Vacant Lot Restoration

By: Dan Burke Perez

Every city has vacant lots. What can we do with them? Havana, Cleveland, and Philadelphia are three cities from a long list that have embraced vacant lot restoration to produce food, restore urban ecology, and provide public recreation.

30 years ago, Havana began to convert vacant lots into organoponicos—raised-bed urban farms (Viljoen & Bohn, 2012, p.19). Today these urban farms account for at least half of the city’s total area and employ 40,000 people (UNFAO, 2015). Over the years, this system has expanded to other municipalities in Cuba as an attempt to increase food security (Viljoen & Bohn, 2012, p.21). In 2007, Cuban officials estimated that over 50% of the fruits and vegetables eaten in Havana were grown in the city (Mcnamara, 2016, p.11-12). In fact, enough produce is grown within its borders to provide every resident with 9.88 ounces of fruits and vegetables a day—close to the UN’s recommended intake of 10.76 ounces per day—a claim few cities can make (Mark, 2007). Though much of the country’s supply of meat, grains, and oil are still imported (Mcnamara, 2016, p.12), Cuba’s organoponicos are an important example of how cities can reclaim unused space to feed their residents.

In Cleveland, parks and gardens clean groundwater and curb the effects of erosion. Cleveland Botanical Garden greened 12 vacant lots along Lake Erie with funding provided by The Environmental Protection Agency’s Urban Waters program. Cleveland Botanical Garden planted a mix of deep-rooted plants in lawns and gardens to “improve soil nutrient levels, reduce lead toxicity in soil, and reduce stormwater runoff” (Cannon, 2012). Contaminants like lead are present in urban soils and can enter our bodies through airborne dust, water, and food (Turner, 2009, p.2-3, NRC, 1991, p.5-6). Lead is a neurotoxin that is known to be fatal at high levels (ATSDR, 2007, p.6). Urban stormwater runoff often carries lead and other pollutants to our waterways (EPA, 2003, p.1). Plant roots prevent pollutants from spreading by acting as physical barriers that filter runoff and hold soil in place. Some plants even have the ability to break down pollutants into harmless compounds through a process known as phytodegredation (UNEP, 2002, p.2). By investing in the health of the soil, Cleveland’s new gardens are also investing in the health of Clevelanders.

Philadelphia City planners call the balance between social health, economy, and environmental quality the “triple bottom line” and have used this standard to shape how the city approaches vacant lots (Coleman, 2014, p.1). In 2010, Philadelphia passed Green 2015, an initiative that sought to transform 500 acres of vacant city lots into green spaces, such as parks, playgrounds, and gardens (PennPraxis, 2014, p.30). Updates to the initiative aim to integrate urban green spaces with broader natural areas (Coleman, 2014, p.9). According to the city’s most recent reporting, the initiative was successful in creating over 1,000 acres of new greenspace (Greenworks Update, 2018, p.15) throughout the city. Other successes associated with Green 2015 include improvements in the city’s air quality, a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, and an increase in the number of gardens and farmers’ markets in the city (Greenworks, 2015, p. 2,3). Through its ongoing Greenworks policy, Philadelphia has set an example for how city governments might take charge in large-scale vacant lot restoration to improve the lives of their residents.

As cities grow, city officials and residents are faced with the question of what to do with vacant lots. Whether they’re urban gardens, restorative green zones, or public parks, cities around the globe are finding new uses for vacant urban spaces while simultaneously addressing the needs of their residents.


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