Uncovering JAPA

A Potential Solution to the Problem of Vacant Land in U.S. Cities

The disinvestment and deindustrialization of American inner cities have been a defining phenomenon of the last 50 years. While these losses have affected every aspect of urban living, perhaps the most striking outcome has been the abandonment that dominates poor parts of urban areas in the Rust Belt.

In "Transferring Vacant Lots to Private Ownership Improves Care and Empowers Residents: Evidence from Chicago" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 87, No. 4), Alessandro Rigolon, Debolina Banerjee, Paul Gobster, Sara Hadavi, and William Stewart investigate whether Chicago's Large Lot Program was successful in improving the condition of vacant lots in historically marginalized neighborhoods.

The program was a pilot initiative spearheaded by the City of Chicago to sell vacant lots to community members for $1 and rested on the theory that private citizen care of vacant lots would be more efficient and beneficial than city ownership.

Vacant Lots Cared For by Citizens

Examples of lot designations using condition-care scale (from 1 – 5) developed by the authors.

Examples of lot designations using a condition-care scale (from 1 – 5) developed by the authors.

Rigolon and colleagues set out to examine the aesthetic and social effects of the program in majority-Black neighborhoods on Chicago's west and south sides. Focusing the study on one historically marginalized group, they hypothesized that the program would not only improve the "condition-care" of the vacant lots but could also serve as a vehicle for building Black community wealth through property management. They compared the aesthetic quality of citizen-owned lots with city-owned lots, ranked on a scale of -1 (mismanaged vacant lots) to 5 (lots with well-tended gardens, playgrounds, or spaces for social gatherings). The results were supplemented with discussions with residents about the impact of the privately owned lots on their communities.

The results showed that privately owned lots were almost universally better maintained than the city-owned control group. Drawing on focus groups, Rigolon et al. were able to attribute this increased care to five factors: community control, an ethic of care, family legacy (lot ownership as empowerment), legal responsibility, and financial investment (lot ownership as a commodity).

Community-led Lot Care Improves Neighborhoods

These outcomes are encouraging for residents and organizers concerned with issues of community mobilization and development because they validate grassroots neighborhood initiatives for Black communities. Rigolon and colleagues explain early in the piece that "much of the research on residential yard care has focused on suburban, predominantly white neighborhoods, and it is unknown whether the same type of ideals and norms apply to high-vacancy marginalized neighborhoods."

The results of this study show that actors who seek to beautify their property and neighborhood, a staple of the American Dream, can be more diverse than the prototypical middle-class family in white suburbia. Programs like Chicago's Large Lots are one of several ways to rectify the historic exclusion of Black Americans from the wealth-building potential of property ownership, as well as improve the aesthetic quality of historically neglected neighborhoods in the inner city.

Top Image: USDA Forest Service photo

About the author
Michael Uhll is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.

March 31, 2022

By Michael Uhll