Resident Engagement in Vacant Lot Greening: Empowering Communities for Neighborhood Revitalization

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Vibrant green field with orange flowers.

This is an excerpt of Chapter 11 of Tackling Vacancy and Abandonment: Strategies and Impacts After the Great Recession, jointly produced by the Center for Community Progress, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. It has been lightly edited and condensed for the web. In this chapter, Laney A. Rupp, Alison R. Grodzinski, Evaine K. Sing, Bernadette C. Hohl, and Marc. A Zimmerman discuss how effectively managed vacant lot greening can deliver diverse public health benefits to communities. Click here to download the full chapter and read more insights on tackling vacancy and abandonment from the nation’s leading experts. 
 
Approximately 15 percent of US cities consist of vacant land. Vacant land is especially prevalent in shrinking cities with an industrial past, declining populations, and limited tax bases. To complicate the issue, vacant land is often abandoned by its legal owner, resulting in a pattern of disinvestment and a lack of regular maintenance. When left unmaintained, vacant lots become liabilities for communities. They may give rise to consequences such as crime (including violence) and dumping. Lots with overgrowth, dumping, and other signs of deterioration discourage positive social interaction and have adverse effects on the physical and mental health of residents.  

In contrast, when the management of vacant lots is effectively addressed at scale through greening programs, these lots can deliver diverse public health benefits to communities. Greening programs support the systematic upkeep of vacant lots and may include activities such as obtaining professional mowing services or engaging residents to purchase and maintain side lots, mow community lots, plant gardens, or create pocket parks. Greening not only remediates physical conditions, but also can add value by repurposing lots to benefit communities. Because of its connection to many critical development and ecological issues, vacant land maintenance and greening have the potential to be catalysts for broader community development and regeneration efforts. 
 
Greened lots can address environmental challenges, increase opportunities for recreation, improve access to food, and restore community vitality and pride. Greening can reduce crime and violence, improve community health outcomes, and rebuild social and economic value in neighborhoods. To capitalize on these benefits for the expanding vacant lot inventories in low resource settings, communities require strategies that maximize program responsiveness, capacity, and sustainability. Resident engagement in greening is one such approach. 
 
Engaging residents in vacant lot greening is necessary to prevent historical abuses and build value for the community. Residents are most affected by vacancy in their neighborhoods, and the future of vacant lots most immediately affects their lives. Ensuring their priorities  are respected is therefore a foremost ethical concern. Historically, the voices and priorities of residents have often been disregarded in the name of community improvement. Therefore, prioritizing residents’ concerns is vital to prevent exclusionary practices and policies that have led to the displacement of low-income and marginalized residents.  
 
Resident involvement may also be important for advancing program capacity and sustainability. Involvement can improve program responsiveness by building on residents’ local knowledge and existing community relationships. This engagement can help generate strategies that are locally relevant and more amenable to communities, including those that are identified and led by residents. Resident involvement may also expand program capacity by enabling more lots to be greened more affordably through shared stewardship. Their participation in planning and developing programs can increase program legitimacy, support their use, and help sustain them. 

Many scholars and practitioners view resident engagement as essential to community development and revitalization. Requirements for engaging residents are common in grant guidelines and in the mission statements and bylaws of organizations ranging from land bank authorities to neighborhood associations. Yet, engaging residents also incurs time and resource costs that may deter program managers from prioritizing engagement in their work. As a result, the depth and quality of residents’ engagement in community development work such as vacant lot greening are inconsistent and vary widely.  
 
Resident engagement practices fall along a continuum, with increasing levels of resident participation and influence in decision-making. Each form of engagement offers different benefits to organizations and communities.  

The authors conducted a two-phase implementation study to examine the factors necessary for greening programs to expand community benefits and increase program capacity and sustainability. The first phase involved eleven in-depth interviews with stakeholders at established greening programs and their partner networks in three cities experiencing high levels of abandonment and vacancy: Flint, Michigan, Youngstown, Ohio, and Camden, New Jersey.  
 
The second phase was a national survey of greening and land management organizations, conducted in partnership with the Center for Community Progress. Organizations were eligible to participate if they owned an inventory of vacant property or were involved in maintaining or greening vacant property.  

The study led to the following findings: 

Finding 1: Resident engagement is critical 
Resident engagement was the most mentioned and most widely endorsed facilitating factor for greening programs across the two implementation studies. In qualitative interviews, 100 percent of participants mentioned resident engagement as a factor facilitating community benefit, capacity, or sustainability.  

Resident engagement was also the most mentioned facilitating factor in the national survey, with over half of respondents reporting it as one of their top three practices for success. Reports that resident engagement was critical to program success were unprompted and endorsed by practitioners across the country.  

The value of resident engagement was triangulated by the quantitative survey results, which indicated its positive association with program capacity and sustainability. 
 
Finding 2: Benefits expand as depth of engagement increases 
Qualitative and quantitative analyses revealed that different resident engagement practices along the continuum may have distinct benefits for greening programs.  
 
Engaging residents at lower levels, including communication and input, was associated with enhanced program responsiveness to community priorities and increased community buy-in. As engagement progressed to higher-level involvement, organizations reported increased community control and expanded capacity and sustainability, in the form of greater resident investment in and sustained stewardship of greening.  

Finding 3: Resource constraints limit engagement to lower-level activities 
Despite the benefits of intensive engagement, it is more common for greening and land management organizations to engage residents at lower levels of the engagement.  

Most organizations communicated with residents through physical mailings or email newsletters, informal face-to-face communication, presentations, or website and social media. It was also common for organizations to solicit input from residents, although this primarily occurred through informal discussions, as opposed to more structured methods like surveys and focus groups. 
 
It was much less common overall for organizations to involve residents in their work. A little more than half of organizations involved residents in performing greening work, about a third involved residents in strategic planning, and only about a fifth involved residents in leadership roles on their staff or board. 

Overall, engagement that reached wide audiences through informal channels and that required less resident collaboration in implementation and decision-making was most common. 
 
Organizations cited expanded resident involvement in their work as among their top needs to increase program capacity and meet rising demand for vacant lot greening. These same organizations reported that a lack of dedicated staff time and reliable funding were their most significant barriers to expanding residents’ involvement in greening activities. 

Conclusion 
As inventories of vacant lots expand across the country, we have a unique opportunity to convert the potential of vacant lots for the benefit of communities, including public health and safety. In our current context of rising inventories and limited resources, communities need strategies that increase their capacity to green vacant lots while ensuring long-term community benefits. The expanded participation of residents is critical to achieving these goals. 
 
While all forms of engagement have some associated benefits, engagement that expands involvement and community control of greening offers unique rewards because the revitalization is driven by community priorities and taps into the talents and capacity of communities. Neighborhoods benefit from an increased number of residents who are actively paying attention to the physical condition of the community and are more likely to report issues to the relevant public authorities. Resident-engaged greening can increase social connections within neighborhoods, build awareness of community conditions that affect quality of life, and foster community stewardship that strengthens greening programs. 
 
But organizations across the United States are also struggling to engage residents through more intensive involvement because of a lack of dedicated funding and staffing. Critically, resident engagement in greening is not free for organizations or community residents. Expanded resident involvement requires time, resources, and strategic management. This type of engagement also has potential pitfalls, such as overburdening residents who may already experience time and resource constraints.  
 
Residents deserve compensation and support for their efforts to green neighborhoods and respond to systemic failures. 
 
With greater investment and support for sustained resident involvement, greening programs could revitalize more land and better serve communities. While resident engagement has costs, it can be a worthwhile investment because of its potentially wide-reaching and reinforcing benefits for greening systems. Investing in residents’ work and furthering their commitment with dedicated financial support are not just the right thing to do; they offer a practical path forward, as we seek more systemic solutions to vacancy. 

The Center for Community Progress offers a variety of resources on vacant land. For more detailed findings and other materials, visit our Vacant Land Stewardship Resource Center.