What can dinosaurs teach us about vacant land?
Probably not very much. Dinosaurs are long extinct. Even plastic dino-toys – though ironic – have very little to offer us relative to vacancy or community health. I am surprised one would really even ponder this question. But do you know who can share some important insights about the power and promise of vacant land? The residents who live among it and are most impacted by it. Resident-driven solutions to address vacancy, blight, and disrepair are inspiring, enduring, innovative, and wise.
This was highlighted and emphasized on August 3rd and 4th as residents from Flint, Michigan, and Albany, New York, convened for a learning exchange in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to share experience, knowledge, curiosity, and passion. Curated by Pittsburgh based GTECH Strategies and made possible thanks to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint and the Oak Foundation, Community Progress hosted delegations from Albany and Flint to foster new connections and inspiration for resident leaders.
Participants ranged in experience and backgrounds, including life-long volunteers, seasoned community development professionals, pastors, gardeners, home builders, social workers, and small business owners. All eighteen people, however, aged 20 to 70, share a common passion for transforming places to benefit people.
These are the people who weep at the sight of boarded up buildings and wring their hands waiting for daily weather reports. These individuals in some ways represent a cross section of not just Michigan and New York, but of positive deviants in cities around the country. (“Positive deviants” are individuals working toward positive change in their community, navigating the constraints and challenges, impatient and discontent with the status quo.)
Over the course of two action-packed days, participants endured wind and rain, urban heat islands, steep and narrow alleyways on a tour bus–and the enchanting charm and inspiration of Pittsburgh’s arts, urban agriculture, community organizing, funding, and revitalization expertise. Many took their role of testing vacant land amenities such as “the bird’s nest slide” very seriously!
Intended to expose participants to more than just the end product of a community garden, public art investment, building rehab, or summer youth program, Community Progress sought to “open the hood” and highlight the systems, policies, and practices that enable or inhibit progress. Even more so, CCP sought to help residents learn more about how to couple their wisdom, passion, and raw gumption with the necessary policy systems and public agencies that play a critical role in comprehensive community development.
Workshops, panels, and on-site tours were led by numerous Pittsburgh organizations, including: Operation Better Block, The Homewood Bible Center, Sankofa Community Garden, One Northside, IOBY, Neighborhood Allies, Manchester Growing Together, The Hilltop Alliance, The Larimer Consensus Group, The South Hilltop Men’s Group, The Allentown Learning and Education Center, Randyland, New Kirche Gallery, and The City of Pittsburgh.
Through these learning opportunities, several themes emerged among participants:
Access is power: The first step to reclaiming vacant land is taking a step onto a vacant lot. Being clear about who owns the land and how rightful access can be attained is different in every municipality, but a critical starting point for any reuse strategy. One of the shared advantages for both Flint and Albany is the presence of a functional Land Bank dedicated to working with residents and community groups to translate land use liabilities into community assets.
It takes a village: Clustered planning at a block or multi-block scale can afford residents the opportunity to both provide their input and prioritize the places and projects to pursue, for everything from new home building, renovations, or dedicated green space. As featured in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, a dedicated organization such as Operation Better Block is needed to facilitate the process and maximize participation, even going door to door to gain resident insights, procure necessary funding, and ultimately engage an entire ecosystem of partners to put the plans into action.
Tangible and incremental action begets more action: Over the course of two days, the Flint and Albany delegations visited five different investments initiated by a GTECH Ambassador ranging from community gardens, public art, civic gathering spaces, and greenway trails. Ambassadors each have their own unique vision and passion but translate a small amount of funding and technical assistance from GTECH and partners into anchors of programming in their neighborhood. Those anchors in turn help increase the level of engagement in each neighborhood and can help fuel an ongoing community development process.
More interaction between residents, service providers and public agencies is needed: As with any community development activity, reusing vacant land requires a constant cycle of planning, design, engagement, implementation, and adaptation. Reclaiming and reusing vacant land is not a static process, but one that can help activate and fuel a comprehensive reinvestment process. This requires ongoing coordination between those individuals with the wisdom and motivation to take action at a hyper local level and the public agencies that bear the costs and burden of a legacy of disinvestment. For this reason, Community Progress is excited to translate the learning and inspiration from the Pittsburgh exchange to focused roundtable dialogues with residents and public agencies in both Albany and Flint this fall.
Andrew Butcher is a consultant for the Center for Community Progress, Executive Fellow at The Heinz College of Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and Founder and former CEO of GTECH Strategies.