Urban leftover spaces, without a clear sign of function and value can bring great benefits for the city, complementing to formal urban spaces. As “urban interstices”, their unique potential lies in an indeterminacy that opens to spontaneous social-ecological processes, observes Sitong Luo in her doctoral research. Residents have little control over planned urban public spaces, while that is very different in residual areas. This indeterminacy also lets us reconsider the role of design.

Illegal garbage dump turned into oasis

For some years now, a garden with a cafe has been located on the site of a disused railway yard in East London. The Dalston Eastern Curve Garden turned from an illegal garbage dump into a vibrant oasis. Enclosed between the housing blocks, local residents can garden, meet up and attend small-scale cultural events. Outsiders also come from far and wide to have a look. The neighborhood garden is not based on a strict design, but if local residents want to change something, they do have a clear spatial framework. It is precisely the strategy that works best for urban residual spaces, says Sitong Luo. 'It's about the design providing the basic conditions for things to happen, without defining the end result,' she explains. 'That way you facilitate its transformation, while there is still room for unexpected events.'

Closed-up design

In her research “Disclosing Interstices. Open-ended Design Transformation of Urban Leftover Spaces”, the PhD student examines the value of residual spaces and how best to cultivate them. Residents have little control over planned urban public spaces, while that is very different in residual areas. It is therefore logical that a closed-up design does not work here. But how should you go about it? The point is that the designer learns to thoroughly understand the residual space and prepares it for transformation on that basis, says Luo. This is done in four steps. The first is uncovering ('disclosing') the place - understanding existing site conditions and qualities. This is followed by selecting the suitable qualities ('selecting') and designing a foundation for desired uses. After the design implementation, it requires a group of social actors being the steward of the site, and cultivating the on-going transformation of the site ('sustaining').

Summer beer garden

Is a place mainly suitable for a social function or should ecological, morphological or material qualities be given priority? It is often a matter of deliberation. The design in London opted for a combination of qualities. In two other case studies that Luo examined, designers made different considerations. For example, a leftover space in the center of Valby, one of ten districts of the Danish capital Copenhagen, primarily serves for social activities. Valby local committee started temporary social events, and urban agriculture there and regularly organized theatre and dance performance. A summer beer garden that was later opened turned out to be an outright hit. “The initial, open-ended design opened up the possibility for that successful addition.”

Le Jardin Du Tiers-Paysage in Saint-Nazaire is all about ecology. The landscape architect involved redesigned this former submarine base as a botanical garden. A sunken pit was given a layer of substrate, creating an undulating garden landscape. The designer made clever use of the morphology and materialization of the location, with its mighty concrete structures. A separate garden area with wild plants also offers space for art exhibitions, but these should not be at the expense of the plant wealth.

Not only the designer is important for the success of a residual space, Luo emphasizes, the involvement of local people is equally decisive. In London, locally active groups were involved in the design process from the start. 'As a result, people later feel a responsibility to make a success of a garden,' says Luo. 'Without committed managers who know the area, the neighborhood will not be involved and the garden will not be preserved in the long term.'