Tensions of Abandonment and “Letting it be”

The Artisphere (Arlington, VA) hosted an event in early October showcasing the highly publicized exhibit, Beyond the Parking Lot: The Change and Re-assessment of our Modern Landscape. Attendees of the special event, “Placemaking and Revitalizing Neighborhoods: Going ‘Beyond the Parking Lot,” enjoyed an exhibit tour lead by curator Cynthia Connolly, followed by a presentation from Virginia Tech Professor Joe Schilling.

In his talk, Schilling explored the diversity of lenses that emerge during regenerative efforts, and the resulting tensions between artists, designers, planners, developers, citizens, and politicians. Each of these agents brings a different viewpoint and a different set of solutions. Beyond the Parking Lot, highlights the artist’s view of abandonment.

Stop, be mindful.

Schilling observes that, “In examining our current urban landscape, we must be mindful of what it is…to let it just be. There will always be some landscapes that remain in hybrid limbo — part built and part natural. There is a benefit to that. That if we understand this state perhaps we might make more reasoned decisions about its future.”

While acknowledging that viewpoints diverge, this idea of letting it be is often at odds with regenerative processes and the concerns of planners, designers, and policymakers–all professions that view any perceived neglect as an opportunity for improvement. With abandonment laced with competing perspectives, Schilling stresses that negotiation among these actors is essential to moving forward with any effort to address abandonment.

Nature’s reclamation process.

However, in some instances the extent of abandonment or reconciliation efforts may be too great, returning us to this idea of letting it be. “This may be an inevitable state because we lack resources, interest, or the commitment necessary to transform it. However, this is not and should not be viewed as a failure but instead an acknowledgment that nature has its own reclamation processes. This exhibit helps us to better understand nature’s process, and makes the case for accepting letting it be as serious option for communities addressing neglected and abandoned property.”

As with all regenerative efforts, nature’s reclamation processes must be considered in tandem with public health and safety, striking a balance between nature’s processes and the human interventions necessary to maintain public welfare. To illustrate, take legacy cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Youngstown and Flint. Here the sheer volume of vacancies and abandonment has forced a conscious and large-scale consideration of this balance. In these cities, many neighborhoods have a sparse collection of inhabited homes, and public welfare becomes the primary consideration for determining demolition and maintenance. The result, demolition targeted at properties that pose the greatest risk while the remainder are left to be.


Schilling also highlighted several examples from his research and travels. The images and stories relayed by Schilling underscore the understanding that abandonment has no geographic boundary or preferred climate. He further notes that the tensions surrounding abandonment may not be about the neglect, but instead more about the change.

Noted for its distinct perspective on the development patterns of our society, the Artisphere exhibit highlights the under-utilization, deterioration and abandonment of our current landscape. It is in response to these conditions, that regeneration is commonly seen as ‘the process’ for transformation. However, what is found under the umbrella concept of regeneration is a messy and tense reality; a reality faced when various and competing perspectives collide to address abandonment and its future.