The other day, a friend of mine on Facebook was thinking about how many empty structures there were in Washington State, specifically mentioning the empty mall in Aberdeen. She thought it might be a typical thing for the human species to just leave buildings unused until they crumble. But indeed when I first came here I was shocked and appalled at the number of homes and commercial buildings that can be found abandoned and rotting because no one seems to see their potential .
About two decades ago I spent the night in Birmingham, UK for the very first time. I had a horrible time there. Not only did I see a huge windowless concrete wall from my hotel room. Around it was the biggest construction site I’ve probably seen in my entire life. It was hopeless to walk around – boardwalks and walkways ending 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 was once an industrial center in Britain, with canals running through it and connecting it to London as well as the Irish Sea. At its peak, 170 miles of canals were owned by the Birmingham Canal Network. And industrial buildings lined them on either side. Narrowboats crowded the locks on their journey with coal and other goods.
But with the arrival of rail and road transport, the importance of the canals diminished. The buildings along the canals fell into disrepair, as did the canals themselves. Back in the 1980s, the Canalside in Birmingham must have been an eyesore.
Let’s say the same thing happened all over Europe where old industries passed their last days and buildings became derelict. I remember old coal mines in my mother’s hometown limping on their last leg. And machine-building companies and spinning mills around my own hometown that started collapsing. Broken windows and graffiti marked that their good days were over.
But in countries where space is scarce and where the need for jobs and residential areas is enormous, neither space nor structures are wasted. Buildings without cultural-historical significance or with structural weaknesses are quickly razed, the space used for new buildings of all sorts of purposes. Particularly significant are beautiful buildings that have been and are being hollowed out and then rebuilt inside according to their dedicated future. Thus, the old mining companies have become places for concerts and colleges. Former factories have become galleries or shopping malls for exquisite manufacturing enterprises or apartment buildings.
The gigantic construction site I had witnessed in Birmingham was such a project: the rebirth 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?! Most of the cranes and muddy holes in the ground were gone. I strolled along the canals for hours, visited galleries, popped into shops, and ate at restaurants that operate in old warehouses and new architecturally aligned buildings. The barges had become tourist attractions for canal tours. And convenient connections between the city center and Canalside make exploring Birmingham even more enjoyable.
Of course, it’s been over a decade since I last visited Birmingham, and the pandemic will have caused damage to businesses there too. But I’m sure that the pride of reviving a sore spot in the middle of the city stirred the spirit of the people to keep it that way. A hub for businesses that drew around 10,000 tourists a day before Covid hit. Not wasting, not wanting takes on new meaning in urban planning. Reviving structures and using empty spaces brings hope, opportunity, inspiration and a future to an entire community.