Repurposing is the new buzzword in sustainable development. The way Americans use space is changing, and it’s changing quickly and drastically. Concerns about waste and pollution are leading to less driving (so less need for huge parking lots), different shopping patterns, different living patterns. The enclosed shopping mall as we once knew it, a boxy architectural eyesore surrounded by fields of asphalt, is dead or dying; property management companies can’t fill the space. (There’s an entire, somewhat ghoulish website devoted to the stories behind these moribund properties: deadmalls.com.)
All these changes, however, also mean we’ve been getting more and more creative about the ways we repurpose things we don’t need anymore. What to do with that abandoned shopping mall? Raze it and return it to community green space, as Columbus, OH, has done? That’s one solution. But there are many, many more. Voorhees, NJ, converted vacant retail space in a local mall into a new home for its city government. Other malls are converting into event spaces, water parks, or even community gardens. The cloud computing giant Rackspace has overhauled an abandoned mall in San Antonio into its new corporate headquarters.
The more people get creative, the more our communities benefit from an explosion of revitalization ideas. Convert a decommissioned airplane into a house or hotel? Why not? Old gas stations into cozy restaurants? Check. Suburban neighborhoods that currently lack the population density to be sustainable, replanned around community farms? We’re doing that, too.
These trends, once surprising, are gathering the steam of general acceptance as they move ahead. And they’re not just limited to the U.S. Worldwide, spaces are being reimagined to create urban landscapes that connect instead of isolate and that use resources in a sustainable way. Take Hamburg, Germany, for example, which is creating a green network of interconnected parks and public spaces, including a two-mile-long “green roof” that will cap a city freeway. It’s a different kind of repurposing: not demolishing the highway, but utilizing the empty air above it to reconnect neighborhoods that are now cut off from each other, creating space for parks, woods, and gardens.
The future, in a word, is here.
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