KU Research Studio Report: Transforming Vacancy to Vibrancy

KU Research Studio Report: Transforming Vacancy to Vibrancy


A common challenge facing American cities is the vacant lot. It’s a contagion – one abandoned lot drags down property values, leading to further disinvestment in neighborhood property and causing vacancies to multiply into full-blown urban blight. A multidisciplinary team of students studied this problem during the Fall 2015 Gould Evans Design Research Studio at the University of Kansas School of Architecture, Design and Planning. Using Kansas City, KS (KCK) as a case study, the team came up with “Vacant Cities,” a creative proposal to re-purpose existing vacant lots along the city’s Central Avenue corridor as new social infrastructure that addresses the community’s most pressing needs.

The studio’s final project was a deliverable for communities like KCK, to guide redevelopment from the grassroots level up. Their work has attracted the attention of local KCK elected officials, small business owners, not-for profits, activists, and general community members, and we’re currently in conversations about the feasibility of implementing some of the ideas.

Gould Evans developed the research studio concept collaboratively with KU in 2013 to explore what we’ve seen in our architectural practice: the diversity of perspectives and skills on a design team enriches the result – and may even re-frame the design challenge itself. In this iteration of the studio, the students’ backgrounds ranged from architecture to software design, business to journalism.

The research process for “Vacant Cities” included the following:

Geographical Information System (GIS) Analysis

The students used GIS software to gather, store, track, and analyze data about their identified area of study: the Central Avenue Corridor, which is located in the urban core of the city. In an effort to better understand the KCK community, the team examined it from six different lenses – poverty, racial diversity, education, healthcare, racial diversity, vacancy, and rental percentage – and mapped the results. Their research shows that issues common to many cities are present in KCK. They are especially apparent in the Central Avenue Corridor, where there is a higher than average poverty rate, and a lower average level of education, healthcare insurance and home ownership. There are many vacant lots and structures. A positive attribute of the area is its racial diversity: far above the KC metropolitan area average. The students created a base of data to inform their proposals for addressing vacancies in community-appropriate ways.

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Using GIS software, the students discovered there are more renter-occupied structures than there are owner-occupied structures in KCK.

Community Leader Discussions

While conducting data analysis, the students met with community leaders to gain a better understanding of issues and opportunities. They also worked with the Wyandotte County Land Bank, which exists to return tax-delinquent and distressed property to productive uses that benefit the community. In collaboration with the land bank, the student team found 175 vacant properties to work with and made it their goal to find ways to use the lots to improve the KCK community.

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The pink squares on this aerial view of KCK mark the 175 Land Bank properties.

Community Research

The students crafted a survey to gauge how community members felt about various aspects of KCK, including the vacancy issue. These served as a springboard for deeper, one-on-one conversations with a cross-section of community members from different backgrounds, who have lived in the area for different lengths of time. These nuanced, anecdotal perspectives on the issue of vacancy were a valuable complement to the data-gathering that had been done.

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One-on-one conversations- and the wisdom of great urbanists – provided great insight into the issues facing KCK.

Brainstorming and Testing

The students used design thinking to analyze the mountain of information they’d compiled. They diagrammed aspects of the vacancy issue to better visualize them, including why properties deteriorate and how investment in the community actually works. They brainstormed a varied list of potential vacant lot uses, then overlaid four factors – cost, feasibility, scale of impact and architectural opportunity – on the list to organize them. They developed a taxonomy of the four main types of vacancies that exist within KCK, including island lots, anchor structures, localized clusters, and large clusters. Then, they applied their ideas about usage to specific lot types, with the goal of having the greatest impact possible in a locality. For example, an island lot in an area with high poverty and low rate of healthcare insurance could lend itself well to a community health clinic.

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Students used four factors – cost, feasibility, scale of impact and architectural opportunity – to organize a varied list of potential vacant lot uses.

Precedent Research

The students looked at other examples of research and initiatives to address vacancy from other areas of the United States, studying the programs’ most successful aspects, and comparing them to their own ideas.

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596 Acres is a Brooklyn-based group that creates tools to help local residents find vacant lots by sharing municipal info about land use and development.

The semester passed quickly, and by the end the students felt as though they were just scratching the surface of a complicated and multifaceted issue. However, the beauty of their proposal is that it is flexible, provides options and can be built on by the community. Rather than attempting to create a prescriptive design solution for an issue so complex, they created a plan for place-making founded in research about the community itself.

The full studio project may be viewed here:

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We’re very interested in the different ways research can be used to inform architectural practice. What are some other examples you’re aware of?

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