The Re-enchantment of Vacant Lots
September 9, 2007

Something's happening to me. Normally I walk quickly past vacant lots, sneering at the empty cigarette packs, discarded condoms and invasive weeds. As of this summer, I'm in the habit of seeking them out. When I find a vacant lot, I feel a sense of relief and even mystery as though I've discovered a magic portal to the past or the future. One of my current favorite abandoned spaces is north of Vancouver General Hospital at Laurel and 15th. I presume some guerilla gardeners have been at work, strewing the seeds for the California poppies, nicotiana, yarrow and yellow cosmos that have thrived in this space. Even though there is a cool, late August breeze, the sun is still warm on the back of my black t-shirt. I watch the light glinting off the glassy wings of a bumblebee on a yellow-orange blossom.

This lot is really anything but vacant--it teems with life. There are dock plants, horsetail, plantain, dandelions, blackberry, clover and many others. I long to go inside the fence to get closer to the plants. On MainStreet there is a lot that used to be covered by a cement car wash. A few weeks after the cement was dug out and removed, the plants began to grow. Seeds carried by birds, wind, animals and humans have taken root and exploded into a weedy cacophony containing butterfly bushes, mullein, bindweed, and all the other usual suspects. It's the tenacious way nature reclaims a vacant lot that gives me hope. Perhaps this is why I go out of my way to find these wild, untended spaces.

When I find a neglected plot I imagine the potential for growth there: community garden plots, fountains, benches, a place where a group of children can have an afternoon tea party. I picture a trompe l'oeil mosaic of a creek that has been paved over, a reminder of what the city was before it became a city. There could be community meetings here, lover's trysts, and families picnicking in the sun. I see a mass of wildflowers busy with hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees.

I've just come from running errands in downtown Vancouver where vacant lots are becoming an endangered species. There are no spaces to sit and imagine the potential of a piece of urban land in transition. So do we need to start a society for the preservation of vacant lots? Sure, Vancouver has large destination green spaces, but perhaps these parks and gardens make us take our smaller neighborhood green spaces for granted. As the prices for real estate become unreal, and the city grows upward these tiny green spaces become more important for our souls, our sanity, and our general health and sense of well-being.

Think of the small European courtyard lawns and gardens, or even the children's playgrounds in a park less the size of a city block. These spaces can be enchanting, restful and give us a chance to regenerate during the day and connect with our neighbors in meaningful ways. We don't always have time or transportation to visit the larger destination parks, so these smaller accessible spaces are important to us. Furthermore, they provide the important pollination corridors that birds and insects need to survive in an urban environment. Seeing a wild bee zooming over a park fence thrills me as much as seeing a bald eagle or heron flying over a tall building.

What's your favorite vacant lot? I know you have one. Send me a photo. Tell me your dreams.