It can seem that for every new park, bar or apartment complex in Philadelphia, there’s a barbed wire-shrouded, plastic bag-laced empty lot brimming with potential.
Possible City, the Philadelphia area’s only semi-finalist in the Knight News Challenge on Open Government, aims to address the problem by mapping Philly’s more than 40,000 vacant lots, and empowering urban planners and artists with tools for collaborating on plans to revamp these spaces on a lot-by-lot basis.
In short: as we assess what vacant lots exist, let’s create the tools to do something about them.
Visit the site and its mapping tool here.
“As a longer term vision, this could become an economy for rebuilding the city,” says founder Douglas Meehan, who was drawn into urban planning by a fascination with post-industrial vacant space, and spent four years studying urban planning and landscape architecture at Penn grad school & worked in Philly for three more before moving to New York for a job.
The idea was inspired by Meehan’s participation in the Urban Voids competition, which challenges participants to lay out the best plan for repurposing urban space. He was irked by the competition format, which asks challengers to come up with individual plans within silos.
“I thought, why aren’t we sharing this information?” says Meehan, who eventually wants to invite professionals at all stages of experience, like those who would participate in Urban Voids, to find work on the platform and use it to build a career.
But to begin with, he’s forming the foundation of a user community by reaching out to organizations like West Rockland Street Project, news community Hidden City Philadelphia, West Philly’s Farm 51, Philly Food Forest and youth-action group Public Workshop, who are already invested in solving the problem of vacant spaces from the grassroots.
Cities have traditionally dealt with the problem of vacant space using a top-down approach, Meehan said, overhauling lots across wide swaths of city as puzzle pieces in a master plan. While the top-down approach promotes cohesive design, certain communities are neglected.
Possible City’s approach intends to balance bottom-up advocacy with a holistic view of projects across the city, with the goal of attracting public and private investment to popular projects.
Of course, there are other efforts around vacant land in Philadelphia, which has caught plenty of attention.
Meehan’s next step is to move these groups into a beta test, and begin gathering feedback on what they like, what they don’t like, and what they would add.
“This could be one of the projects on Possible City,” says Meehan.