March 13th, 2012
The University of Alberta’s City-Region Studies Centre recently held a competition known as “Strip Appeal” to challenge urban designers, planners, and developers to redesign the spaces currently occupied by vacant strip malls to be useful for the next generation of society. The CRSC received dozens of entries from around the world and awarded its Jury Prize to Buffalo, New York’s Davidson-Rafailidis Team for its submission known as “Free Zoning”, a policy framework to permit any individual to develop any portion of a vacant strip mall for almost any purpose. The framework’s only rules were that the development used only the existing materials found on site, functioned with the existing municipal utilities, and was located on the defunct mall’s existing foundation. The concept’s purpose would be to encourage people to test innovative new methods of material production and consumption in a highly land and resource efficient environment. In the weeks since Free Zoning was selected, the submission has been praised in the New York Times, Globe and Mail, and The Atlantic magazine.
Facing years of economic turmoil and shrinking collective prosperity in America, designers, planners, and developers in the USA have been forced to embrace Free Zoning’s lessons of,
1. Not waiting until there is a crisis to change your habits,
2. Using only what resources you have on hand, and
3. Embracing new ideas –no matter how radical they seem.
Sadly, for the past century, many Canadian urban designers, planners, and developers have functioned within paradigms completely opposite to that of Free Zoning. Those paradigms are that Canada is blessed with never-ending good economic fortune and prosperity, Canada has unlimited land and natural resources, and Canadians are averse to changing something that appears to be working (whether it actually works is another matter). Each paradigm is counter-productive to maintaining our long-term prosperity.
The lessons of Free Zoning should be applied to Canadian strip malls and other urban lands before designers are forced to apply them without sufficient understanding of the consequences. We must not set aside land for high-risk resource-inefficient uses such as surface parking lots. These lots depend on private automotive use, a mode of transport losing popularity with most young people approaching the age they typically start to drive. Former parking lots should be subdivided into small parcels, path networks, and public plazas. To reduce long-term costs, we must maximize our use of existing non-renewable resources by recycling all building materials on a redevelopment site. Finally, we should embrace new ideas while we can still afford to do proper research by creating small, affordable spaces where people can develop innovative new ideas at low cost to themselves and society.
Canadian urban designers, planners, and developers have carelessly created spaces without realizing their long-term unsustainability. The Strip Appeal competition forced those individuals to return to those failed spaces to transform them into flexible, efficient, and accessible spaces that can meet society’s long-term material needs. America’s debt crisis (and our own coming debt and resource crises) should serve as a wake-up call to everyone that we can maintain our long-term prosperity with our existing lands, buildings, and infrastructure. Let’s hope Canadians heed these lessons before it’s too late.
Central Park Plaza is a derelict strip mall in Buffalo, New York. Having been vacant for years, it is now infamous as a site for crime. Built in 1957 on the site of a former rock quarry, the strip mall thrived for the typical time span of around 15 years before it predictably lost its retail capability. The strip mall is located on the East side of Buffalo near Main Street in a primarily residential area with pockets of failed commercial property.
1. Corrugated steel decking, two panel sizes: 110×150 cm and 320 x 480 cm
2. Open-web steel joists, 640 cm, 750 cm, 1000 cm and 1400 cm
3. Steel I-beams, 550 cm and 800 cm
4. Steel columns, 460 cm
5. Concrete block with brick cladding
6. Concrete block with brick cladding
7. Aluminium frame doors and windows, various sizes
8. Concrete slab foundations with footing.
Central Park Plaza, Buffalo New York: Front and Side
Lifting all zoning restrictions on the Central Park Plaza property and giving it over to City dwellers to create their own houses and/or places of work would, without a doubt, result in a profusion of building types. Using materials at hand, salvaged and sorted after a careful and deliberate demolition of the strip mall, people settling the plot would be free to define how they want to live. The build-up of urban fabric would be a collective effort not unlike the settling of the American frontier.
1. This house is a little case study looking at what kind of dwelling could be constructed using a strict material palette of strip mall salvage.
2. Corrugated steel decking: *24 long sheets, 320 x480 cm. *15 short sheets, 110 x 150 cm
3. Steel I-beams: *21, 320 cm long
4. Open-web steel joists: *4, 1400 cm long. *2, 1000 cm long. *2, 750 cm long
5. Corrugated steel decking: *5 long sheets, 320 x 480 cm. Acoustical ceiling panels: *3 large, 60 x 150 cm.
6. 550 Concrete blocks
7. Existing foundation. Slab-on-grade, with footing below frost line.
8. Aluminium frames: *6 windows. *2 doors.