New book from Philadelphia's City Parks Association highlights opportunities created by vacant properties

The winning submission, Waterworks, in the City Parks Association's URBAN VOIDS design competition.

Cities and towns across the country face a number of complex problems associated with vacant and abandoned properties, including public health concerns, environmental hazards and reduced property values. Solving these problems is a formidable challenge for any city, but solutions too often lack the long-term vision and planning necessary to rejuvenate a disintegrated community.

In Philadelphia, a city with more than 40,000 vacant properties, one nonprofit organization took an innovative approach to addressing the problem. Philadelphia’s City Parks Association (CPA), a non-profit land use organization, has played a catalytic role in establishing and maintaining public parks and open space in urban areas of Philadelphia. With a mission “to stimulate visionary thinking about natural resources and open space in the urban community” and experience in city planning, CPA recognizes that Philadelphia’s ecology and community engagement are essential parts for finding solutions to the city’s vacant property issues.

In September 2005 CPA announced a call for submissions for URBAN VOIDS, an international design competition for ideas about how to reuse the city’s vacant properties and reshape urban and natural forms throughout the city. The competition invited participants from all over the world to submit their ideas about how to develop and revitalize vacant lots, specifically in Philadelphia, through a comprehensive, long-term strategy, with the objective of collecting innovative ideas for the city to consider. By its very nature, the competition recognized as an opportunity “for rethinking Philadelphia’s landscape in ways that would make the city’s future more sustainable.”

During the four-month project submission period, a total of 220 entries were submitted from 25 countries and 24 states. The proposals had to incorporate a citywide design that included the city’s waterways, soils, and geology, and the theoretical site could be a brownfield, or contaminated former industrial site, as well as lots that have been assessed and cleaned up. Five finalists were chosen, who each had the opportunity to further develop their schemes into feasible project proposals. A multidisciplinary jury group for the competition considered various aspects of the submissions, including ecological, sociological and economic impacts as well as design and scales of governance.

The grand prize was awarded to a local firm, Charles Loomis Chariss McAfee Architects, for its project “Waterwork.” The design proposed transforming a Philadelphia neighborhood into a large storm water management system and its vacant lots into a new watershed, which would function not only as a site to filter and cleanse the water for residents’ reuse, but also as a space for recreation and community interaction.

CPA’s competition lives on in the form of a new book by the same name. URBAN VOIDS: grounds for change is a compilation of short essays contributed by organizations that were involved in the competition process, including the Van Alen Institute, Community Design Collaborative, and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, to name a few. It details the entire process of the project, from the early community discussion phase to the planning of the finalist projects. The “Finalist Gallery” section illustrates the colorful and intricate graphic designs submitted by the finalists and exemplifies how the competition inspired individuals from many corners of the world to challenge their creativity.

As vacant properties continue to pose an economic, health, and environmental threat to communities across the country, cities are challenged to develop creative, comprehensive, and long-term solutions that address local problems. CPA’s approach conveys that vacant properties redevelopment can create an opportunity address these complex issues, as well as a chance to engage new partners and explore innovative solutions.

To purchase a copy of the book go to the City Parks Association website or email cityparksphila [at] gmail [dot] com.

You can learn more about the competition at the Van Alen Institute’s website.