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The pink playground effect: How Chicago turned 12 vacant lots into vibrant community space

Chicago’s Architecture Biennial could permanently transform the city’s vacant lots.

Chicago’s latest attraction is a bright pink playground. Designed by architect Germane Barnes of Studio Barnes, in Miami, the climbable pavilion sits on a vacant lot in North Lawndale, a low-income, majority Black neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. For years, this corner of the city was nothing but a concrete slab that doubled as a dreary basketball court. This month, the unused lot was transformed into a space for kids to play.

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Structure: Block Party by Studio Barnes in collaboration with Shawhin Roudbari and MAS Context ; Ground painting: Cover the Grid by Outpost Office. Organized in coordination with WACA, Open Architecture Chicago, and Freedom House for the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial. [Photo: Nathan Keay/courtesy Chicago Architecture Biennial]
The vacant lot is one of over a dozen such spaces being highlighted as part of this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, titled The Available City. Previous iterations of the architecture festival have been held at the Chicago Cultural Center, but this year, the exhibition reaches into the depths of the city, bringing tangible solutions to historically underserved communities.

The Available City is an exploration of unused lots and their potential as collective spaces long after the biennial is over. Curated by artistic director David Brown, The Available City is an urban experiment of sorts, whereby real-life solutions can be implemented all across the city—one vacant lot at a time.

Chicago has an abundance of vacant lots. Over 10,000, to be exact. “To me, The Available City is an urban design proposal in terms of how one could utilize all that vacant land,” says David Brown. The curator, who also teaches at the School of Architecture, the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been mapping and researching vacant lots for a decade, first in Houston, then in Chicago. But he has seen the phenomenon permeate cities all across America, from Philadelphia and St. Louis to Detroit. In 2018, Dallas had more vacant land than any other major U.S. city.

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Chicago, in particular, has a database of city-owned land that makes it easier to track. And while there are 10,000 city-owned vacant lots, it’s likely that the number is actually much higher when you include privately owned vacant lots. The Available City zeroes in on only a dozen city-owned vacant lots, all of which are concentrated in eight chronically underserved, Black and brown neighborhoods.

Englewood’s Commons by Atelier Bow-Wow (Tokyo, Japan) – Momoyo Kaijima and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, organized in partnership with the Overton Incubator and Creative Grounds for the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial. [Photo: Nathan Keay/courtesy Chicago Architecture Biennial]
In Englewood, a vacant lot at the entry of the Englewood Nature Trail on Chicago’s South Side has become a communal plaza, complete with raised gardening beds, indoor growing houses, and the Englewood Commons. Designed by Atelier Bow-Wow, in Tokyo, with local organization Grow Greater Englewood, the latter will host a weekly community market, a learning garden, and film screenings rooted in Black traditions.

In North Lawndale, a permaculture garden has been an educational site for the community for the past eight years, where the private high school CCA Academy has been teaching the community about food production, healthy eating habits, and the environment. A new outdoor classroom, designed by experimental architecture practice The Bittertang Farm, now provides room for students and residents to learn about Perma Park—a permaculture “food forest” that CCA has been developing on six vacant lots nearby.

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Living Room by The Bittertang Farm (Chicago, IL), organized in coordination with the CCA Academy for the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial. [Photo: Caliph Rasul/courtesy Chicago Architecture Biennial]
And in Woodland, a parking lot has come alive with a set of wooden pavilions and canopies for an interactive workspace, a stage, and an exhibition space. The spaces were designed by Norman Teague Design Studios for Project H.O.O.D., an organization that offers job training and essential resources to locals. Brown says that Project H.O.O.D. is planning to build a community center on that lot, and this activation enables the organization to get a lay of the land and implement some of the programming that would ultimately take place in the community center.

Woodlawn Canopies: Stories and Futures by Norman Teague Design Studios (Chicago, IL) – Norman Teague and Ebere Agwuncha, BNMO Design (Chicago, IL) – Negin Moayer, organized in coordination with Project H.O.O.D. or the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial. [Photo: Nathan Keay/courtesy Chicago Architecture Biennial]
The biennial runs until December 18, but many of these projects were designed to outlive the exhibition. Brown says many organizations with ears on the ground already know what the community wants and what kinds of spaces they need. These spaces, he says, can be lightweight: “They don’t need the investment of a building.”

Brown’s hypothesis is that when the urban equation is considered, vacant lots are a negative, buildings are neutral, and shared open spaces are a positive. “Having outdoor spaces enables a city and community to begin to see what’s the activity that’s already present that we don’t necessarily see taking place inside a wall,” he says. Those spaces may well be individually stewarded by an organization, but by virtue of their openness, they become a shared resource. In other words, they become a city that is available to everyone.

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