Using contests to rehabilitate vacant lots

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When Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) held a conference on sustainable cities last fall, Phil Valko really wanted results.

“St. Louis, just like most other cities, is struggling with vacant land,” says Valko, who heads the university’s Office of Sustainability. St. Louis Development Corporation offers residents the chance to lease vacant land for $1 for a community garden, as well as several financial and other stimulus tools. The city has also seen its share of urban farming and recreational vacant lot re-use. However, Valko says, “we have tended to have a very limited set of ideas.”

A St. Louis vacant lot rehabilitation contest fixed that. Valko’s office teamed with the city to create the Sustainable Land Lab competition. They were looking for applicants with workable proposals, he says, “but with an eye on replication, on the big picture.”

Across the country, cities are using contests to spur vacant-lot rehabilitation. Not only do contests successfully solicit fresh takes on a very old problem, but they involve new players outside those who are usually awarded city money and city projects (those with existing connections to city officials and city programs). Contests reach community, university and business groups as well as individuals and neighborhood teams that may have great concepts but no known or workable outlet for their ideas, and no start-up funds.

Contests also solve the problem of tackling such a widespread problem as vacant land and buildings. They enlist new foot soldiers in the fight against blight, bringing manpower and, eventually, money to bear that is beyond the scope of any one city.

“This was more than an ‘ideas’ competition,” says Catherine Werner, the St. Louis sustainability director. Entrants were asked to “maintain their projects as living laboratories, teaching tools and regional sustainability assets for two years,” according to contest rules.

Valko thought they’d receive 20 submissions; the contest got 48 for its initial round. The winning teams, which received leases on lots selected by contest officials, as well as $5,000 to seed their projects, included:

  • The Mighty Mississippians’ demonstration of Native American sustainable agriculture;
  • The Sunflower+ Project, using sunflowers to draw harmful chemicals from the soil;
  • The dual-team effort of Bistro Box, using surplus cargo containers to create a pop-up restaurant, and Our Farm, showing urban farming in action; and
  • Chess Pocket Park, creating a community chess venue.

All the lots are in Old North St. Louis, which has seen some revitalization efforts but still has many vacant properties. WUSTL contributed $15,000 to run the contest, and the charitable arm of Equifax did the same, while the lots were offered by the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance.

“The city has been very gracefully managing a slow process of decline,” says Valko. “Part of what they really want to do is to tackle the issue at a more productive level,” both by devising better land uses and by allowing opportunities for permanent or interim efforts. The Sustainable Land Lab contest was implemented to “not only manage the challenge but embrace the opportunity.”

The contest kicked off Nov. 2, 2012. WUSTL held a mandatory charrette for all competitors, as well as site visits. The eight teams chosen as finalists were required to submit a concept board, which included a site plan, an implementation and maintenance plan and a two-year budget. The winners were announced April 11 and had access to their sites by the end of that month.

“There is a lot of good will and momentum being generated with the Sustainable Land Lab Competition,” says Werner, “in addition to the research, facts and lessons learned. All of these things will likely contribute to the city’s overall efforts to stimulate and support community revitalization in a sustainable manner.”

Of the five winning projects, two are still working on raising supplemental funds to get off the ground, she adds. “One of the projects had an enormous budget and the award of $5,000 was a fraction of what it would cost to actually implement. But the project was so exciting that the jury felt it was worth exploring to see if the additional funds could be raised. Another project would probably benefit by simplifying some of their project scope.”

The Our Farm team, for example, didn’t know a permit was needed for their 20-foot-by-80-foot temporary greenhouse, Valko reports. And the original vision for Chess Pocket Park included not only permanent chess tables but native landscaping and solar-powered lights – a vision they are now modifying, he says.

Although the entrants were in real competition, he says, the charrette showed that they were also hungry to collaborate, resulting in several teams combining their efforts, including a winning pair. “The contest did much more than we had hoped to build a community of people really thinking about these issues,” he says.


Urban farming on Mighty Mississippians' lot. Photo from Mighty Mississippians.

Urban farming on Mighty Mississippians’ lot. Photo from Mighty Mississippians.

Spotting the Mighty Mississippians‘ lot, with its solar calendar “woodhenge” marking the seasons in homage to the area’s ancient native culture, residents sometimes “look a little confused,” says Rachel Kerr. Kerr is one of several architects from local firm Christner that entered this winning concept. “But then they see the corn,” she says, “and we can have that conversation” the site was intended to spark: about native plants, the cycles of nature and sustainable living. The team has created an urban foraging setting with blackberry, wild plum and paw paw trees, wild strawberries and cultivated corn, beans and squash. As part of their neighborhood outreach, the group plans a fall harvest potluck and a winter bonfire and storytelling event.
Urban farming on Mighty Mississippians’ lot. Photo from Mighty Mississippians.
The team started their plants in their interior sample library, creating a mini-greenhouse in Christner. They also involved many local partner, such as Missouri Botanical Garden, Missouri Historical Museum, a farm and a construction firm that leant them machinery to clear paths through the site and drill holes for the solar calendar. Confluence Academy, a nearby charter elementary school, plans to use the lot for its coursework, and WUSTL students have planted native gourds, sage and other plants for a special native-foods meal as part of their coursework.

“If we can find cultural and agricultural lessons from the past, and let the community know about them,” says Dan Jay, a Christner managing principal “and if at the end of the day everybody’s had a lot of fun and learned about the culture …,” then the site will be working well. It may never be as popular as local institution Crown Candy Kitchen, which has lines out the door, he allows. However, “we always joke that if Crown Candy Kitchen ends up with a Mississippian Milkshake, we’ll have succeeded.”

Overcoming natural obstacles, such as tornado-generated downpours, has been the ultimate challenge, says the group, as has making sure the community feels part of the project. The group has plans to attend the next Neighborhood Night Out. “We’re learning how to be plugged into the neighborhood,” says Kerr. “We should have done that earlier.”

One of the best parts of having a contest, concludes Jay: “There are now 48 ideas out there of what to do with a vacant lot.” He fully expects to see some of the other groups bring their ideas to life on their own. That’s not just a side effect of contests; many cities are realizing that contests create new stakeholders in the issue of vacant lot recovery.

At the Sunflower+ Project, says Don Koster, a WUSTL senior lecturer and principal of his own architectural firm, “It’s been very powerful and very rewarding seeing children and inner-city youth participating … and really taking a liking to it.” Recovered-lumber benches on top of rubble-filled cages at the edge of the site are attracting passersby. Community members are learning about the site from school kids who have volunteered to be guides.

Sunflower Project, St. Louis. Photo from Sunflower Project.

Sunflower Project, St. Louis. Photo from Sunflower Project.

Koster and his project partner were researching how to remediate chemical contaminations of vacant lots where buildings or homes had been demolished, which normally makes redevelopment cost-prohibitive, when they discovered sunflowers were hyper-accumulators. “The sunflower with its root structure, which is very deep, has the ability to absorb certain metals into its plant mass,” in a process called phytoremediation, Koster notes. That includes the heavy metals arsenic and lead and even radioactive isotopes.

Also, of course, sunflowers are “incredibly beautiful,” he says, and “clear data states that gardens create increased security, buy-in and pride” in a neighborhood.

Unable to test his lot’s soil prior to acquiring his two-year lease, Koster later found that it was uncontaminated. But this has allowed Sunflower+ to invite kids onto the site, where today 1,500 chest-high sunflowers sway in the breeze. City environmental engineers have assured him that sunflower remediation, if it works, would be needed on many other lots.

He already has plans to monetize his project in the future by planting ornamentals or, in the longer term, growing sunflowers on more lots to create biofuel – if the metals they absorb can be extracted first.

Right now, some of the blooms are being harvested. The group is building a website to monitor the project’s progress and provide education about its plans. They include harvesting the sunflower plants around Oct. 1, planting winter wheat (another ” positive accumulator of potential contaminants,” Koster says, which also looks greener than grass in the early spring months), and then composting the wheat in favor of next year’s sunflower crop.

Reports Koster: “We’re happy to see local birds returning – cardinals and yellow-tailed swallows.”


In the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, David Young had been running his Capstone Community Gardens for three years before he heard about the city’s PitchNOLA 2012: Lots of Progress competition. Young supplies free food from the Gardens to a dozen families in what he describes as a post-Katrina “food desert,” but had received many calls for fruit. Lots of Progress awarded him first place, including his choice of two among 49 lots controlled by the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) to plant an orchard of 30-plus fruit trees: oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes, bananas and figs.

First place came with $5,000 and two free lots, while the other two finalists got their lots for 10 percent of the appraised property value, or $775, whichever was greater, and received $3,000 and $2,000, respectively. Young spent $6,000, he says, to buy more mature trees that would fruit sooner for his clientele. By leasing three additional lots from the local Habitat for Humanity, Young believes he will soon be able to feed 50-60 families.

“He’s in the Lower 9th Ward, where there is not a lot of commerce, so he’s been a kind of mentor to other beginning farmers,” says Andrea Chen, executive director of Propeller, the local social-venture nonprofit that teamed with NORA to create the contest.

“I haven’t found anyone else who wants to plant a garden that gives away food,” Young says. But he has helped with many house gardens and has given seeds and plants to people “who return later with produce to share” with his clientele.

PitchNOLA 2012 Judges Chef John Besh, Jeff Hebert and Dr. Maurice Cox

PitchNOLA 2012 Judges Chef John Besh, Jeff Hebert and Dr. Maurice Cox

Besides NORA, Propeller also partnered with the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF), Tulane University Social Innovation Initiatives and their Freeman School of Business to put on this competition, with money from the GNOF Metropolitan Opportunities Fund via the Ford Foundation. The contest called for “viable, sustainable, scalable, and innovative solutions for these properties.”

Why a contest? “Propeller had already done other social innovation pitch competitions, so we were excited about doing one specifically around blighted properties,” Chen says. A contest would broaden the pool of those involved in local rehab, in a city whose needs have been so widespread since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Explains Chen: “We wanted to involve everyday people – backyard gardeners, students, grandmothers, artists, restaurant owners, public schools, etc. – who don’t usually see themselves as part of ‘urban revitalization’ and aren’t part of typical community revitalization conversations. It was so essential to involve folks other than the ‘usual suspects’ of urban planners, developers and architecture students because there are so many vacant lots, and they are spread out across so many different neighborhoods. We needed to find people who would be willing to take on the responsibility of a vacant lot and turn it into something that would benefit the community.”

There have been snags. Second-place winner “Goats of Progress,” a property-maintenance service using the creatures’ natural appetite for vegetation, ran into city ordinances prohibiting a high number of animals on the property. Nor has the third-place finisher yet accomplished its plans to demonstrate hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic technologies for the community.

But rehabbing these vacant city spaces fits in well with the plans of NORA and the overall city plan, Chen says. Propeller hopes to do another round of the competition starting again in February, with NORA intending to increase the number of lots and potentially include industrially zoned lots, since proposals for on-site sales couldn’t be accepted on the exclusively residential lots in the contest’s earlier rounds.


In Youngstown, Ohio, the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC) took a different tack with its Lots of Green (LOG) program. LOG 1.0, according to Senior Program Coordinator Liberty Merrill, targeted only two neighborhoods by contracting with landscapers to clean up all vacant land there, maintain it and look for worthy uses.

But, Merrill says, that approach wasn’t feasible citywide. The city has 5,000 vacant structures and 23,000 vacant lots, adding up to 40 percent of Youngstown property. The city is down from a peak population of 178,000 in the 1930s to 68,000 today. So LOG 2.0 became a contest, helping other groups take ownership and maintenance responsibility for more sites.

Such a competition, Merrill says, kept the selection process impartial, and allowed YNDC to meet contest hopefuls whom they could aid in other ways. But instead of awarding seed money to winners, as in other cities, LOG 2.0 winners’ projects were bid out by the YNDC. Equipment, salaries and stipends weren’t included in project payouts, since the YNDC is using Community Development Block Grants. The limit per project was $8,000.

The contest aligns with the city plan, Youngstown 2010, which called for the city to become smaller and greener, says Merrill.

Ebony Ladies Golf Foundation. Photo from Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation.

Ebony Ladies Golf Foundation. Photo from Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation.

Brunilda Turner, head of the nonprofit Ebony Ladies Golf and Youth Foundation, entered the LOG contest after having to walk a mile with her youngest students from a community center, where they met, to practice golf in a local park. Now she has turned a lot near the community center into a putting green with five holes and eight tee boxes for 50-, 60- and 70-yard tee-offs. She plans to install sand bunkers and landscape around the holes, and has since purchased 10 adjacent lots for a driving range and parking.

“They’re really excited,” she says of the neighbors. “Most inner-city children don’t get a lot of opportunity to play golf and soccer and tennis. Transportation is always going to be an issue.”

Sophia Buggs, whose Lady Buggs Farm was also one of the winners, has always wanted to farm but never figured she’d be doing it right behind her house. Her proposal earned her a 12-by-20-foot hoop house (a kind of inexpensive greenhouse), along with seven fruit trees, 10 raised beds and a 50-by-50-foot tilled space on nine lots, three of which she has already developed. So far, she has planted tomatoes, peppers, beans, herbs, parsley, kale, varieties of plums, apples and paw paws, gladiolas, corn, kale, collards, onions, sunflowers and much, much more.

She has done most of the work herself, with some help from her church mission group. “I didn’t anticipate the physical labor,” Buggs says. “But as we come to the end of a season, it was really worth it. Everything over there is abundantly growing.”

Buggs is trying to sell her produce right from the lots, so when she works there she puts up a sign advertising what’s ready to pick. Funding hasn’t allowed for a fence, so some locals are harvesting crops when she’s not there, and carting away entire plants. The solution, she says, is to be more involved with her neighbors.

“You can’t criminalize the situation,” she says. “You have to get out in the community and show your face and occasionally give a basket of produce and let them know: When you take from me, you take from the community.”

She also advises a local growers’ group and applicants for the next round of LOG, which just closed.

“I think we’re onto something universal,” she concludes. “In Youngstown, we have so many spaces we can use. I’m excited I’m one of the first doing this work in Northeastern Ohio.”

Today, says YNDC’s Merrill, her organization and the other groups in the city trying vacant lot rehab programs are still learning from each other. “That the city has kept on funding us has been an indicator of the city’s commitment to doing vacant land reuse.”


Catherine Werner, sustainability director in St. Louis, says her city is committed to the future of its contest as well, considering several different approaches for 2014. “Meanwhile, we are already starting to think through ways we can encourage and foster replication of the Sustainable Land Lab project ideas in other vacant lots in the city,” she says.

Citywide, says Washington University’s Phil Valko, the contest has sparked a new conversation. “It’s a conversation that it’s incumbent upon us to continue to build on,” he says. The next round may offer contestants a choice among 60 lots, or 600, he says. Or organizers may develop a sustainability innovation park, with rotating classroom stations; imagine all the Land Lab winners grouped together on one block, offering visitors even more educational opportunities.

“I think there is potential, through the Center for Community Progress, through the Land Lab, to continue to build a much more robust national dialogue on some of these issues,” he concludes. “We’re excited to see where this goes. I think we all have a lot to learn from each other.”