Imagine if we envisioned thousands of parcels of vacant land on Chicago’s South and West Sides as one large space — as large as the city’s downtown. And imagine if we used that space collectively … for things that benefit entire communities instead of individual property owners.
That’s exactly how David Brown, a professor at University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Architecture, views the city’s vast inventory of vacant land. He is also artistic director of the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial.
Brown sat down with WBEZ to explain the project he calls The Available City.
On what The Available City is
It’s project that I’ve been working on for about 10 years, and it’s really an urban design proposal that looks at all of the city-owned vacant land and, if you look at that in a map, that is about just over 10,000 lots and they’re principally in neighborhoods on the West and South sides. And if you think about that in aggregate, you’re talking about a landmass that’s about the size of downtown or the Loop, and so in this context I’m saying that there’s an opportunity to really rethink that vacant land. And rather than think of it as something where we need to put back buildings that used to be there, we can think about how the land has opportunities as one large set and that it would be a collection of what I’m turning to collective spaces.
How The Available City fits in with other community gardens
As The Available City was initially proposed, I acknowledged that gardens are a use. But I’m also more interested in what are other types of uses that can complement gardens. They can be public space, or what I term collective space. We typically think of parks and plazas as public space and the model for The Available City is that different community organizations would be able to utilize the land in ways that promote their mission. Potentially, there can be other other types of spaces between gardens and housing until you could have small small types of businesses and potentially through supportive organizations that are interested in fostering economic development. It’s not to say that those would be permanent spaces for a business, but it may be that it’s a startup space for a business.
On the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial
The intent of the Biennial is titled The Available City so it’s an opportunity to realize spaces. It’s also an opportunity to share the idea broadly across the city and with designers around the world and so hopefully start a lot of conversations of what could be other collective spaces that aren’t just being formulated strictly by designers. But are really trying to match and pair community organizations with designers based off of what the community organizations might be articulating as an idea of what the space might be and where there’s a kind of overlap in thinking that would lead to the space as being something that maybe the organization needs — or maybe presents greater opportunities than they had imagined.
On his inspiration
My other interest besides architecture is improvised music and how that begins to apply how one can draw ideas from how that’s structured. In Chicago, I’m referring to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and Art Ensemble of Chicago. I am also thinking about Sun Ra, in terms of ideas about the future as well as just the music itself. Thinking about jazz and forms of jazz where there are written structures but there are experimental lineages and ideas.
Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.