While waiting to be renovated or demolished, many buildings are now vacant in France and around the world. At the same time, many associations and individuals are struggling to invest in real estate at affordable prices.

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Temporary urbanism represents an efficient and innovative approach to optimize the occupation of buildings, while participating in the development of territory. In this article, discover the major challenges of this impactful approach !

Transitional urbanism: what is it all about?

Let’s start with a few elements of definition. “Transitional urbanism” or “temporary urbanism”, consists of the transient occupation of vacant places, whose owner does not have immediate use and which, given their specific characteristics, can host certain activities for a limited period of time, prior to transformation works.

While waiting for construction work to begin, unoccupied spaces are allocated freely, at the cost of charges, to actors developing activities of general interest and local economic development. In coherence with the identity of the neighborhood, artists, associations and local SSE actors can be hosted. In addition, a minor part of the building can be rented to a tenant at a price closer to the market price, without any condition of positive socio-environmental impact, in order to increase the economic strength of the project.  Beforehand, the building’s compliance with occupancy standards is checked and, if necessary, minor work is carried out to bring it up to standards. The initial function of the building may change during its temporary occupancy period.

The rise of transitional urbanism

For a long time, transitory urbanism was considered as activism : it was operated in an illegal context. It now operates in a more institutional way, in line with regulations and using solid legal arrangements. How can we explain the growing appeal of this approach? Three main factors are encouraging it: the increase of real estate prices, the raising awareness of environmental challenges, and the expansion of temporary vacancies in buildings.  

To begin with, many cities have seen their real estate prices increase, especially in metropoles. Paris, for example, is one of the cities where real estate prices have had the largest growth in recent years. According to the Notaires du Grand Paris, between 2000 and 2019, Paris saw the price of its square meter rise from 2740 to 9890 euros. In this context, the loss of value generated by a vacant space and the difficulties in finding an accommodation have increased significantly. Making use of an unoccupied space enables owners to limit considerable losses in value due to vacancy and tenants to have access to affordable real estate.  

In addition, over the last decade there has been an increase in the consideration of urban growth environmental damages, such as biodiversity destruction, air pollution, light pollution, etc. Transitional urbanism responds to this problem by allowing the use of already existing buildings. . 

Finally, an increasing number of buildings are temporarily vacant. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the development time of real estate projects – including those involving restructuring – has been steadily increasing over the last few years, due to the growing administrative and regulatory constraints surrounding them, coupled with the increasing complexity of projects – which, in a collaborative logic, often involve more stakeholders than before. In addition, in a context of rapid changes of lifestyles, more and more buildings are affected by functional obsolescence, and find themselves vacant due to their unsuitability for new uses. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, in the third quarter of 2019, the office vacancy rate was 11% in Milan and 8.6% in Berlin: a trend that is likely to continue rising in the coming years, in the context of the current health situation. A portion of these “obsolete” buildings is then being restructured to make them better suited to new uses, giving rise to a temporary vacancy situation.

Transitional urbanism therefore responds to the ever more pressuring social and environmental challenges that cities and their inhabitants face today.  Although still very innovative and relatively confidential, transitional urban planning experiments are spreading. “Les Grands Voisins” (The Great Neighbors), is a reference in this area: since 2015, the former Saint-Vincent-de-Paul hospital has offered 600 accommodation places to people in vulnerable situations and has enabled 250 associations, startups, craftsmen and artists to develop their activities, while waiting for the site to be rehabilitated as an eco-neighborhood from 2020.

Another sign of transitional urbanism boom: in 2019, 19 project owners signed the charter for the development of temporary occupation of the City of Paris, committing to implement the transitional approach in their development projects.

Transitional urbanism: what is its added value?

The transitional urbanism experiments already carried out have proven the triple benefit of such an approach for the premises landlord. First benefit: it contributes to the implementation of the building owner’s CSR commitments and the creation of value for its stakeholders. From a societal point of view, this approach can positively impact its territory. First of all, the neighborhood is boosted by the economic and artistic activities developed by the new occupants, avoiding a degradation of the neighborhood’s image that its population and external visitors have regarding the presence of abandoned buildings, and improving the attractiveness of the territory. In addition, temporary occupation contributes to achieving the social and environmental objectives set by the territory – in terms of reducing job insecurity, providing human services, reducing waste, etc… Indeed, it chooses temporary occupants with a positive economic, social or environmental impact – startups, artists, associations (such as structures specializing in emergency accommodation, the circular economy, etc.), craftsmen, SSE businesses. At the same time, this approach gives access to property (housing, offices, workshops, etc.) to populations and organizations that would otherwise have been deprived of it, the corollary of the societal commitment of these structures being sometimes lower incomes than those of a more “conventional” tenant – temporarily at least. Another societal benefit for the territory: transitory urbanism encourages the creation of social ties, by bringing together in the same building, around the same project, a community of temporary occupants of diverse backgrounds and nature.

Transitional urbanism also brings environmental benefits: it contributes to reducing carbon footprint and land artificialisation due to real estate development by prioritising the occupation of existing buildings over the construction of new ones and urban sprawl. 

Beyond these societal and environmental benefits, the second key benefit of transitional urban planning for a building owner is to reduce the costs and constraints associated with securing and maintaining the vacant building, borne by the building’s temporary occupants.

Finally, temporary occupancy makes it possible to prefigure and experiment the future uses of the building, before acting on the final programming of the project in coherence with the needs of the territory identified during the test phase. This can avoid the future vacancy of the project and facilitate its commercialization, made possible by its relevance in terms of uses.

Future perspectives for transitional urbanism

Transitional urbanism appears to be a powerful response to the environmental, societal and operational challenges actors face in today’s city manufacture.

In the future, two key drivers can facilitate the further implementation of this approach: 

  • the digital, which facilitates communication between owners, project developers and local authorities. For example some platforms are speeding up the matching of supply and demand, such as “Cartofriches“, an application designed by Ceram to identify wasteland in France;
  • modular buildings, which are particularly suited to temporary occupations, if they are actually eco-designed and reused from one project to the next.

However, several questions remain unanswered. How can we avoid the gentrification of these transitional urban spaces? What are the best public policies to implement to encourage this kind of initiative? How can we both give them a framework and allow them the freedom to undertake and experiment new practices? Answers to these questions will probably be found through experimentation, in continuity with the iterative logic that constitutes transitional urbanism.

Co-written by Camille Raynaud & Jade Plancke.