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From Blight to Bright: How Communities Are Transforming America's Vacant Lots

Across the United States, in cities large and small, urban neighborhoods are pockmarked with tens of thousands of vacant lots - empty, trash-strewn eyesores that are a legacy of job losses, declining populations, and disinvestment.[1]


Image of vacant land in New York's Queens Neighborhood.
Image: Adobe. Vacant land in Astoria, NY.

These derelict properties inflict a steep toll on their surroundings. Research shows that vacant lots depress nearby property values, cost city governments millions in lost property taxes, and correlate with higher crime rates.[1] More significantly, visibly neglected spaces also take a psychological toll, contributing to feelings of depression and social isolation among residents.[1]


But in recent years, many communities have begun to see vacant land in a new light - as an untapped asset and opportunity. From Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to Detroit, neighborhood groups and city agencies are coming together to turn these empty spaces into vibrant green oases, social hubs, and even hubs for entrepreneurship.[1][2][4]


However, the path to revitalization is not always smooth. In Washington D.C., the city's "Vacant to Vibrant" program, launched in 2017 to transform vacant properties into affordable housing, has struggled to deliver its promise. Half the properties sold through the program remain undeveloped, highlighting the complex legal, financial, and bureaucratic obstacles that can stymie redevelopment.[3]


Despite these challenges, the benefits of revitalizing vacant lots are clear. Cleaning up blight and adding greenspace boosts mental health, promotes exercise and healthy eating, and strengthens social bonds between neighbors.[4] Well-maintained open spaces also make communities safer - one study found that greening vacant lots in Philadelphia reduced gun assaults by 29% in surrounding areas.[1]


Recognizing the potential, some cities are updating antiquated policies that impede revitalization. Chicago recently enacted reforms to move vacant properties to productive use more quickly.[2] Philadelphia provides a DIY "Park in a Truck" toolkit to help residents design and build mini-parks.[4] Detroit is considering increasing taxes on vacant land to incentivize development.[2]


Ultimately, the key to realizing the massive potential of America's vacant lots is empowering residents and community organizations to lead the way. While private development will always play a role in growing cities, reserving a share of land for community-driven reuse - through land banks, open space trusts, and nonprofit stewardship - ensures that the benefits of revitalization are widely shared.[1][4]


By seeing vacant lots not as liabilities but as canvasses for reimagining the urban landscape, communities are building a brighter, greener, more resilient future - one lot at a time. With the right mix of people-powered innovation and policy reform, this transformation can take root in neighborhoods that have been left behind for too long.


Explore the Thriving Communities film on Rid-All Green Partnership in Cleveland, OH. This story represents a successful case of a community revitalizing vacant land for the betterment of the city and its residents.




Sources:

[1] Center for Community Progress (2024). How Vacant and Abandoned Buildings Affect the Community.

[2] Barrett, J. (2023). Too Many Vacant Lots, Not Enough Housing: The U.S. Real-Estate Puzzle. The Wall Street Journal.

[3] Moyer, J.W. & Nguyen, D. (2023). D.C. sold properties for affordable housing. Half are still vacant. The Washington Post.

[4] Narayan, M.M. (2023). Neighborhoods Benefit From Community-Led Efforts to Transform Vacant Lots. The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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