The Design Observer Group

Posted 08.25.10

Center for Urban Pedagogy

The Good, the Bad, and the Empty

Why are there so many empty lots in our neighborhood?

This is the deceptively simple question posed by students at Walt Whitman Middle School in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and it propels The Good, the Bad, and the Empty, the latest video exploration created by the Center for Urban Pedagogy

Working in partnership with the Brooklyn College Community Partnership, CUP teaching artist Douglas Paulson and the Walt Whitman students deploy a variety of story-telling techniques — from sock puppets to site videography — to tally up and analyze the empty lots in the neighborhood.

The students interview local landowners, city officials, an environmental consultant, an advocate for the homeless, and a high school administrator, among others, and learn some of the non-intuitive rules of urban real estate (e.g., why it's often more profitable to leave a lot vacant and trashy than to construct something useful and attractive). They take their video cameras to the streets, and read the fine print fine on the signage, noting that the lot owners are usually absentee suburbanites. They find that most of the empty lots look derelict, cluttered with garbage and junk, but that some show signs of life (e.g., a few rows of corn (!) planted in one lot; a full-fledged community garden in another).

Along the way the students delve into alternative futures (locals focus on parks and gardens, which have become a kind of urban open-space default, but the students don't hesitate to think big: one imagines an embassy), and they make the essential connection between land use and community well-being. As they discover, it's a connection that city leaders and urban developers too often overlook.

Nancy Levinson