Helping to Make the Dirt Go Away

colorful flower planters decorate a vacant lot

Dr. Bill Stewart has long been interested in what he calls “place making,” the transformation of environments into desirable places that promote a community’s health, happiness, and well-being. His research has focused on rural areas and public parks and has included studies of the development of a park on a former landfill in Kitchener, Ontario, and restoration of a tallgrass prairie on the site of a former army ammunition plant.

A professor in the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism, Dr. Stewart recently has had the opportunity to shift his focus to place making in an urban setting. Funded by a grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, he has been assessing the effects of a vacant land redevelopment program in Chicago. Along with colleagues Paul Gobster, a research landscape architect with the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, and fellow faculty member Carena Van Riper, Dr. Stewart is identifying both the benefits and challenges of Chicago’s Large Lot Program, a neighborhood stabilization initiative that is part of the city’s Green Healthy Neighborhoods Plan.

shady park with trees and bushes on a sunny day

The Large Lot Program

Like other large cities, Chicago has thousands of vacant lots, in fact more than 20,000. Left vacant, these lots become magnets for trash and crime, making neighborhoods feel less safe for residents who report feeling disconnected from the neighborhood and each other.

Under the terms of the program, residents who own property in the neighborhood may apply to purchase up to two vacant lots on the same block for $1 per lot. If the lot is not adjacent to their primary property, they must put a fence around it. They must keep the property groomed, pay property taxes on it during their years of ownership, and retain ownership for at least five years. The program allows owners to “use the lot as you would your own yard.” They may build on it, use it for private or community gardening or socializing, turn it into a playground for neighborhood children, and so on.

The initial offering of the vacant lots in 2014 focused on the Englewood, Woodlawn, and East Garfield Park neighborhoods on Chicago’s south and west sides. In the fall of 2015, Dr. Stewart and his colleagues began their data collection aimed toward both environmental and social assessments of the program in these neighborhoods.

“The stereotype is that these neighborhoods are populated by desperate people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t move to more desirable neighborhoods or the suburbs,” Dr. Stewart said. “The reality is that residents in these neighborhoods remained behind because they care deeply about their neighborhoods and want to make them better.  Most have options to move, yet have chosen not to.”

garden boxes in a lot with a multi-colored fence, next to a house

What they’ve found

The environmental assessment involved examinations of public datasets such as Google Earth and Streetview to compare visuals of vacant lots before and after selling the lot, and to verify those impressions with visits to each lot. Researchers found that 40 percent of lot owners made changes in the first season, including cleaning up trash, mowing the grass, installing fences and signs, developing social and play areas, and planting flowers, vegetables, trees, and shrubs. Some of the improvements on the vacant lots occurred prior to the City’s program, the scholars found.   Some residents had been maintaining the vacant lots for years before purchasing it, a phenomenon known as “guerilla gardening.” Still, the environmental assessment showed that the Large Lot Program provides lot owners with the incentive to do more than simply maintain the property.

The social assessment began with focus groups of residents who had received lots in the first round of sell-offs. Participants discussed what they were doing with their lots, problems they’d encountered, and impacts of their large lot development on the block social interaction.

“We used the focus groups to develop a questionnaire that reflected the experiences and language that residents’ used to describe their large lot activity and impacts,” Dr. Stewart said. In summer of 2016, everyone who purchased a lot in the initial offering received the questionnaire, which had a remarkable response rate of 71 percent.

small trees and tomato plants in a green lawn on a sunny day

According to the researchers’ initial report to city officials, “Prior to ownership, undesirable street activity included public urination, drug activity, prostitution, illegal parking, and dumping.” After lot ownership, residents shared stories of increased social activity and changes in street activity. One resident said, “If people know the lot is vacant then they will do dirt in the lot. Ownership helps to make the dirt go away.” Others reported an increased sense of belonging and ownership of the neighborhood, as reflected in the comment, “A large lot is a great investment. It allows us to tell our own story, and it is a story so unlike the ones being told about Englewood. This is about history making for Englewood, and it’s time for us to take ownership of our community.”

The greatest impact, however, may be on the social fabric of the neighborhood. As one resident observed, “What a powerful difference the lot has made on the block. It’s about beautification where people know that good things are possible. We’re not just bottom-feeders who live here. [These gardens that were vacant lots] change culture. The mother who has a picnic in the garden is overjoyed. It’s become theirs and they treat it like it’s theirs. People look out for one another now.”

What they do with the findings

The researchers are working closely with Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development, and with various neighborhood associations. They have already provided preliminary findings to the City on a couple different occasions. The City has been eager to learn of the findings, and has expanded the Large Lot Program into several other neighborhoods.  After working primarily in rural areas for nearly 30 years, Dr. Stewart says his experience with urban place-making has been eye-opening. It exposed him to a whole new literature, and has been learning a great deal from urban policy makers, his colleagues, and the residents themselves. “Their commitment to their neighborhoods is so sincere and their enthusiasm is contagious,” he said. “The experience has been both heartwarming and inspiring, and I’m looking forward to extending my work in this area.”