spatially, this deprivation is concentrated in the North and East of the city and one of the city’s key challenges is now channeling some of Manchester’s success into these areas.

Harpurhey in northern Manchester was once named the most deprived area in England. Photograph: Gent Hunt
Harpurhey in northern Manchester was once named the most deprived area in England. Photograph: Gent Hunt

These, then, are two proud and compelling cities with very different histories, but that in some ways share a common trajectory. By learning from these places we understand that perhaps cities should not be perceived in terms of being “first” and “second” – but should be taken as individual entities that offer unique qualities. Both cities are beginning to convince their capitals of this fact and should look forward to the commensurate attention, however, it remains to be seen if they will be able to harness this to solve the engrained difficulties that are faced by both.


This post is written as part of Charles Critchell’s “Second Cities: Manchester to Marseille” project which has been supported by the Academy of Urbanism’s Young Urbanists Small Grants Scheme. Charles is presenting the project on Monday 30 November at The Alan Baxter Gallery.

Capturing urban ghosts

 

From ‘Once Were Olympians’. Photograph: Rik Moran

Rik Moran is a London based documentary photographer focused on environments and spaces, the memories that inhabit them, and the residual stories and emotions left behind. This summer, he published three collections as part of his Flâneurism series, a celebration of the unseen, hidden and uncelebrated.

The first of the Flâneurism editions, ‘Once Were Olympians’, explores the landscape of austerity and the legacy of the Olympics in Athens. The photographs immerse us in the 2004 Athens Olympic park, which now sits vacant waiting while private developers struggle to secure financing for redevelopment.

The second edition, ‘A Chronicle Of Current Events’, looks at hidden communication in modern-day Moscow. With heightened paranoia around monitored communications, contemporary dissidents of Russia are taking to the streets to communicate in ways beyond the digital realm.

‘What Once Was Future is Now Forgotten’, the third edition, documents the passing of the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle. One of London’s more famous built victims of gentrification, the demolition of the estate symbolises the forces at play in the city, and Moran’s photographs capture memories that feel ghostlike.

From ‘Once Were Olympians’. Photograph: Rik Moran
From ‘A Chronicle of Current Events’. Photograph: Rik Moran
From ‘A Chronicle of Current Events’. Photograph: Rik Moran
From ‘What Once Was Future is Now Forgotten’. Photograph: Rik Moran
From ‘What Once Was Future is Now Forgotten’. Photograph: Rik Moran

 

 

These three Flaneurism editions can be purchased at flaneurism.com

All photographs copyright Rik Moran and used with permission. 

Past as Future: Making Adaptive Reuse Work

By Jacqueline Drayer

Hans Sachs Haus Gelsenkirchen
Hans-Sachs-Haus, Gelsenkirchen. Image: Hans-Georg Esch

The Cinderella story of an old warehouse converted into luxury lofts is well known to city residents today. Optimistically, this means a historic structure is thoughtfully altered to serve a modern purpose. Pessimistically, the story is one of working class architecture is transformed into playhouses for the rich. There is some truth in both views.

Adaptive reuse is the process of giving old, generally abandoned buildings new lives through new uses. Churches become museums. Steam plants become breweries. Schools become community centres. And yes, warehouses become lofts. Adaptive reuse is not necessarily a technical term: you may be able to demolish most of that warehouse and legally call the newly created lofts adaptive reuse.

However, its cousins, historic preservation and historic rehabilitation, carry legal weight. In the United States, a building deemed historic under state guidelines is often protected against demolition. A historically rehabilitated structure is one that meets the Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for updating a building without destroying its historic integrity.

The best adaptive reuse is a twin of historic rehabilitation. Unused historically significant buildings are redeveloped so that they can contribute to their neighbourhoods aesthetically and economically, but also historically. That means that besides restoring an abandoned building to its original state and allowing profits to flow to developers and the local economy, the story of yesterday’s people and community are told.

This does not need to be difficult, and can just be a simple wall text or webpage dedicated to a history of what the building meant to past generations. Take Brussels’ Belgian Comic Strip Centre as an example. This “ninth art” is important to the country’s cultural history, and so is Victor Horta, the famed art nouveau architect who designed the converted textile warehouse. The museum shows its pride in both its collection and its home through telling the building’s history online, contextualising it alongside architect and design movement.

Belgian Comic Strip Centre
Belgian Comic Strip Centre

Much new development today obscures history, cherry-picking only attractive aspects to sell to consumers. For example, in the United States, 19th century working class housing proliferated along riverfronts. A century later, these areas were cleared and their histories swept under the rug. Such neighbourhoods’ original mixes of hard industrial labour and immigrant life are erased and replaced by images of old provincial ease, generally through naming and visually branding new developments.

Adaptive reuse should fight these practices, instead acting as a tool both to preserve buildings themselves and along with them, robust histories. Special attention should be focused on highlighting the social history of the buildings and serving the populations of their original occupancy, especially when these include traditionally marginalised groups. It serves a dual purpose: preserving history and minimising the displacement often wrought by gentrification. Highlighting social history can manifest as cultural street festivals, educational events, and local history days which enliven a space’s past for present residents.

In certain cases, adaptively reused buildings should seek to serve the communities who used the original buildings or ensure a degree of social benefit. For example, if a former public building is converted into private residences, designing a surrounding public space retains some wider community benefit. The redevelopment of a former textile mill in Trenton, New Jersey, may include private housing but it has also become a centre for public interest nonprofits and arts spaces while retaining its built heritage.

If possible, adaptive reuse should seek local involvement: what a builder or historian values may not intersect with communal concerns. Total agreement is unlikely and unnecessary, but including the public in decisions about how to adapt a historic building or memorialise its functions is a great way to take advantage of local perspectives to maintain the area’s most important features. This can be accomplished through community meetings and by forming a local citizen advisory group.

Approaching reuse in this way can help to mitigate gentrification and act as a foothold for more inclusive policy. Adaptations of this sort will not be available in every combination in every project, but their proactive incorporation will make a huge difference in how past history and future needs are experienced.

There will always be those for whom reuse is simply a way to make a buck, and even among the thoughtful, mistakes are made. It is critical to carefully monitor current building projects, particularly those receiving government funding, such as the United States’ historic rehabilitation tax credits. Equally important is observing how the community ultimately reacts to such spaces, noting successful components, and those that must be altered or removed. Of course those wishing only to profit will continue to do so, but focusing more press, public funding, and policy on motivating civically minded reuse will better the field.

Adaptive reuse is a multifaceted tool for improving cities: done well, it can re-energise neighbourhoods. Bringing abandoned buildings back to life can connect communities to local history and have wider social benefits. What’s more, reuse tends to be environmentally friendly: updating old buildings to meet modern codes is generally more sustainable than constructing brand new buildings. Adaptive reuse carried out in these ways is a tool for uniting past, present, and future for the betterment of cities and communities – bridging yesterday’s stories with tomorrow’s.

Jacqueline Drayer is a historic preservation graduate student researching adaptive reuse in Ghent, Belgium this year as a Fulbright Research Fellow

Making inclusive spaces of trade in Durban

Brittany Morris explores how citizen participation helped transform Durban’s Warwick Junction into a thriving, inclusive market hub which supports traders’ needs and re-establishes public space

Brook Street Market
Brook Street Market

Walking through Durban’s Warwick Junction is a kaleidoscope of colours and a symphony for the senses. The myriad of kiosks and markets, and once-derelict-now-vibrant bridges and overpasses offer a glimpse into the experience of street traders in city life here. The creative use of public space accommodating the traders’ needs is apparent all around you as your feet hit the pavement, traversing wide walkways, a pedestrian bridge, enclosed vendor stalls, and roofed market areas. With 460,000 people and 38,000 vehicles passing through daily, Warwick is Durban’s primary public transportation and trading hub.

Nonhlanhla Zuma is a traditional medicine trader in Warwick Junction. Her trading days began in 1982; at this time, a culture of harassment meant she often had to run from the police and watch her goods being removed. Amenities were not provided to traders and she worked on an exposed street pavement where her goods faced the constant threat of being damaged or stolen. Now, she has moved her business to a kiosk that is complete with water, lighting and security facilities to lock up at night. Nonhlanhla is one of approximately 8,000 traders who come to Warwick every day to trade informally.

Warwick’s past is steeped in racial discrimination, exclusive policies, and neglect. The area’s reputation was one of dilapidation and crime, and due to years of apartheid planning Warwick was segregated racially and divided politically and economically until the early 1990s. During this time the area faced such neglect it became extremely rundown and congested – however as Durban’s market and transport networks expanded, the locational advantages offered a form of employment, and many traders lived on the sidewalks in Warwick to secure their goods. Discriminatory legislation and policies, and violent mass evictions, made life very difficult for informal street traders.

Following the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, in an effort to transform a poorly designed Warwick into a safer and more inclusive space for street traders’, the Warwick Junction Urban Renewal Project was initiated by the City. For over a decade local officials, street traders and membership-based trader organisations collaborated and negotiated on the project’s redesign of the area. The project’s inclusive approach adopted an area-based management and local inter-departmental operating structure, where participation of all stakeholders occurred on a number of levels.

Redesigning infrastructural components of the market area following consultations dramatically improved the trading conditions: priority was placed on increasing pedestrian routes, widening walkways, and easing congestion of primary trading hubs. The trading area was paved, shelter and locked storage facilities increased, trader kiosks with water and electricity were constructed, and new spaces were developed for traders.

Muthi market
Muthi market

With approximately 700 traders, Warwick’s muthi (herb and traditional medicine) market is one of the largest in South Africa. Customers approach the herb traders and traditional healers with their illness or ailment (anything from a stomach-ache to a broken heart) who then diagnose and prescribe their medicine. Once an abandoned overpass, facilities were built for the healers and traders and now the muthi market thrives and is connected by a pedestrian pass to other markets in Warwick.

The infrastructural changes and repurposing of empty space supported the traders’ needs, and created healthier, less congested, and safer public spaces. The participatory processes and innovative operating structure included in the urban renewal of Warwick were central to the project’s success of revitalising the area as an inclusive space for street traders and the informal sector on the hinge of Durban’s inner-city.

Warwick’s revitalisation has led to economic development including community-based tourism opportunities, and continues to contribute to the local economy and provide employment. Informal trade turnover in Warwick Junction is estimated to be R1 billion annually. There are very few examples in South Africa and internationally where street traders have been acknowledged for their contributions to cities or included in urban plans and development projects.

The early morning 'Mother Market'
The early morning ‘Mother Market’

Traders, their organisations and allies continue to collaborate and advocate for inclusive public spaces and street traders’ right to the city. Asiye eTafuleni is a non-profit organisation who works with Durban’s informal workers operating from the city’s public spaces. AeT advocates inclusive urban planning and design, and serves as a learning hub for those interested in integrating the informal economy into urban design. Through consultative and participative processes AeT has led various projects and campaigns within Durban to develop informal workers’ working environments and opportunities, such as the Inner-city Cardboard Recycling Project and Markets of Warwick Tour Project. Asiye eTafuleni means ‘bring it to the table’ in isiZulu, and they are living up to their name – engaging with the public and stakeholders to make inclusive space for Durban’s informal traders in an urban environment that recognises the informal economy’s contribution to city life and public space, as well as the rights of informal workers.

Warwick’s street traders still face challenges, such as under representation in urban-decision making processes and policies, and proposed development projects. Although the benefits of the informal trading sector’s contributions to creating inclusive, sustainable and vibrant cities are often ignored and undervalued, traders, their organisations and allies continue to collaborate and advocate for inclusive public spaces and street traders’ rights to the city. The success of the Warwick Junction project is a testament to how including street traders in urban plans supports sustainable livelihoods, addresses poverty and unemployment challenges, and creates democratic public spaces that are safer, more inclusive and contribute to city vitality and overall urban connectivity.

This is an edited version of a post which originally appeared on Vancouver Public Space Network. All photographs author’s own. Brittany Morris is a researcher and writes about inclusive urban environments, public space and creative community engagement.