Revitalizing underutilized space

This past weekend we all said a sad goodbye to the Phoenix mural and the Madlot. But the mural did what it was intended to do and that was bring people to the space - to enjoy being out in their community, and share many memories made at the beloved Madlot. Now as we say farewell to this public space, and make room for new apartments and retail shops, we need to move our focus on finding a new “Madlot”. Additions of painted crosswalks, and places to sit on the sidewalk will allow more public event space. We need more community involvement in Covington, we need more projects like Madlot, the Phoenix mural, Make Goebel Great and Orchard Park. And we need the help of city administration to do it, since these neglected neighborhoods negatively impact society and businesses.

The Bad, and The Ugly:

A persistent view about vacant lots is: that they are areas associated with crime, abandonment, depressed real estate values, trash, overgrown weeds, pests, and general economic and/or social failure. Most people consider vacant lots to be adversely impacting community vitality. A bad park is a place of fear and danger. A bad square repels people, business, and investment. And as much as we try and hide it or forget about them, we have some of those places in Covington.

The Good (Change):

If we could take one blighted property from the middle of each neighborhood block, and turn it into a public space for the community (picnic tables, a grill, swing sets and slides, or another urban farm for one of our many locally sourced restaurants: Otto’s, Lisse, Commonwealth Bistro, Son&Soil, etc.), maybe we can achieve smaller Madlots across the city. Maybe we could achieve vivacity in some forgotten sections of the city by bringing people out into the streets. Crime rates and gang activity go down when more people are out on the street and know their neighbors. Where people feel a sense of ownership in their cities, they are more likely to take better care of the common environment and of themselves.

Those healthy public spaces are the catalyst for revitalizing communities and neighborhoods, whatever and wherever they are. An attractive, active, well-functioning public space can jump-start economic development (think: Madlot) and bring together people from all walks of life and all income groups. The presence of multiple types of people ensures that no one group dominates, and that the space is safe and welcoming for all, including women and children. Public spaces are a vital ingredient of successful cities. They help build a sense of community, civic identity and culture - all priceless commodities in an increasingly congested city landscape. A great urban park is a safety valve for the city, where people living in high density can find breathing room.

These public spaces would allow people to feel safe to play and relax to relieve stress. The overall psychological effects that well-conceived and managed public spaces have on a city’s health, are important to note because it helps the crime rates go down, economic development go up, and promotes better physical health. (Kind of like Goebel Park, it was reclaimed from the drug dealers and returned to the community kids.) 

The Baltimore Model:

What if we could do here in Covington what Baltimore did with some of its underutilized spaces, its “bad” parks and squares? Baltimore’s Power in Dirt movement, took a census of all vacant, and dilapidated lots and created a database that allowed residents to take over the spots. The idea being that they would take care of the spaces and allow the city to spend the millions of dollars they were spending to maintain these spaces somewhere else. They used one-year leases to develop community green or open space then if successful, residents could renew for up to 5 years and after 5 years, the lot could become part of the Baltimore Green Space land trust. Each resident or groups of residents turned them into community gardens, play spaces for kids, public gathering spots and cleaned the blight out of the neighborhoods.

Power in Dirt made it incredibly easy for communities to legally adopt the City’s vacant lots and get technical assistance to redesign those lots for community use. Where many cities have similar programs, Baltimore successfully streamlined the process and made it both well-publicized and user-friendly. The initiative, by putting all of the city-owned vacant lots on a map for public consumption, showed the City’s willingness to be forthright and open about those abandoned spaces that may not be redeveloped any time in the near future. Power in Dirt was in many ways a public campaign to highlight adopt-a-lot policies that already existed in Baltimore. It has proven successful in engaging the public in the process of neighborhood revitalization. The 700 new community managed open spaces since the initiative began illustrates a strong desire from communities to revitalize destroyed spaces in their neighborhoods as well as the success of Power in Dirt in eliminating barriers to doing so. 

The Government’s Role:

This approach builds on the ability of local institutions to create great community places that bring people together and reflect community values and needs. Unfortunately, government is usually not set up to support civic spaces. Rarely is anyone in the official power structure actively focused on creating a successful public realm. Not only are there not individuals or departments focused on public spaces, but as a whole government does not explicitly seek successful communal spaces as an outcome.

The structure of departments and the procedures they require in fact sometimes hinder the creation of successful public spaces. Transportation departments view their mission as just strictly moving traffic; the parks departments are there to create and manage green space only; community development agencies are focused on development of projects, and not the spaces in between them. If the end game is to make places, communities, and regions more prosperous, civilized, and attractive for all people, then government processes need to change to reflect that goal. This requires the development of consensus-building, city consultation processes, and institutional reform, all of which would enhance citizenship and inclusion.

In other words, our city and local governments need to mobilize to develop and implement and assist grassroots policies as well as top-down ones. The challenge is to include rather than to exclude, to share responsibility and investment, and to encourage new methods of integration and regulation based on public good — and not purely private interest.

Ready? Set. Go!

When cities are struggling psychologically and economically, investment in public spaces may be seen as a non-essential response, but the truth is that even a small investment in quality public space delivers a diverse return to those with the foresight to see its value. So, is there a place in your neighborhood where you’d like to test an idea for a temporary plaza? Perhaps it’s an empty lot, a really wide but not often used part of a road, or small alleyway? Is there a potential for a light, quick, and cheap positive change? The Center for Great Neighborhoods offers a variety of grants, for those who want to create change in their neighborhoods. In the past 8 years, they have awarded over $336,000 in our community. These grants are a great way for you to trial and error to see what will and won’t work for your neighborhood. What does work in Mainstrasse Village probably won’t work in Latonia and vice versa, but when something works for you, build on it.