Grassroots reuse of vacant space on Chicago's south side as an emerging form of urbanism

Bronzeville was the black cultural centre of Chicago in the mid-twentieth century, but deindustrialisation, suburbanisation and a history of deliberate ethnoracial exclusion have left a legacy of unemployment, vacant land, and limited access to fresh food as businesses became unviable. In a city that has been called ‘windy’ since the 1890s on account of the hot air ostensibly blowing around its political system, it is difficult to envisage immediate resolutions to these problems originating from the City government, which now boasts a half-century track record of using ineffective value capture mechanisms to support economic growth in budding commercial corridors at the expense of blighted areas. The research component to this project explores how remaining Bronzeville residents are improving the urban realm from the grassroots level without waiting indefinitely for legislative change - unintentionally performing the role of traditional urbanists, in their absence. This includes but is not limited to: street beautification and the reuse of vacant land for community gardens, additional parking, farms, unofficial parks, and workshops.

The final design project will offer architectural help to the urban ambitions of one of these grassroots stakeholders, a non-profit organisation called Bronzeville Urban Development (BUD), who intend to start a sunflower biofuel farming scheme on vacant land to power a proposed microgrid. The design will include housing that provides natural surveillance over the sunflower plots from an adjoining disused railroad embankment to protect the plots from criminal use by Chicago's gangs (drug exchanges, body dumping etc), and a community space that is sympathetic to the social and cultural conditions of the area.

The project site: an overgrown disused railroad embankment bisecting Bronzeville, and the vacant plots that adjoin it.