The Available City

Nathan Keay, 2020

The Available City, the 2021 edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, is a framework for a collaborative, community-led design approach that presents transformative possibilities for vacant urban spaces that are created with and for local residents. Through workshops, installations, activations, performances, and programs, The Available City invites a critical global conversation that asks how design can foster collective engagement and agency to identify new forms of shared space in urban areas. The Available City directly confronts the often-opaque process of how cities are designed and developed by proposing an inclusive and transparent design process. 

The fourth edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial presents a new chapter of a decade-long research initiative led by 2021 Artistic Director, designer, and educator David Brown. The Available City introduces a process for bringing ideas generated from community workshops into existence on vacant lots in neighborhoods across the city. Currently, there are more than ten thousand city-owned, vacant sites in Chicago that each measure 25 by 125 feet. In aggregate, these lots are roughly equal in size to Chicago’s downtown center, the Loop. The Available City explores a scalable approach to urban design that recognizes the significance of addressing both individual lots while also envisioning the network of these thousands of sites as a cohesive urban landscape.

In American cities especially, one of the most visible markers of inequity are vacant lots and unoccupied buildings, which are often disproportionately located within communities that have seen historic disinvestment that are predominantly occupied by Black and Brown residents. This is the case in Chicago, where city-owned, vacant lots are largely concentrated on the city’s South and West Sides. As in cities around the world, current and past inequities are made clear through the urban landscape in this stark contrast between development and underdevelopment, investment and disinvestment. 

Within this context, The Available City offers an iterative and generative design process aimed at transforming vacant space into collective space. Through an improvisational approach, the input of and interaction between various stakeholders—including community residents—can reveal endless possibilities for creating and introducing new spaces for education, arts and culture, health and wellness, businesses, urban agriculture, and affordable housing. The Available City recognizes the role of design and designers as one of many necessary perspectives in shaping our thinking about such issues and setting forward new ideas. 

Biennial programming will take place across digital platforms and throughout Chicago in neighborhoods including North Lawndale, Woodlawn, Bronzeville, Pilsen, South Loop, the Loop, and Edgewater. These programs will activate community gardens, decommissioned schools, and storefronts in addition to vacant lots. The Chicago Architecture Biennial is a forum for exploring timely global issues through the lens of architecture and design. The 2021 edition investigates how an institution can enable long-lasting change beyond a single exhibition. Programming as part of The Available City will prompt conversation and collaboration between local and global participants; between global institutions and community-based organizations; between practitioners and students; and more, creating relationships and content that will last far beyond the close of the 2021 edition.

The Available City opens September 17, 2021.