Empowering people, and seeing something differently by mapping abandoned spaces

derelict abandoned buildings in detroit urban decay community empowerment

Credit: Luca and Vita : derelict abandoned buildings in detroit urban decay community empowerment

Creative commons images of abandoned houses in USA: Luca and Vita

Vacant buildings are a growing problem in many areas that have been hit hard by the economic downturn. Not only do these empty spaces look forbidding and gloomy, their presence can actually attract crime and vandalism, and kick off a spiral of decline which drives down house values in the neighbourhood, and is hard to break out of. I came across a neat project that is running in Louisville, Kentucky which is aiming to use these vacant spaces a catalyst for change instead of allowing their empty presence to begin causing more problems.

They are doing this in a low-tech but effective way – primarily through community conversations out on ‘front porches’ and using this up to date local knowledge to make more accurate maps of vacant lots than local government does. I’m really interested in two aspects of this:

1) this idea that local people can create better quality data than local government >Question: Where else is this true and how can it apply in other contexts? (Think Kaizen service improvement/Nissan but at the street level in municipalites of all kinds)

2) making this information visible and visual has empowered people to see potential and opportunities where before they only saw problems. Question: >what other ‘visualisations’ can lead to positive empowerment and action?

The very interesting Kibera project which I’ve mentioned before went a step further than Kentucky with its mapping work, in that it actually worked with local people to do GPS tagging and make new local information visible and shareable using an online map. this in turn enabled people to find opportunities for improvement within that shareable, visual resource, much like the Kentucky project and others.

Clear and visually appealing maps combined with GPS and community conversations could offer much more value and opportunity to do the following things:

  1. generate new possibilities, where before people felt weighed down by problems
  2. build local resilience by strengthening social networks/ increasing social capital
  3. create high quality, transparent evidence for change campaigns
  4. help maintain local economic value systems (see @WillPerrin on this in Guardian , though I think it could go further than this.)

We are now at a time when a significant enough number of people could* be potential contributors and analysts of this information, developing new possibilities and insights where before we just saw problems.

Please send me more information on any work you’re doing that crosses over with this. I’m really interested to hear about variations in approach, and also whether you think an online interactive platform PLUS a  lower level of offline work would be even more effective than the intensive offline work alone.

 *Am I right? Perhaps true of some communities more than others, but are those the ones who would benefit most?

 (Thanks to @fastcompany for highlighting Louisville story. )