Mapping Urban Vacancy

Elizabeth Borneman


Think of the city around you- are there neighborhoods you don’t venture into? Are there pockets of vacant and overgrown lots? We all have those places in our towns that don’t seem to improve with time, but one man is seeking to use these areas for good.

Nicholas de Monchaux, an urban design professor at UC Berkeley, has designed a project called Local Code that maps the underused sites in a city’s infrastructure and analyses how these spaces could be used to improve the local ecology.

He started with San Francisco and, with the help of the mayor, mapped the underutilized sections of the city. For example, ‘dead streets’ were often located in vulnerable areas of the city; areas that were prone to flooding, pollution, large temperature variations, and poverty. These areas were called ‘unaccepted streets,’ meaning that the city didn’t take care of them but people were also not allowed to come in and build in those areas.

Urban vacancy in San Francisco. Photos: de Monchaux.
Urban vacancy in San Francisco. Photos: de Monchaux.

Local Code mapped the dead streets and comes up with ways to improve the overall ecology of the area using greenery, porous paving, and low albedo surfaces. Instead of adding in larger sewer and water pipes, creating different zoning restrictions, and changing other aspects of the area to try and increase the city’s resilience to ecological changes, using this empty space for good could improve the resilience and environmental health of the city.

Nicholas de Monchaux also mapped Los Angeles, New York, and Venice as part of the Local Code project. Each city has their own environmental challenges and differing areas of unused space, making coding for this project even more difficult. With help from the Berkeley Center for New Media, de Monchaux designed new software that stood up to the incredible task of mapping and analzying urban and ecological infrastructure. The software portion of de Monchaux’s project took six years.

Local Code not only has the potential to change how cities react to environmental and climate changes, but how the residents of these urban areas can improve their own ways of life. The software can’t analyze the political and social situations of these cities’ dead spaces, but it can take into consideration the most effective ways to improve ecological and environmental resistance using proving methods.

Nicholas de Monchaux published his findings in the book, Local Code by the Princeton Architectural Press:


Video Introduction to Local Code and the San Francisco Case Study, 2009-2011.

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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.

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