Vacant Lots Grow Urban Solutions


Turf and trees raise hope for neighborhoods

Joy Lawrence worked on her first vacant lot project in inner city Philadelphia in 2002. The goal: To transform a trash-strewn blighted block that had become a magnet for illicit activities into an oasis of green with a simple design of turf and trees.

When the landscape crew, with its trucks and bulldozers, came in to clean up, Lawrence was shocked at what they found: “Mattresses, needles, syringes, a burned out shell of a car, rusted appliances, household trash, you name it,” said Lawrence, manager of environmental initiatives at Philadelphia Green’s ( urban revitalization program, an organization under the umbrella of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Lawrence’s first project, one of Philadelphia Green’s thousands of clean-up projects since then, introduced Lawrence to a whole new way of thinking about the impact of just a little bit of green in a blighted urban environment.

As seen at The Peace Plaza at 29th and Wharton Streets, a vacant lot, paired with a mural, has the potential to become a pleasant sitting park for local residents.Inset, the lot prior to renovation.

“It just took a couple days of hard work and all the garbage was gone. We graded land, added topsoil and planted grass seed and some trees,” she said. Within a month the grass had sprouted, and residents of the neighborhood started to enjoy the greenery; they pooled together their resources and purchased a bench. Then, a barbeque appeared, followed by a wading pool for the kids.

“Once we took away the blight, suddenly people could imagine the possibilities for that little strip of land, and maybe for themselves,” said Lawrence, who noted that the strip of green landscape is still thriving in that neighborhood. “It was an incredibly tough neighborhood, but it has stabilized. I don’t know if it had to do with the transformation of that vacant lot, or other circumstances, but I know that that bit of greenery did make a difference to the lives of the people living there.”

Before and after shots of thevacant lot located at 4th Streetand Cecil B. Moore Avenue ineastern North Philadelphia.

That project is one of over 4,300 vacant lots (a total of 6 million square feet) that have been turned into simple areas of turf with trees since the program started in 2000; a project that is making a small, but significant, difference in the neighborhoods throughout the city, where there are 30,000 to 40,000 vacant, blighted lots. The project transforms 1 million square feet of vacant land to green space every year. A select few have been turned into gardens or mural parks, but most are simply areas waiting for a new life. One lot is slated to become a neighborhood school, another in an industrial corridor has become a wholesale processing plant that created jobs for residents, some have become affordable housing, while others are still green.

 “Not every bit of land can, or should, become a community garden or park,” said Bob Grossmann, associate director of Philadelphia Green. “This is an interim land strategy that is designed to do away with the blight with simple, low-maintenance measures to make the vacant land usable.”

Costs to becoming green

Most lots are privately owned, but owners are being fined by the city because of laws prohibiting trash from accumulating in vacant lots. Philadelphia Green, with the blessing of the city and often the landowners themselves, clean up the area with funds given to the project by the city, along with proceeds it receives from the annual Philadelphia Flower Show, and donations from foundations, corporations, government agencies and individuals. It costs approximately $1.50 per square foot paid to local landscape contractors to clean up, grade and seed the lot, and add a simple post-and-rail fence around the perimeter. The cost includes a maintenance contract with the landscaper to maintain the property (mowing and trash removal) for one growing season.

The 2200 block of Mascher Street in eastern North Philadelphia is almost unrecognizable once work crews remove litter, plant trees and erect a simple, wooden fence.

The plot is seeded with a mix of typical warm-season grasses, both runners and clumpers, such as fescues and rye. Clover is also mixed in to help with the high pH that is typical of inner city soils because of the construction rubble (mortar and concrete) that is embedded in the soil. Clover also serves as a good nitrogen source, since none of the plots are fertilized. Trees planted include urban-hardy varieties, such as the red maple and yellowwood, and some ornamental species, such as hawthorne and Japanese tree lilacs. “It’s surprising how well some of these trees have done in this harsh environment,” said Lawrence, noting that there has been a 90 percent viability rate for all species of trees on the vacant lands.

Stormwater reduction

The one lesson that arose from turning blight into green corridors was how many opportunities developed once the eyesore property was transformed.

For one, the vacant lots became part of a Department of Environmental Protection study on how these lots could serve for stormwater management. Philadelphia Green used five of its greened lots and partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Temple University and the city’s water department to see if these green vacant lots could help with the city’s storm water issues.

The project retrofitted each selected lot (with a $200,000 grant) with shallow trenches and berms that harnessed rainfall on the site, where it was slowly absorbed back into the ground over a 24 to 36-hour period. Trees, shrubs and plants installed on the sites took up excess water and released it back to the air.

“It was a simple technology where we created a microtopography that served as a natural sponge for stormwater,” said Lawrence, who was also involved with the stormwater project. Instead of grading the site to spill water into the street, the sites were regraded to create a shallow bowl to catch rainwater instead of diverting onto the pavement. “Turf is not great for absorbing water—it’s only a step above asphalt—the roots are shallow and the land is often very compacted,” said Lawrence. “The technique won’t solve all the stormwater problems, but it does help reduce the burden during peak flow,” said Lawrence. This stormwater technique, also used in the city’s urban parks, gardens and school playgrounds, was highlighted by the U.S. EPA as a national model for reclaiming and managing vacant urban lots.

Job creation

Another opportunity arose in the social aspect of the project. Neighbors, naturally curious about what was going on in the adjacent, vacant lots, became eager to get involved. Transforming a vacant lot into green space takes upkeep, or it can slide back into disrepair. “Just because the neighbors like it doesn’t mean that they will start mowing it every other week,” said Lawrence, who, with her colleagues, developed several models on how these green vacant lots could be cared for once the year-long landscape maintenance contract expired.

The residential work-training program Ready, Willing & Able seeks to empower homeless people in their efforts to achieve self-sufficiency. Maintaining vacant land allows these individuals to contribute to society.

Shawn Kilgallon, project coordinator for Philadelphia Green’s Community LandCare Program, saw an opportunity to create job skills for city residents in landscape care. He worked with various nonprofit community groups to create a program for people in drug or alcohol recovery centers, people emerging from homelessness or coming out of incarceration. “These programs operate like a landscaping business,” said Kilgallon. “They bid for the project and are paid for the work.”

Today, there are over 100 people working on the upkeep of vacant lands, which include 15 community groups working on 16 contracts (many lots are bundled together as a contract). “There are many success stories of people who ‘graduate’ from this program and go on to work for a landscape contractor or even start their own landscaping business,” said Kilgallon.

“Transforming the vacant lands was a kind of awakening for us as a simple way to address many different problems in the inner city,” said Lawrence. “It is hard to look at a weedy, trash-strewn lot and imagine the possibilities for that land,” said Lawrence.

Creating these green spaces is certainly not the answer to all urban problems. In fact, it’s just a drop in the bucket, said Lawrence. “But, when the place is cleaned up, the sky looks bigger, the sunshine looks brighter and it is easier to imagine the possibilities. A green landscape just invites more creative thinking.”

Marcia Passos Duffy is a freelance writer based in Keene, N.H.