Filling Our Vacant Buildings & Other Empty Spaces

One night some years back, an event called Elevate Daytona Beach rocked our city. (Kudos to the organizers, who did a stellar job.) I was one of the speakers, and this post showed up today on my anniversary Facebook feed. My talk, and the post I made about it, is relevant to low-footprint living, and improving quality of life for all, so I offer a transcript of it here. I hope you find it helpful.


ELEVATE is sort of a mini TED TALK event. The talks are 5 minutes long, and are accompanied by slideshows in which the slides automatically advance every 15 seconds. (Whew! It’s quite a breathtaking pace!)

This was Daytona’s inaugural ELEVATE event, and we had 13 speakers on a wide variety of topics including Positivity; how to launch a successful startup firm; and the Dark Side of Chocolate. I was among the speakers. My talk, titled Filling Our Empty Spaces, was about how everyday citizens can revitalize their neighborhoods by filling up vacant buildings and empty lots.

Following is a written version of the talk I gave. Anyone who listened to the actual talk will find that this written version includes a few more points than I was able to fit into the live talk. Whether you live in Daytona Beach or in some other place affected by vacancy blight, I hope you find these ideas useful!

By the way, ELEVATE DAYTONA was held at the News Journal Center, an absolutely beautiful facility located right on the river in downtown Daytona Beach. It’s worth a special trip just to see the landscaping: native plants; wetlands.

ELEVATE DAYTONA attracted a full house, and another one is planned for the fall. Maybe some of my fellow Floridians will attend – as audience members or as speakers!

Technical note: The slides were created using the Google Slides app on my iphone! I thought that was pretty cool, that I could use my iphone. (Especially since my laptop was out of commission at the time I had to create the slideshow.)


Filling Our Empty Spaces: A Grassroots Approach to Urban Renewal

Tonight I’m going to talk to you about things that we, everyday people, can do to bring life back to our neighborhoods that have been blighted by vacancy.

[SLIDE SHOWING IMAGES OF DAYTONA BEACH ICONS: VINTAGE AMERICAN CAR; OCEAN CENTER WITH THE WIZARD COURSE ON THE LED BILLBOARD; HISTORIC MIDTOWN PHOTO EXHIBIT POSTER] I’ve worked and traveled in great cities all over the world, and I’ve loved them all. But the one I loved so much that I decided to adopt it as my hometown, is Daytona Beach. Daytona Beach is working class, Americana – and yet also international. It’s a magic blend. My love of Daytona Beach is what led me to this talk.

[SLIDE SHOWING CHAINLINK FENCE WITH DECREPIT “FOR SALE” SIGN; STREET OF EMPTY BUILDINGS]. As soon as I moved here I was mystified by all the empty spaces. Vacant buildings, empty lots, chainlink fences, places sitting empty. Right next to the Atlantic Ocean! How could this be?

[SLIDE SHOWING BRICK WALL, ACCOMPANIED BY TEXT: “FACTORS BEYOND OUR CONTROL”] There are factors beyond our control. There are hurricanes; economic boom & bust cycles; unintended consequences of policies. There’s human nature: Property owners want to recoup their investment so they leave the place empty for years rather than reduce the rent or sale price by a dollar. And sometimes there’s the profit motive run amok. All of these are factors beyond our control — and they’re not what this talk is about. This talk is about factors that are WITHIN our control.

[SLIDE: PLYWOODED WINDOWS WITH A RED SLASH THROUGH IT, ACCOMPANIED BY TEXT “SOLUTIONS HAPPENING ELSEWHERE”] Some things other cities are doing: Imposing a vacancy tax on empty buildings. City lien forgiveness, to help residents keep their homes. Selling buildings for a nominal price to people who promise to fix them up and put them into productive use. Easing excessive zoning restrictions to attract creatives, neighborhood-based businesses, and other desirable residents. Imposing ordinances against plywooded windows and chain-link fences. Marketing neighborhoods.

[SLIDE: URBAN PARKING-LOT ISLAND PACKED WITH BEAUTIFUL TREES AND GRASSES, ACCOMPANIED BY TEXT “DECIDE THAT EMPTY IS UNACCEPTABLE”] What all of these actions have in common is that they are based on the fundamental decision that EMPTY IS UNACCEPTABLE. Any productive use is better than empty. Nature doesn’t do empty; every cubic inch is teeming with life. We humans are part of nature, and we forget that at our peril.

[SLIDE: IMAGES OF ART, NATURE, LITTLE FREE LIBRARY] It all starts with LOVE. Act out of love for your place. Write letters to the editor; speak at City meetings; make art. Turn your house and yard into a jewel of the neighborhood. Have potlucks. Sit on your porch. Walk around the neighborhood and talk to people. Set up a Little Free Library.

[SLIDE: IMAGE OF THEASTER GATES TED TALK] In Chicago, a potter & activist named Theaster Gates bought a blighted house from the city for a modest price, and turned it into a neighborhood cinema and community center. It sparked the revitalization of his whole neighborhood. I want you to listen to his TED talk for homework.

[SLIDE: IMAGE OF MAIN STREET HISTORIC ICONS, MURAL] Main Street Revival: All over the country, cities are rediscovering the value of their historic Main Streets; those old buildings with good bones. And they’re filling up those vacant buildings. We can do the same.

[SLIDE: BIG EMPTY PARKING LOT] Acres of Parking: Automobiles take up a lot of space. That’s a fact of life. It’s also a fact of life that all those acres of parking lot sit empty most of the time. During the empty times, the community should be allowed to use the space. Swap meets; skill-shares; Maker Faires; neighborhood art shows; maybe a speaker’s corner! Also, to avoid destroying even more buildings and land for parking, we should reduce excessive parking requirements and allow businesses to share parking. We could have a Daytona Beach parking app!

[SLIDE: EMPTY LOT ACCOMPANIED BY TEXT “WHICH CAME FIRST?”] Which came first, the chicken or the egg? To attract more residents, we need a critical mass of businesses. To attract more businesses, we need a critical mass of residents. This line of thinking leads nowhere. The truth is that there’s a reciprocal relationship. Start where your interest lies. If you’re passionate about businesses, start with business; if you’re passionate about the residential end of things, start there.

[SLIDE: EMBROIDERY ARTWORK OF CHICK HATCHING FROM EGG] And speaking of chickens … Backyard chickens are POPULAR! The cities that are attracting a lot of creatives and other desirable residents are the kind of cities that allow backyard chickens; support community gardens; community art; home-based businesses.

[SLIDE: “ALLOW AN INFORMAL ECONOMY TO FLOURISH”. ART VENDING TABLE; GRASSROOTS CAR SHOW] Allow an informal economy to flourish. Allow residents to rent out their garage apartments and granny flats to vacationers and other visitors. Allow residents to offer special event parking in their driveways! Let people set up tables and sell their art or other things. Don’t require permits for each and every little thing. Let residents participate in building the economy. Economic development is NOT just what the big guys do. Residents and small businesses are a major force.

[SLIDE: PICTURE OF WELL-PAINTED BUT EMPTY HOUSE] “Rich Blight” is blight too. A house can be painted nicely and the lawn is buzz-cut to regulation height … but if it sits empty, it’s still blight! We can’t force property owners to fill their spaces but we can incentivize them; approach them; ask them what they would need.

[SLIDE: HEALTHY EDIBLE WEED; DOWNTOWN WALL MURAL] The best way to add life is to ALLOW life. Look at this plant. Most people would call it a weed. But it’s probably more nutritious and delicious than most anything you could buy at the grocery store. Nobody had to cultivate it; it grew because it was allowed to grow. Along the same lines … Art WANTS to happen. Small business WANTS to happen. Community WANTS to happen. All we need to do is get out of its way.

[SLIDE: IMAGE OF NEXTDOOR.COM] The best way to start is connect with your neighbors. Connect face to face, and also use to connect online. Start talking about things you’re passionate about, and you will quickly recruit allies.

[SLIDE: ICONIC IMAGES OF DAYTONA BEACH; AMERICANA] As we grow and expand, we need to remember our roots. When a person or a city forsakes their roots, they go on the decline. Here in Daytona Beach, our roots are gold. (“Roots” meaning our working-class; middle-class roots.)

[SLIDE: IMAGES OF BOOKS: THE PERMACULTURE WAY; A PATTERN LANGUAGE; THE AVATAR PATH: THE WAY WE CAME] The ideas in this talk are based on the study of permaculture (nature-based design principles for creating livable human settlements), and on the study of how human consciousness operates. Study how nature operates; study how consciousness operates; and get with other people, and you can solve any problem.

[SLIDE: SOLUTION-MIND] The human mind can be a problem-generator or a solution-generator. Whatever you put your attention on grows. Focus on creating a solution rather than dwelling on the obstacles. Working with other people, focus on the common ground rather than the differences. As you walk around, you’ll see things you don’t like and don’t want. Focus less on eliminating what you DON’T want, and more on creating and attracting what you DO want.

[SLIDE: IMAGE OF MY APARTMENT WITH LITTLE FREE LIBRARY OUT FRONT]. Want help? Need direction? Call me! I’m Jenny Nazak: I get up early and I stay up late; and I have yet to meet a problem that WE couldn’t solve.

Thank you.

(P.S. You can also watch my talk on YouTube. I am going to dig up the link for you now. OK, here you go.)