The other day, a Facebook friend of mine was musing how many empty structures there are to be found in Washington State, mentioning specifically the empty mall in Aberdeen. She pondered it might be a typical thing for the human species to simply let buildings stay around unused until they are falling apart. But indeed, when I first came over here, I was shocked and appalled by how many houses and commercial buildings one can find abandoned and rotting away because nobody seems to see their potential.
About two decades ago, I stayed overnight in Birmingham, UK, for the very first time. I had an awful time there. Not only did I have a view of a huge, windowless concrete wall from my hotel room. Everywhere around was the biggest construction site I have probably seen in my entire life. It was hopeless to walk around – boardwalks and pedestrian walks ending abruptly in fences were literally everywhere. It was frustrating for an explorer like me, to say the least. But little did I know what was underway.
Birmingham used to be an industrial center in Great Britain, with canals running through it and connecting it with London as well as with the Irish Sea. At its height, 170 miles of canals belonged to the Birmingham Canal Network. And industrial buildings bordered both sides of them. Narrowboats crowded the locks on their journey with coal and other goods.
But with the arrival of transportation by rail and road, the importance of the canals dwindled. The buildings along the canals fell into disrepair, and so did the canals themselves. By the 1980s, the Canalside in Birmingham must have been an eyesore.
Let’s say, similar happened all around Europe where ancient industries faced their final days and the buildings became derelict. I remember old coal mines in my mother’s hometown that were limping on their last leg. And machine construction companies and spinning mills around my own hometown that started falling apart. Broken windows and graffiti marked that their golden days were past.
But in countries where space is scarce and the need for jobs and for residential areas is huge, one doesn’t waste space or structures. Buildings of no historico-cultural importance or with structural weaknesses quickly gets razed, the space used for new buildings of all kinds of purposes. Especially meaningful, beautiful buildings were and are cored, then rebuilt inside according to their dedicated future. Thus, old mining companies have become venues for concerts and colleges. Old factories have become galleries, or malls for exquisite manufacturing enterprises, or apartment buildings.
The ginormous construction site I had witnessed in Birmingham was such a project: the revival of the Canalside. A few years later I would return to Birmingham, fearing another unpleasant experience – but, oh, didn’t I fall in love with the city?! Gone were most of the cranes and muddy holes in the ground. I strolled along the canals for hours, visited galleries, popped into stores, and ate at restaurants that operate in former warehouses and architecturally aligned new buildings. The narrowboats had become tourist attractions for canal tours. And convenient connections between the city center and the Canalside make exploring the city of Birmingham ever so pleasant.
Of course, it has been more than a decade that I last visited Birmingham, and the pandemic will have wrought its damage to businesses there as well. But I’m sure that the pride in reviving a sore spot in the middle of the city has roused the spirit in the population to keep it that. A hub for businesses that drew around 10,000 tourists daily before Covid hit. Waste not, want not receives a new meaning when it comes to city planning. Reviving structures and using empty spaces kindles hope, opportunity, inspiration, and a future for an entire community.