A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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Improving Neighborhoods through Flexible Urbanism


By Zack Dinh


While they wait to be developed, vacant lots too often can become eyesores within cities. Their presence can attract crime, undermine adjacent property values, and make future development more difficult. Flexible Urbanism is the concept of developing temporary, low cost solutions that act as placeholders in areas of underutilized urban space. Efforts organized by members of local communities have been successful in deterring the negative effects of blighted lots while providing a valuable opportunity to build community. Flexible Urbanism is of interest for its ability to incubate sites, generating positive interest for an area to support future development or raise the value of surrounding property. A number of successful projects in San Francisco as well as other parts of the country have demonstrated the concept’s effectiveness in creating great urban destinations. Embracing Flexible Urbanism can give communities and municipalities a new strategy in utilizing urban space.

Hayes Valley Farm: Crime Mitigation & Community Building

Vacant lots. Every city has them. Some cities have more of them than others. In some instances they go unnoticed, although they commonly become eyesores to those who pass by them. Flexible Urbanism often begins when a group of interested individuals decides to take action. Cities that channel community interest most often generate successful projects.

The former Hayes Valley Farm in San Francisco was located on 2.2 acres of what used to be the Central Freeway. The city-owned land had issues with crime and was also being used as a homeless encampment. In 2010, knowing that development was years away, the city gave volunteers temporary use of the site. The project was led by Jay Rosenberg, an experienced urban gardener who had established a site elsewhere in San Francisco. Using social media such as Facebook, as well as hand painted signs on donated materials, the volunteers grew their numbers. They turned the asphalt and concrete surface into rich soil, planted thousands of plants, educated countless individuals on sustainable growing practices, and donated all produce to charity.

In June of 2013 Hayes Valley Farm closed to make way for a 182-unit mixed-use development. Prior to the closure the volunteers enthusiastically gave away plants and soil, and shifted their efforts to other sites around the city. Hayes Valley Farm, with almost no cost to the city, beautified the area, while generating support for urban agriculture. By embracing the temporary nature of the situation, both community and city were able to utilize the site in positive ways.

Proxy: Placemaking

Perhaps the most elaborate example of Flexible Urbanism is Proxy, a grouping of semi-permanent structures in Hayes Valley. Located around the corner from what once was Hayes Valley Farm, Proxy is nestled in the heart of Hayes Valley adjacent to a public park and surrounded by local businesses. Opened in 2011, Proxy makes use of two city owned lots. The site was originally slated for a more traditional form of development, however was delayed by the recession.

Designed by "Envelope A+D", all structures are repurposed shipping containers: a coffee bar, icecream shop, outdoor beer garden, and boutique clothing store. The cost to purchase and retrofit each container was paid for by the businesses themselves, which helped reduce the cost of the project. Today Proxy is frequently visited and has helped to define the heart of Hayes Valley by establishing a significant focal point within the neighborhood.


This unique approach to development has become an overwhelming success. Originally the Board of Supervisors intended to lease the land for three years. However, in 2013, the lease was extended to 2021, giving the project a full 10 year lifespan. While placemaking efforts are often expensive, Proxy has provided a sense of place through its innovative cost-cutting design.

Austin, Texas: Site Incubation

Without demand, vacant sites will remain undeveloped. Flexible Urbanism’s ability to incubate sites is as innovative as it is cost-effective. By creating an initial focal point of interest in an area, Flexible Urbanism projects generate value to an area that can eventually support permanent projects. Utilizing vacant lots has been a huge success in a neighborhood of Austin, Texas known as the SoCo (South of Congress Avenue). What once was a sleepy corridor lined with old buildings and plagued with numerous empty lots is now one of the most popular areas of the city.

Due mostly through the efforts of locals this area is famous for “Trailer Park Eateries” unused lots, often unpaved, filled with a curious plethora of old school busses, airstreams, and other trailers repurposed for the sale of unique foods and merchandise. Each trailer pays a lease to the land owner, allowing some revenue generation until the site is ready to support permanent development. With the addition of live music, and outdoor furniture, these areas have turned SoCo into a popular destination.


The most prominent site was closed in 2013 to construct a three-story, 80 room hotel. Debate regarding the displacement of trailers has been mixed. Some argue that the uniqueness of SoCo will be lost if the trailers are gone. Others argue that they can easily be repositioned elsewhere. When viewed through the objectivity of Flexible Urbanism, the Trailer Park Eateries are successful site incubators. Utilizing this form of Flexible Urbanism effectively in the future would require explicit terms of temporary use and of city involvement on the coordination of the transfer of trailers to new sites.

Promoting Flexible Urbanism

Through innovative concepts, vacant lots can find temporary uses that support community, mitigate unwanted activities, incubate sites for further development, and create great urban destinations.

Most city governments do not yet have policies in place that promote Flexible Urbanism projects. Members of the community interested in seeing Flexible Urbanism take place in their neighborhoods should contact their city’s planning department and inquire if any Conditional Use Permits exist in regard to temporary uses on undeveloped lots.

The community should be specific on where they wish to see a project occur, what they wish it to be (community garden, food truck lot, or semi-permanent structures), and have good communication with the property owner. The temporary nature of Flexible Urbanism is the most attractive aspect to city governments that are unsure if nontraditional development will impede the progress of normal development. As the projects in San Francisco and Austin have illustrated, Flexible Urbanism can beautify neighborhoods, one lot at a time.

 Zack Dinh graduated in December 2013 from San Francisco State University in Urban Studies and Planning with a minor in Geography. He became interested in Flexible Urbanism and its uses in activating urban space while interning at the City of Richmond.






Image Sources

Proxy: http://www.roomservicestore.com/blog/sustainability-shipping-containers/

Hayes Valley, Austin: Zack Dinh



Hayes Valley Farm




















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