Old Cities/Green Cities: Communities Transform Unmanaged Land

PAS Report 506/507

By J. Blaine Bonham, Gertrude Spilka, Darl Rastorfer

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Vacant land is a common sight in virtually every American city. Scattered among houses in residential areas, especially in distressed neighborhoods, small and large vacant, trash-filled lots contribute to an appearance of blight. Abandoned factories and warehouses — some of which are brownfields with hazardous wastes in their soil — mar waterfronts and old industrial corridors. Large metropolitan communities have been especially affected by the dilemma of abandoned land.

Coming to terms with the issues and problems surrounding vacant land is a difficult challenge. Little, if any, precedent exists. In most cities, planners and developers typically view vacant land as the space that is left over after housing, commercial, and institutional development schemes have been built. So the potential uses of vacant land become isolated from other aspects of neighborhood planning and development. Nonprofit organizations, city officials, and observers across the country indicate that the growing scale of vacancy requires new perspectives on urban land use and management and that existing assumptions and practices need a comprehensive re-evaluation since current methods clearly are not working.

This report was developed out of a series of documents on urban vacant land by one of the leading groups in the country dealing with this issue: the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which also supported the color printing in this report.

Part 1 of the report addresses the challenges to urban vitality presented by vacant land; vacant land as a neighborhood resource; large-scale greening systems; and the link between urban renewal and sprawl.

Part 2 provides an in-depth look at some PHS programs, including the rebirth of the New Kensington Philadelphia neighborhood and the Green City Strategy employed by the City of Philadelphia. An appendix provides a list of contacts to the many community development corporations active in the area of urban greening.

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Page Count
Date Published
May 1, 2002
Adobe PDF
APA Planning Advisory Service

Table of Contents

Part 1. Toward a new way of thinking about urban vacant land

Chapter 1: Abandoned real estate and its challenge to urban vitality
Managing vacant land • Rethinking the value of vacant urban land • The causes of vacant land • Planning considerations and jurisdictional constraints • The consequences of vacant land

Chapter 2: Vacant land as a neighborhood resource
The gardening and greening movement • Urban land trusts • Lower-density housing and open space • Comprehensive approaches to community revitalization • Greening as a revitalization tool • Urban green industries • Building green neighborhoods from within

Chapter 3: Large-scale urban greening systems
Greenways • City gateways • Former industrial sites • Making complex projects happen

Chapter 4: Brownfields and greenfields: The link between urban renewal and suburban sprawl
Obstacles to metropolitan regional planning • The issues of environmental remediation • Public land reclamation projects • Land recycling project of New Jersey • Finding regional common ground

Chapter 5: Promoting Reuse
Land: Private ownership vs public good • Public vacant land policies and practices • Municipal land inventory systems • Acquisition and disposition procedures • Land banking • Vacant land management • Comprehensive neighborhood planning • A radical proposal in Detroit • Lessons learned

Part 2 The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Chapter 6: The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society helps green Philadelphia • Site-based work in the 1970 • Community-based work in the 1980 • Greening with community development corporations • City parks, high-profile downtown landscapes and city entryways • Program growth through time

Chapter 7 A Rebirth in New Kensington
A CDC tackles neighborhood decline • Transforming unmanaged parcels • Reflecting on the vacant land management program

Chapter 8 The green city strategy: An initiative for Philadelphia's renaissance
The six components of the green city strategy • The Stakeholders: Everyone has a role