Older industrial cities face a serious problem: excessive vacant land. Vacant lots have negative effects on crime rates, property values, city budgets, and disinvestment, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. Some cities have created programs to reactivate vacant parcels, including "side-yard" programs in which cities sell vacant parcels to landowners within the neighborhood to avoid external speculation. Research has established the link between vacant land and the aforementioned ill effects; however, the impact of side-yard programs on mitigating these effects has not yet been extensively studied.
Stern and Lester help fill this gap in their recent article, "Does Local Ownership of Vacant Land Reduce Crime?" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 87, No. 1). The authors examine the Large Lots Program, one such side-yard initiative in Chicago in which the city sells vacant parcels for $1 to landowners who own land on the same block. (Figure 1 illustrates land vacancy in Chicago and the areas chosen for the study.) While the city initially required that buyers be owner-occupants in the neighborhood, it now requires that buyers have a local interest or investment, including but not limited to nonprofits, block clubs, churches, and local developers. Buyers must retain ownership for at least five years and limit their purchase to two properties per purchase.
Figure 1. Land vacancy in Chicago and locations of Large Lots Program areas in the study.
The authors make two major findings. First, they find that only 63.6 percent of sales fully met the "local" parameters; 5.4 percent of sales went to buyers from within the neighborhood but not on the same block, while 31 percent of parcels sold to buyers with mailing addresses outside of the neighborhood. Between 2014 and 2016, the proportion of buyers using addresses outside of the neighborhood also increased, suggesting that "buyers with fewer legitimate claims of neighborhood belonging may increase as a percentage of program participation over time."
Second, using regression analysis, the authors find statistically significant decreases in crime after one year on blocks where Large Lots Program sales occurred compared to those where they hadn't. This effect was particularly strong
when the sale was to a neighborhood buyer (6.8 percent decrease) rather than a buyer from outside the neighborhood (a 3.45 percent decrease).
Given broad concern about vacant lots since the 2008 financial crisis and a rise in foreclosures and land speculation during the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors predict these programs will find traction with policy makers in beleaguered cities. As planners consider how to reactivate vacant parcels and encourage neighborhood stability, this research can help them make the case for vacant parcel initiatives while also encouraging them to give thought to how "local" requirements are designed and enforced.
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Top image: Chicago neighbors converted an empty lot into a garden and added a fence. Courtesy USDA Forest Service.
About the Author
Ben Demers is a Master of Urban Planning and Master of Public Policy candidate at Harvard University.