The other day a Facebook friend of mine was pondering how many empty buildings there are in Washington State, and specifically mentioned the empty mall in Aberdeen. She reasoned that it might be typical of the human species to simply leave buildings unused until they fall apart. But actually when I came here I was shocked and appalled at how many homes and commercial buildings are abandoned and left to rot because no one seems to see their potential.
About two decades ago I first stayed in Birmingham, UK. I had an awful time there. From my hotel room I not only had a view of a huge, windowless concrete wall. Everywhere was the biggest construction site I’ve probably seen in my entire life. It was hopeless to walk around – boardwalks and footpaths that ended abruptly in fences were literally everywhere. It was frustrating for an explorer like me, to say the least. But I didn’t know what was going on.
Birmingham used to be an industrial center in Britain with canals flowing through it, connecting it to both London and the Irish Sea. At its peak, 170 miles of canals were part of the Birmingham Canal Network. And industrial buildings bordered them on either side. Narrowboats filled the locks with coal and other goods on their journey.
But with the advent of rail and road transport, the importance of the canals dwindled. The buildings along the canals fell into disrepair, as did the canals themselves. In the 1980s, Canalside in Birmingham must have been an eyesore.
Let’s say something similar happened across Europe, where old industries were dying and buildings were falling into disrepair. I remember old coal mines in my mother’s hometown limping on their last leg. And engineering companies and spinning mills around my own hometown that started to fall apart. Broken windows and graffiti showed that their golden days were over.
But in countries where space is scarce and the need for jobs and housing is great, neither space nor structures are wasted. Buildings without cultural and historical significance or with structural weaknesses are quickly demolished and the area used for new buildings of all kinds. Particularly important, beautiful buildings have been and are being gutted and then rebuilt to fit the future. Thus, old mining companies have become venues for concerts and colleges. Old factories have become galleries or shopping malls for exquisite manufacturing or residential buildings.
The gigantic construction site I saw in Birmingham was one such project: the revitalization of Canalside. A few years later I returned to Birmingham fearing another unpleasant experience – but, oh, didn’t I fall in love with the city?! Gone were most of the cranes and muddy holes in the ground. I spent hours strolling the canals, visiting galleries, shopping and eating at restaurants that operated in former warehouses and architecturally oriented new buildings. The narrowboats had become tourist attractions for canal tours. And easy connections between the city center and the canalside make exploring the city of Birmingham a pleasure.
Of course it has been more than a decade since I last visited Birmingham and the pandemic will have done its damage to businesses there as well. But I’m sure that pride in reviving a sore spot in the middle of the city sparked the spirit in the populace to do it. A hub for businesses that attracted around 10,000 tourists a day before the Covid outbreak. Not wasting, not wanting takes on a new meaning in urban planning. Revitalizing structures and utilizing empty spaces sparks hope, opportunity, inspiration and a future for an entire community.