When it comes to vacant land reuse, perhaps no other city in the nation faces as great of a challenge and as much of an opportunity as Detroit. Currently, Detroit has an inventory of more than 100,000 vacant parcels without buildings. In terms of land mass, that’s around 20 square miles of empty land, roughly the size of Manhattan.
While much of the focus has been placed on vacant and blighted structures in Detroit, the strategic and effective reuse and stewardship of vacant land is critical to realizing a long-term vision for a resilient city that will attract and retain a wide range of businesses and residents.
Individual residents, community-based organizations, and nonprofits have been planting the seeds for a vacant land reuse movement in Detroit for the past several years – navigating complicated city processes, building networks of volunteer support, attracting funding, and implementing projects. This work has resulted, remarkably, in over 1,400 urban gardens and a number of other resident-led maintenance and reuse efforts.
The Detroit Future City Implementation Office is working to support reuse activity on vacant lots in Detroit. Through a collaborative process, they developed a tool to provide inspiration and practical resources to help people implement small-scale reuse projects. The recently launched tool, DFC Field Guide to Working with Lots, is one of the most comprehensive and creative resources for lot reuse implementation that I’ve ever seen.
The online resource offers a number of practical tools, such as the “Discover Your Lot” quiz that helps a resident first determine the type of lot they have, in order to help them understand what they can do with it. To help narrow down the options for reuse, the Field Guide allows a resident to filter by a number of factors, such as implementation cost, intensity of maintenance, the implementer’s experience level, stormwater benefit, and lot features like level of sun.
After a design type has been selected, the Field Guide provides A-to-Z implementation information: lot designs, suggested plant types, shopping lists, step-by-step instructions, complete construction plans, and implementation and maintenance costs.
While the practical tools alone make this resource incredibly valuable, what I like best about the Field Guide is it provides a wide range of ideas for reuse. Often, the options suggested for reusing a vacant lot are limited to a garden or an extended fenced lawn. DFC’s Field Guide proposes a range of creative landscape interventions that provide inspiration for new and diverse uses of land. All of them vibrantly illustrate the ways an unused lot can be transformed to improve the quality of life for an adjacent resident or business.
Inspiring and enabling stewardship of individual lots is an important step to improve the condition of residential areas. In cities challenged by a large volume of vacant land, however, individual action must be paired with larger-scale reuse of land tied to long-term land use goals.
The Detroit Future City Strategic Framework outlines a comprehensive, 50-year vision to address the city’s economic and redevelopment challenges and opportunities. A foundational element of that vision focuses on increasing the density and diversity of land uses in the city. In order to realize that goal, the Framework calls for a significant portion of the city’s vacant land to be transformed into a robust, integrated open space network that supports the stabilization and growth of the city, provides opportunities for revenue generation, and improves the quality of life, health, and ecology of the city.
Realizing Detroit Future City’s vision of large-scale, long-term multifaceted open space will require innovative approaches to address challenges of ownership and funding, given the Manhattan-sized scale of open space and the City’s fiscal constraints.
To help inform open space planners and implementers in Detroit, in a recently released report, Community Progress examines and provides guidance on the range of ownership models that could be considered as well as the funding needs and funding tools available to support open space implementation.
Detroit must work to proactively assemble land while developing creative partnership opportunities with other nonprofit and for-profit entities to help implement and maintain larger-scale reuse options, such as green infrastructure, solar generation, tree farms, meadows, and forests. Additionally, given the scale of funding needed, Detroit must use limited government and philanthropic grant sources to leverage a diverse pool of public and private debt and equity tools.
While the scale of vacant land in Detroit is relatively unique, the challenges it faces related to short-term and long-term reuse of vacant land are similar in a number of cities across the country. These two new resources from Detroit provide a host of innovative ideas and information relevant for any city seeking to transform underutilized, vacant properties.