From Vacant to Vibrant
Why everyone benefits when empty storefronts are turned into community spaces
Cities across the country face a crisis of commercial vacancies. It’s not just an issue reserved for cities facing the result of disinvestment, even thriving cities like Boston see storefront after storefront lie empty. A sustainable solution to this problem will require strong policy intervention. While those solutions are crafted, fought for, and implemented, communities still face the question of how to approach these unused places.
City governments, community groups, and other stakeholders have taken a variety of approaches to this issue. The Cambridge Development Department and Cambridge Arts recently launched a Vacant Storefront Creative Design Contest in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which aims to energize neighborhoods and activate commercial districts by filling empty storefront windows with reproductions of locally-made art. Spaceus, a creative community that brings to life vacant spaces, has been producing content for empty retail space in East Cambridge, Harvard Square, and most recently, Downtown Crossing in Boston.
CultureHouse is proud to be a part of this growing movement to reimagine vacant spaces. Our solution takes the idea of reclaiming spaces for people quite literally — we go into these spaces, build them out as community centers, and open them up to the public. We create social infrastructure out of vacant space, ensuring our city’s blocks remain vibrant even as their future is being debated and decided.
While we certainly think installing swings in empty storefronts is fun, we don’t just do this for the aesthetic and the novelty. There are concrete ways that reclaiming these abandoned places for people helps make our communities better and helps pave the way for a more equitable and sustainable future.
Increasing livability and joy
Activating vacant storefronts remediates both the physical and social stress people experience in underactive areas. Researchers consistently find that peoples’ experiences of place are heavily impacted by building facades.¹ Commercial vacancies create inactive and monotonous facades on city blocks, which negatively impact peoples’ moods. By building out spaces in a visually appealing way, we can reverse this experience by creating a visual complexity that brings calm and joy.²
Storefront activation through the creation of people-centered spaces alleviates the social stress caused by a lack of social bonding and cohesion in neighborhoods.³ For both residents and visitors, the existence of public community space facilitates the interactions that strengthen social networks. Activations can create surface-level changes to a space that make neighborhoods concretely less stressful.
Creating a focal point for community development
Ensuring visitors and residents have a less stressful experience is essential for property owners, business districts, and neighborhood associations. Experiencing place-based stress makes people less likely to stay in an area and also less likely to return.⁴ Blocks with vacant storefronts have been found to promote the perception that a community is unsafe and blighted, creating both conscious and unconscious neighborhood stigma.
Space activation is a crucial part of reversing neighborhood stigma and developing a positive sense of place. When we create a positive visual experience, people begin to conceptualize the space both inside and around the activation as dynamic and interesting. Both physical changes and creative programming generate interest in the area and foster a strong local identity.⁵ As researchers have shown, a person’s attachment to an area is deeply influenced by local identity and sense of place.⁶
Community spaces inspired by tactical urbanism are a low-lift but high-impact way to create a focal point for a larger process of neighborhood development. By bringing together “people engaged in a diversity of activities at all hours of the day and night,” we can create the conditions for community development prescribed by urban affairs scholar Carl Grodach. These conditions create “a safe and pleasurable environment”⁷ that drives increases in economic activity.
Increasing local economic activity
The decreased stress and increased sense of place that community spaces provide has concrete impacts on local economies. Vacancies lower the value of adjacent properties, creating a downward cycle that makes it increasingly difficult to fill vacancies and create positive area identity. People who would otherwise patronize surrounding businesses are “repelled by physical blight and widespread vacancies”. A community-centered activation reverses this cycle by allowing property owners to temporarily fill a vacant space while continuing to search for a long-term tenant.
This intervention not only stops negative trends but also promotes positive change. Community spaces like CultureHouse generate sustainable economic revitalization “by attracting visitors who in turn support local businesses and other cultural enterprises”. Public spaces with strong social roles create a “synergistic effect” that promotes positive economic and social activities. Projects like CultureHouse create the necessary improvements in livability and local identity to spur economic activity.
The vacant storefronts we pass everyday should not be treated as regrettable casualties in urban change, but rather as opportunities to create more vibrant neighborhoods. Next time you pass an empty storefront, don’t just let your eyes slide by. Instead, consider how it’s impacting your community and think about how you would activate it.
CultureHouse is a nonprofit organization that improves livability in local communities by facilitating the creation of public social infrastructure through the transformation of unused spaces into vibrant places to work, play, and foster connections. We are currently open in a previously-vacant storefront in Cambridge’s Kendall Square.
CultureHouse loves to support others in their efforts to reclaim vacant spaces in their community. To ask questions, start a partnership, or just learn more, email email@example.com.