Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.



Redesigning Abandoned Storefronts To Keep Neighborhoods Vibrant

Just because stores are vacant doesn’t mean a neighborhood needs to appear like it’s down and out. Ideas from around the world are finding ways to use empty storefronts.

Abandoned storefronts are bad for business, and bad for the soul of a place. There’s something about empty space that just kills downtown.

But, actually, there’s no need for stores to be empty. During the recession, towns and cities have found plenty of alternative uses that at least keep streets lively. We wrote recently about an "Airbnb For Storefronts," which links up property owners and people with good ideas (ZipSpaces is a similar concept). Oakland has a multiple-storefront approach called Popuphood (which we wrote about here). And there are many projects that have put in artwork (see, for example, Seattle and Denver), and even temporary parks.

Here are three more ideas we came across recently:


In Northern Ireland, local councils have covered up more than 100 properties, in some cases falsifying what’s inside. Stickers and billboards make butcher’s shops and post offices appear full of produce and people. The approach is definitely extreme, and arguably a bit manipulative, but it serves a purpose. At least the lot isn’t an eyesore, and doesn’t attract vandalism, or unwanted guests. The effort is part of preparations for an international summit in mid-June.


In New York, eBay has put up several "shoppable windows" covering up non-active storefronts. Nine-foot-by-two-foot, the panels allow passersby to order from a new fashion line called Kate Spade Saturday, and have the items delivered in about an hour. The idea extends the eBay brand, but also uses up unused space.


San Jose, in California, has opened up storefronts to young businesses—albeit on a temporary basis. An initiative called Start Up San Jose recently held a two-day event, where stores became co-working spaces, and vendors sold jewelry, art and clothing. The city said it wanted to show what downtown would be like if it wasn’t 20% empty.

Add New Comment


  • Lcathlaz

    Money, money, rents, charges, shopping, spending, on and on: are we only there to milked for the little money we have? Spaces such as these ought to be used for alternative purpose such as youth clubs, sports clubs, art galleries, recording studios, creative studios for start-ups etc ... at the cheapest rate possible. There's so much unemployment, these places are begging to be used for people to launch their own things. How much money and misery does it cost to keep people unemployed or doing meaningless jobs? Helping people to gain their independance is the way forward, it may not be to the taste of greedy landlords or councils but it would be far more dignified than all this waste of space and energies.

  • Trongchittham

    Check out Renew Newcstle in Australia - a good example of what can be done with empty spaces. It's a great success, we now have Renew Adelaide and even Renew Australia!

  • Chrigid

    Yes, empty downtowns are a killer, but please give some thought to exactly what it is the false impression of activity is actually manipulating. These projects are geared to keep the powerful from having to acknowledge the problems on their routes to more power. If the Northern Ireland summit attendees didn't see the ruin of communities, they wouldn't have to think about it, talk about it or do something about it. The same approach has been used for papal visits to different parts of the world: erect walls to hide the slums that line the highways the Pope travels on. A few decades back, New York painted curtains and flower pots on the plywood covering the broken windows of abandoned buildings along the commuter rail lines so middle-management and professionals wouldn't be disturbed by the reality of the city they abandoned but still drew their income from. This is not "a bit manipulative," as you put it. It is ignorance-as-bliss in the most grossly manipulative manner. 

  • Lcathlaz

    Spot on and thanks for looking at the "solutions"a bit closer. What's missing in all of this is the presence of the people, the human element that painted boards and fake shops will never replace. People want to rediscover human contact through shopping or visiting spaces such as art galleries, not just spending which is be done quite easily on-line.