From the Ground Up: Finding Opportunity in the Future of Real Estate Development

Jan 19, 2015
Jan 7, 2018

The following is a guest post by the motivated minds at OpportunitySpace, a new online marketplace for under-valued land and buildings. Their mission is to rebuild our cities by empowering public, private, and civic stakeholders to take charge of their city spaces and make something new - which often leads to innovative semi-public spaces in the communities they serve. Another example of the Placemaking movement taking hold in the real estate sector.

‍Resurfaced, an example of microdevelopment in Louisville, Kentucky | Photo courtesy of ReSurfaced

What do Airbnb, Uber, and Kickstarter have in common?

Answer: they are marketplaces for thousands of small entities to act collectively as the world’s largest hotel, biggest limo service, and most interesting investor.

Namely, something small – a room or apartment, driver and car, an idea or a cause – can provide opportunities that did not previously exist for buyer or seller. In the past, a large corporation was more typically the hotel, the car service, or the investor.

Today, thanks to the digital age, organized cottage industries can outperform those large corporations.

The question is, can this apply to real estate development?

While we tend think of urban development as large projects – converted seaports, repurposed railroad yards, or acres of bulldozed property – there is a new, large-scale opportunity now emerging that has the potential to impact cities everywhere. It is composed of thousands (literally) of small, vacant, seemingly worthless properties, which have more and more frequently come under the ownership of the city due to foreclosures and tax delinquency.

For example, Philadelphia has 40,000 such properties while Chicago has 50,000. Even Louisville has 7,000. No typical developer wants to engage with these parcels on an individual basis and the average person often doesn’t even know they exist – or if they do, they’re not aware of the opportunities therein…


Who are the micro-developers of tomorrow? Most likely, they are people seeking to build something local (a community garden, restaurant, or even a few apartments to rent on Airbnb) who need help finding, financing, designing, or navigating the web of city codes and ordinances. With so many vacant lots just waiting to be transformed, cities have the potential to grow and change in a totally new way – from the ground up.

This kind of new industry, like those who have come before it, needs an online marketplace. Enter OpportunitySpace: a national marketplace for micro-developers, rapidly expanding from 5 to 25 cities, expecting to have over 100,000 listings before the end of this year. Goodbye empty lot, hello opportunity.

City Collaborative - a group of innovators and tactical urbanists focused on bringing community ideas to life in Louisville, Kentucky - is a perfect example of what micro-developers can do. Their first Placemaking project Resurfaced took an empty surface lot owned by the city and transformed it into a 3-month pop-up beer garden that captured the imagination of the entire community.

More people will now be able to participate in the Placemaking movement as cities recognize their opportunities for micro-development. So what about you? How would you transform your empty lot?

Nicholas Negroponte is an architect, noted technology visionary, and Founder/Chairman Emeritus of the MIT Media Lab. He is an advisor and investor in OpportunitySpace. For more on OpportunitySpace and to browse their online marketplace in your city, check out their website or sign up for their newsletter to be the first to know when your city is on the list.

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