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Urban Reclamation: Using Existing Buildings

By: James Murray-White - Updated: 21 Apr 2016 | comments*Discuss
 
Urban Reclamation Reclaiming Restoration

Urban reclamation is essentially reclaiming space in the city for a community's use again, either for housing, leisure, or business. The space is likely to have been used before, and may consist of derelict or abandoned buildings, waste ground, or part-used space. The land and/or buildings may have contamination issues, and should always be tested for this.

The land may be definable as a brownfield site, which may make it eligible for Governmental or regional Council grants to help convert it back to use as housing or business space. Ideally, large areas of land, if in the heart of an urban community, should be planned to combine elements of all three - recreation and public space, an amount of housing units, and an amount of business units. Essentially, bringing a derelict or disused area back to life should reclaim it for all the peoples within one community. This involves sensitive planning through listening to all the community's needs, however diverse and complex they may be.

Using existing buildings

There are a few considerations in examining a building's suitability for reclamation.

These are:

  • the legality of the building: who currently owns it, and if it can be bought, can it be legally used for the purposes you have in mind?
  • safety: is it currently safe structurally? How much work would it take to make it safe, before and after converting it?
  • access: is the access to the building good enough, both for renovation needs, in terms of getting building materials to and from the site, and afterwards?
Using an existing building is perhaps the best example of sustainable development, if minimal resources are needed to make the building safe and habitable again.

From an aesthetic viewpoint, older buildings are often more attractive than newer ones, and a sensitive architect would highlight some of these features if they already exist. An example of this might be the brickwork used externally, or some of the internal supporting beams, which could be exposed and made a feature of.

Some of the old industrial buildings from the 19th Century that exist in industrial areas of English Cities, such as the riverside developments in Bristol, Glasgow and London,

have been reclaimed from the rotting, unused carcasses they were when the shipping and fishing industries collapsed in those areas, and now are arts centres, such as the Waterfront Cinema in Bristol, or the Tate Modern art gallery at Bankside on the River Thames.

Turning these huge old warehouses into places of public use, and enjoyment, has become something of an art form, and many architectural firms specialise in this kind of design for reclamation.

Reclaiming for community and individual use

The most positive point of reclaiming buildings is that instead of land and buildings being left to rot and stagnate, they can be reclaimed, restored, and re-used. This often has a tremendously re-generative effect upon a local community, and one example of this happening in a neighbourhood can result in other buildings and pieces of land being restored. A good example of the power of community action is the BBC TV series 'Restoration', which mobilised regional campaigns to publicise and act toward restoring old buildings and land. This campaign saw groups compete against each other for the final cash prize which would allow the restoration to take place.

Some of the industrial heartland of the UK, particularly in the north of the country, became an ugly eyesore in the eighties when industries moved, or died. But many of these communities have picked themselves up, and a tour of these areas reveals old mills being converted for large-scale housing units, car factories becoming small business parks, and even grand old stately homes, left to ruin when inheritance tax made it easier for generations-old families to leave rather than be bankrupted, become amusement parks and family attractions.

Reclaiming old buildings and disused land has so much potential, and should be the ultimate goal for those of us with a wish to live sustainably and use resources wisely.

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