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Vacant Land is More Than a Single Lot—it’s a System.

August 10, 2023

Vacant land in Cleveland, Ohio.

Vacant lots are often viewed as pieces within larger systems, such as urban planning or community development, or overlooked entirely. But the impacts of unimproved/unmaintained vacant land—which include crime, poor health, and decreased nearby property values—are system-level and interconnected with other urban environment elements. To truly address vacant land, it must be treated as a system in and of itself, one made up of the economic, social, environmental, and other factors that cause, perpetuate, and alter its existence.  

Conceptualizing vacant land as a system makes it possible to identify where strategic interventions can push the system toward different, more desirable outcomes. This systems-thinking approach can help policymakers, practitioners, and residents address the root causes of the problem rather than just treating the symptoms.

Redefining vacant land as a system also highlights the importance of engaging stakeholders in achieving community development goals. When neighbors, community leaders, and policymakers see the vacant lot next door as a piece of the community fabric, they can begin designing more effective, integrated interventions to leverage the potential of vacant land. Only then will communities be able to move towards a systemic solution to an equally systemic problem.

Here are some examples of how vacant land can integrate with other systems, like transportation, stormwater management, and economics, along with neighborhood life.

Vacant Land and Transportation Systems

Vacant land can become greenways and bike paths that connect different parts of communities, promoting active transportation and reducing reliance on cars. Vacant land can also be used to support the development of public transportation infrastructure by providing the often-needed additional space for additions like bus rapid transit lines and light rail stations.

Example: Joe Louis Greenway

Vacant Land and Stormwater Management Systems

Vacant land can support the development of green infrastructure projects, such as urban forests, green roofs, and rain gardens. These projects can help manage stormwater runoff, reduce the urban heat island effect, and improve air quality, among other benefits.

Example: Old North Rain Garden

Vacant Land and Economic Systems

Vacant land stewardship interacts with economic systems in the community, providing spaces for income generation, like urban farms; economic exchange, like farmers’ markets; and for new construction, like homes and businesses.

Example: Work-Live Spaces

Vacant Land and Neighborhoods

Vacant land touches the neighborhoods it exists in, through direct proximity. Community organizations, local government agencies, and neighborhood residents are all interacting with lots, whether maintaining them, reusing them, or just passively co-existing. Community organizations might use vacant land for community gardens or creative placemaking projects. Local government agencies can implement policies and programs that incentivize the use of vacant land for affordable housing or economic development. Neighborhood residents often have ideas and priorities for the use of vacant land, which should shape the direction of community development efforts.

Example: Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm

To see examples of vacant land stewardship projects, or to share yours, visit Community Progress’ Vacant Land Projects Database. To learn more about vacant lots and vacant land stewardship, check out our other publications.

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