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interim spaces / pasadena

The Woodworking Bus, part of the Alternate Routes project. Source:

Talking to urban planners, lawyers and urban ag/community health and garden advocates lately, I have found that opinions differ wildly on the value of vacant lots as interim spaces. One POV feels that any way in is a way in, and that finite contracts on a year-to-year basis that may be revocable are well worth the effort developing. Namely, this is because they allow something to be done NOW, and the benefits of urban gardening can be evident to all in the very near future. Another opposing POV feels that too many times urban gardening has reclaimed vacant and neglected spaces, remediated the terrible soil quality, introduced foot traffic, made the land productive both emotionally and in terms of mental/physical health payoffs, and made the formerly ratty and abject place a place where people want to go, as opposed to want to avoid~~only to be booted out when property values make developers lick their chops. I think opinions hinge also to some extent on the availability of said land (it being felt to be even lousier to be kicked out if there are few or no other options).

Enter…the mobile workshop and garden, a way of allowing some flexibility into this fairly strict-seeming set of options. Thanks to the kind invitation of my friend M, I toured an example of such movable thinking last night, night of the blue moon: an art opening at Side Street Projects in northwest Pasadena. Here is what the space looked like at about 5pm, before people started coming in.

Picnic tables, soon to be garnished with flowers, BBQ and homemade pickles. Airstream studios in the background (my finger in the foreground…oops!).

It must have been 100, 120 people at one point. I found that the project managers had done some very smart long-term thinking about how they occupied the land. It’s rented from the City, and sits between a Church’s Chicken and an old abandoned Victorian house that the City is going to move somewhere else, as it is historically significant. “Rent” is paid in sweat equity, through the workshops and open events that SSP sponsors. And as is typical with such arrangements, there some rules–no performances, for example, and most strikingly, no gardening. I think the fear is that people would get too attached to the space, and occupying the land would morph into Occupying the land. The design solution is to make many things mobile. Here is a picture of picnic-goer S doing his thing at a station in the Woodworking Bus, one of several types of movable teaching studio on the lot.

Desk-like stations, each outfitted with tools, line each side of the Woodworking Bus, which also includes a teacher’s station for use during workshops.

Other such conveyances include: a FEMA trailer that has been re-purposed into a hanging garden, and several Airstream trailers that serve as studios, workshop spaces, and gathering spaces for artists/community folks who may need to have meetings outside of their living spaces. Future plans include mobile raised-bed gardens that could be “transplanted” into a new space, in the event that their interim use expires.

The mobile spaces of the SSP presented some really inspiring solutions in a two-birds-one-stone way (sustainability, land use). Also, the pickles were sublime, and the crowd very amiable. So much so that I forgot to take any further pictures…

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