Cities’ strategies to bring urban spaces (back) to life

The city under our feet is full of space and time


Publication date

November 8, 2022

One quarter of the land that is ‘consumed’ for housing in France is actually used in municipalities that are losing inhabitants. That’s what French urban planner Sylvain Grisot states in his manifesto “Manifeste pour un Urbanisme Circulaire” (2020).

It is thus time to develop a radical alternative model for the planning and the development of our cities. How? By intensifying the use of existing equipment, transforming existing buildings and recycling already urbanised spaces. 

Our cities need to go through a ‘resource diet’ to ensure our society is working properly within the planetary boundaries says Barbara Nicoloso from Virage Énergies. She was one of several experts attending a TANDEM event in Strasbourg last October, which brought French and German municipalities together. According to Daniel Fuhrhop, German economist, in his manifesto “Construction should be banned” (Verbietet das Bauen), there is sufficient existing housing to cover housing needs for the next 10 years in Germany. In France, the built surface of cities grows three times faster than the urban population. (Sylvain Grisot, 2020). 

Urban sprawl itself generates its own vacant spaces

The French Government set the goal of zero net artificialization of land by 2050 (i.e. the aim is to suspend any net increase in the total amount of artificial surfaces). However, due to a lack of coordination between governance levels, the concept is understood differently between local authorities, the State and private operators. No one knows very precisely what artificialization is, or how to measure it. (Get more information in this article). The artificialization of land for urbanization brings much more money to the State than recycling vacant spaces, notably through taxes. And still, this governmental goal will restore the value of brownfields in the long-term.

In a liberalized economy (which – still – seeks economic growth above all), not everything depends on local action. Many things are beyond the reach of local authorities. Yet, many local governments across Europe are inventing new ways of doing things and experiment with new ways of making the city. To make use of vacant housing for example, local authorities face juridical rather than physical problems. Indeed, there is sufficient vacant spaces available to meet the housing needs in cities. In Germany, the city of Karlsruhe launched a housing acquisition programme in 2005 to activate private vacant housing. The aim was to offer this space to low-income households or to people in need. The municipality provides subsidies for the refurbishment of vacant houses. In exchange, it signs an agreement with the owner to fix the rent and to include a guarantee from the municipality in case of unpaid rent. Since the launch of the programme, the city reactivated 1253 homes for a total of 2750 people. The global cost of it was of 5 million€, far less than the construction of 1,000 new dwellings that would have cost 300 million€ according to an estimate of the municipality. 

Reveal the potential of vacant spaces

Knowing about the existing situation is already an important step. The European Metropolis of Lille wanted to know more about the potential of all its vacant spaces: A study work (in French)  carried out by the Urban Planning Agency revealed a high level of artificialization (30% overall increase of urbanized areas between 1983 and 2015) but also a doubling of vacant spaces (mainly in the economic suburbs linked to the very rapid obsolescence of recent economic developments).

To limit urban sprawl and manage vacancy, local authorities need to use their pre-emption right. The tax lever is one of the tools that can be used in that case. In France, a tax on vacant housing exists at local level, but this income goes to a national agency. This tax money should rather be redirected to the municipalities which could, in return, undertake measures to revitalize and renovate vacant housing.

From temporary use to transitional urbanism

There are sometimes, in the life of a building, when it is not being used during a certain time (on average, 10% of a building’s life). It is built, occupied, and then emptied to wait for a new owner, some rehabilitation work or even to be deconstructed. How to better use a building and intensify its use during those empty times? This is where ‘transitional urbanism’ comes in: it looks at the interstices of our cities to deploy new uses, in industrial brownfields, public equipment, empty offices, shopping centers, condominium and individual houses. It makes it possible to house, create and manufacture by developing and organizing these empty spaces in a new way. Brussels region is a pioneer when it comes to bringing vacant spaces to life (discover the example of and Comuna in this article). The model of the Brussels grassroot organization meets a social need, as opposed to the service offered by other market players that are strictly motivated by commercial practices. It takes advantage of empty spaces that are no longer used for anything, and which can therefore be used for everything.

If you want to dive deeper into this and related topics, join the conversation at our next webinar of the Resource-wise & socially just local economies Hub series.