Vacant lots are a familiar part of urban landscapes all around America and have existed for many years. In the past, the most common approach of restoring these lots to utility has been by turning them into community vegetable gardens. However, in the last decade or so we have come to realize the incredible range of opportunities vacant lots represent in adding value to local communities. Whether it is through an exciting public art space inviting contemplation or a well-used neighborhood park where families and friends can relax and commune with nature, vacant lots are being re-imagined in myriad and novel ways.
A leader in this new concept of greening vacant spaces was the city of Cleveland, Ohio, which initiated a competitive vacant land reuse grant program in 2009 called Re-Imagining Cleveland. With a grant of $500,000 this innovative program awarded small grants to 56 projects and included imaginative ideas for vacant spaces such as pocket parks, rain gardens, orchards and even vineyards.
Another town that was a pioneer in this expansion of uses for vacant lots was Philadelphia. Their Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, a venerable organization almost 200 years old played a key role in helping the city enact a comprehensive greening strategy for vacant spaces across the city.
Indeed, cities and locales all across the country are implementing unique programs to rehabilitate unused spaces and turn them into places that add value to neighborhoods and communities while also adding to the quality of life of their citizens. There are thousands and thousands of empty lots in the U.S., and while much of the attention has been paid to large urban areas, it might surprise you to know that this greening of America’s vacant lots is also taking place in towns of all sizes.
ArchForKids has even worked with one such town, Panama City in Florida. Their Quality of Life department, in conjunction with LEAD Coalition, challenged local teens to come up with innovative uses for four of the city’s vacant lots. After many hours brainstorming and working in teams, the creative options these youth came up with included innovative performance stages, spaces with picnic benches for outdoor recreation, and sports areas and skate parks. Not to be left out, animals and wildlife were included with ideas for fishponds and dog parks. See more pictures here.
Another program on vacant spaces that ArchForKids taught was a workshop for the White Plains Public Library. The students there were inspired to come up with novel uses for vacant lots. One participant imagined a community performance area complete with food trucks and picnic benches. Another student whose passion was agriculture created plans for a community garden with different raised beds containing soil with various pH levels for specific plants, a hydroponics garden area, and even a community seed bank where neighbors could save and share seeds. Other ideas included a day hotel for pets of all types and there were plans for a pocket park containing multiple levels, different and beautiful water features, various seating areas and innovative public art as well.
A current ArchForKids afterschool series for The Y at Columbia Secondary School SONYC After School Program involves challenging young designers to imagine and design a new use for a real-life vacant space in Harlem. Most of the students have chosen to create housing opportunities in the space. Stay tuned for more information on this program as we will host a showcase of their work here on the blog.
More than simply existing in the minds of creative young people though, real life communities are implementing wonderful ways to turn abandoned and often unsightly areas into vibrant spaces that add incredible value to their neighborhoods, for research has identified clear benefits from greening in the form of improved health, healthier food, lower crime and higher property values. And perhaps more importantly, these vacant spaces serve to involve people in their community, allowing them to get to know their fellow citizens, and encouraging getting outside into nature, which most certainly feeds the soul, nourishes the spirit, and provides joy.
Here are a few examples from around the U.S. of ways vacant spaces have been rejuvenated and incorporated back into people’s daily lives:
Market gardens such as the ones supported by GreenThumb in New York City
Native planting like this example at the Brooklyn Bridge Park
Pocket parks like the Creative Little Garden in the East Village
Public art such as this dragon sculpture in a public park in Nashville