By Carly Hopkins
Walking around the unfamiliar neighborhood of Englewood on the South Side of Chicago, my heart rate beat in time with the sounds of a fading siren. The words “be careful” from my parents and friends echoed in my mind. The rampant gun violence in Chicago’s South Side is common knowledge, and the media’s regular exploitation of this easy clickbait story reinforces the fear in people’s minds that these neighborhoods — and by default some of its residents — are dangerous. This media fearmongering also overshadows other struggles the residents face. The vacant lot where I stood, strewn with trash and broken glass, marked one of these less-publicized dangers.
Perfectly shaped white clouds dotted the bright blue sky above. Less picturesque was the vacant land below. The grass in the lot was decidedly dead, trash had become embedded in the metal fence at the far back of the property, and a few trees and puny shrubs were the only foliage to be found. The city of Chicago lists 2,000 vacant lots in Englewood and West Englewood — adding up to nearly 500 acres. That’s about two times the size of Disneyland, representing 20% of the city’s vacant lot inventory. Beyond Chicago, the particular vacant lot in Englewood where I stood is but one of hundreds of thousands of empty urban lots across America.
Creation of vacant lots stems from myriad historical reasons including divestment, white flight, suburbanization, real estate market downturn, industrial decline, and toxic contamination. Chicago’s vacant lot epidemic can be traced to a mix of these phenomena. The city has struggled greatly with population loss since the 1960s, with almost every ensuing census reporting lower numbers. So-called white flight saw thousands of people leaving the South Side. Businesses began relocating to the suburbs, a trend accelerated by the completion of the Dan Ryan Expressway. That, coupled with continued economic displacement and decline, created an ever more dire vacancy issue for the South Siders who remained.
The Chicago-based Large Lots Program (LLP), launched in 2014, is an ambitious initiative designed to return ownership and control of vacant land to residents. The three South Side neighborhoods targeted in the first phase of the program were Woodlawn, East Garfield, and Englewood.
The beneficial impact of LLP could be seen directly across from the empty vacant lot where I stood. There, a sleek, jet-black fence lined the front perimeter and boasted a sign that read, “The Hammond’s Promise Land.” This reclaimed vacant lot is now owned and maintained by Tina Hammond, a first-round participant in the LLP. Well-kept grass, gardens overflowing with plants, and various artwork pieces beckoned warmly from within the lot.
“It’s like the before and after,” Hammond chuckled, gazing across the street.
The striking contrast between the two lots perfectly exemplified the power of the Large Lots Program. The question is: Does this program work large-scale, and can it solve the nationwide vacant lot problem?
The Problem with Vacant Lots
Vacant lots pose environmental concerns for a wide array of reasons, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They often attract illegal dumping and can contaminate areas with lead, cadmium, arsenic, and asbestos. Rats often use them as breeding grounds.
Beyond environmental problems, economic and social effects on neighborhoods go hand in hand with vacant lots as they are associated with lower property values and increased crime rates. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cites studies that violent crime in particular is shown to increase with vacant lots — and worsens the longer a lot stays vacant. This snowballs into an environmental justice issue when one considers that there are significantly more vacant lots in lower-income communities than elsewhere.
Bill Stewart, a Professor of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has conducted research on park development and community-based conservation for nearly three decades. Stewart points out that these unproductive areas of land burden urban landscapes across the world, and the city of Chicago alone has 25,000 to 30,000 vacant lots.The city owns about 11,500 of them, while the rest are privately owned.
Though this might seem like an enormous acreage of wasted land, he maintains that it is the norm for the great industrial cities of the last century.
“The vacant lot problem is not a problem peculiar to Chicago,” he said. “Detroit has 110,000 vacant lots. Philadelphia has 40,000 vacant lots. Cleveland has 35,000 vacant lots. I can go on and on. Largely it’s a Rust Belt thing, but around the world cities have problems with their land vacancy.”
How to Solve the Problem?
Facing the question of what to do with the lots, many cities have embraced “urban greening.” Seen as both environmentally and economically beneficial, urban greening turns previously wasted land into productive areas for new complexes, well-kept parks, and other public green spaces. The urban greening concept is popular with city governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but it might not always translate into effective policies, according to Stewart, if those designing the green spaces aren’t aware of the needs of the residents directly affected.
“There’s a more of a top-downness where the NGOs come in,” Stewart said. “They might, through the city land banks, purchase lots and make parks — and there’s nothing wrong with that — but how do you ensure against displacement?”
In other words, green space developments can have a downside if they open the door to gentrification of a neighborhood. When an area is newly provided with green space, and the pollution cleaned up, it opens up the possibility of a spike in real estate prices and wealthier people moving in, displacing poorer people who have lived there their entire lives.
Green displacement can be seen everywhere, for example in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The Sunset Park redevelopment, begun in the early 2010s, seemed a great advertisement for green spacing — and the creation of cleaner, healthier communities. The city put in trees along streets, bike paths, and new pedestrian-friendly walkways. However, this improved green infrastructure caused a boom in real estate investment. So much so that the average price of condos in the area has increased by 67% — leaving some residents to choose between a healthy neighborhood and paying the bills.
The Large Lots Program
But not all urban greening is equal. Gentrification and displacement can be minimized if a program is designed and implemented properly. Demond Drummer was among the pioneering advocates for the Large Lots Program in Chicago. Talking with others in the Englewood community, Drummer realized people would be willing to buy these vacant lots from the city, but policy procedures made it nearly impossible for them to do so. From this sense of frustration, the Large Lots program was born.
“Large Lots is a story of civic innovation from the bottom up,” Drummer said at a 2017 public lecture assessing the program.
First, Englewood residents came together through organizations such as the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (RAGE) and Teamwork Englewood. Together they decided that they were going to address the problem of city-owned vacant lots in their community.
Drummer used this bottom-up approach and then reached out the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development. His idea tied into the existing Green Healthy Neighborhoods program, developed by the city for extensive neighborhood development. Repurposing vacant lots was a cornerstone of the new green urban policy in Chicago.
The Large Lots program has a simple mission. It gives residents on the same block as vacant lots an opportunity to purchase them — for only $1. This nominal price allows residents to gain control over neighborhood space, increase safety, build community ties, and raise home values.
The LLP, however, maintains strict eligibility requirements and rules about what can be done with the newly acquired lot. One of the most important of these is that the applicants must own property on the same block as the lot they want to purchase, preventing big investors from swooping in to buy up the land.
Paul Gobster, a landscape architect with the U.S. Forest Service who researches impacts of the LLP, said this locals-only rule was particularly beneficial for the community: “One important factor in why it has worked (is preventing) anyone from any place being able to buy the lot.” He says people who live on the block will naturally have more personal stake in the neighborhood, and in maintaining and improving its spaces.
Once the purchase is made, resident-owners have great freedom in choosing what they wish to do with the lot: They can build an extension to a house, or install garages, gardens, parks, yards, etc. The emphasis is on small-scale development, without the need for outside investment or building loans.
Hammond, who welcomed me into her reclaimed vacant lot, is a true Chicago native. She was born on the West Side of Chicago and has lived in Englewood for 43 years, the last 17 as a homeowner. She manages and runs a home daycare. Tina joined RAGE early on and jumped at the chance to purchase a lot.
Hammond’s green lot could be a poster child for the Large Lots program. To say she improved her parcel of land would be a gross understatement; she and her husband have completely transformed the space. The crown jewel of the lot is the back fence — where a mural with bold, swirling colors depicts scenes of people dancing. Fittingly, a wooden deck built for dancing with an overhead covering stands proudly in the center of the lot. Rain barrels, providing water for both her flower and vegetable gardens, line the perimeter. In her vegetable garden, she plants spinach and kale for smoothies, which she loves to make.
“It’s beneficial to us because we don’t have to worry about buying it in the summer time or spring,” Hammond said. “To just to be able to go there and do that is amazing because it shows the kids in the daycare that we can grow our own vegetables and that we know what’s in it because we grew it ourselves.”
What was most important to her, though, was that she beautified the area.
“The kids need to see beautiful spaces in Englewood to know that they are worthy to have nice things,” she said. “We are worthy of that, we deserve that and so many times we don’t get that. So when this program came available, I was really excited because this is what we need.”
‘Cues to Care’
Those strong feelings about beautification echo the findings of research on the Large Lots Program. Stewart has studied how beautifying a lot influences the owner’s sense of community and place attachment. One respondent complained that vacant lots in their community had “overgrown brush, and then the wind blows and everything (trash) gets caught in the brush.” Another remarked on the proliferation of “used condoms, vile trash, hypodermic needles, empty bottles… .”
For these respondents, gardens and green spaces were the answer, while others thought the land could be used as a collective neighborhood resource by adding space for social gatherings and events. Still others envisioned once useless land given over for growing local foods, both privately and for the community.
Respondents said that they felt a duty to stay in the neighborhood and not move out, and that adding property to their name helped them feel even more rooted in the community. Researchers have shown that, in the work of beautifying their lots, residents increased their social interaction with one another and built stronger community relationships.
These findings show that the benefits of the LLP are primarily social — with environmental benefits just a bonus. For example, not all reclaimed vacant lots in Englewood and elsewhere have been turned into ideal green space. Some have been paved or built on. While this might make some environmentalists narrow their eyes, Gobster defends the diversity of development choices.
“If the ecologists are solely looking at ecological conditions without taking into account the people who actually live there, you could end up with a solution that may not fit what the neighbors want with a bunch of wild-looking spaces in the middle of their neighborhood,” he said.
Instead, Gobster says it’s about finding a balance between the idea of order in an urban landscape coupled with ecosystem services. Gobster’s research, in collaboration with Bill Stewart, uses both aerial and street photographs of lots in Greater Englewood and East Garfield Park to assess what he calls “cues to care.”
Cues to care reflect the overall public maintenance of a neighborhood. These cues included pavement condition, the number of healthy trees, social recreational spaces and, on the downside, evidence of dumping, vandalism, etc.
Gobster’s results are good news for the Large Lots Program. He found that the LLP reduced bare soil exposure in Englewood while increasing garden space, turf and canopy cover. He was surprised to find an overall reduction in trees, but this loss mainly came from removal of trees already in poor condition (which increased the amount of shrubs and trees in good condition). He expects a bounce back for tree cover in upcoming years.
The reclamation and greening of vacant lots can also positively impact residents’ mental health and happiness. Sara Hadavi, an Illinois alumna who received a Ph.D. in Landscape Architecture from the University of Michigan in 2015, has long studied how proximity to green spaces positively affects mental well-being. For the Large Lots program, she wanted to see, in particular, how the restoration of lots impacted the neighborhood crime rate.
West Englewood and Garfield Park were the areas targeted by Hadavi for analysis of different categories of crime ranging from burglary, to sexual assault, to vandalism and drug abuse. She found a measurable decrease in crime since the Large Lots Program was launched in 2014 – findings that will be published this year as well.
“Sense of safety and crime have a very strong relationship,” she said. “When a neighborhood or block has a lot of cues to care, it affects how those who want to commit the crime pick the area to do that. Whether it is drug dealing, violence, or whatever … if there are a lot of cues for care it means that there are many eyes on the street — many local eyes — a lot of people are coming and going. It’s not an abandoned space. Criminals don’t pick these spots.”
When asked how these results could be used in future planning she said, “It’s been a great opportunity to show how involving people and communities can affect policymaking. The results relating to the visual quality and crime, for example, have a lot of messages for policymakers to consider green infrastructure and to engage people in the process in residential neighborhoods and not make decisions behind closed doors.”
The spectacular results of the Large Lots Program speak for themselves. The LLP had sold 1,240 lots as of summer 2019 and has seen a tenfold increase in city-owned vacant lots sold to homeowners. In Englewood and elsewhere, community quality of life is up, and crime is down. Given its rapid success, the Large Lots program can now be looked on as a blueprint for revamping deteriorated neighborhoods nationwide.
A year after I first researched this story, I made a return visit to Hammond’s street in Englewood. She greeted me with a smile, sporting an “I Am Englewood” T-shirt. Her lot is still stunning, with the notable addition of a large, gray turtle sculpture her daycare kids have dubbed “Mr. Grumpy.”
We stood on her dancing deck and discussed the meaning behind various trinkets ornamenting her lot. Hammond spoke positively and confidently about the LLP: “We just hope, you know, it catches on. I tell people to do what you can afford and do what you can maintain.”
The lot across the street still sits vacant. She said a lot of people ask if she would ever buy that lot. She’s considered it — but would have to buy the house adjacent to it to qualify for a second vacant lot purchase. Besides, she is happy with her original lot, the “Promise Land” of her community.
She returns to the theme of beautification she raised at our first meeting a year before: “We want people to know that — yes we live in Englewood, but we are worthy of beautiful and nice things just like other communities. And that’s what we really push and want other people to know that we deserve this. We deserve this in our community. Every block that has vacant lots if the city did something for the lot, or if the residents do something for the lot, I think it would make our community look better … if someone just took the initiative to get a lot and just do something to it.”
Vacant lots like the one across this Englewood street still stand empty, humbly waiting for purchase, but unquestionably this unique Chicago program has sparked a drive for change. Instead of symbolizing urban decline, the vacant lots dotting Chicago now represent spaces of opportunity for their future owners and communities — thanks to the Large Lots Program.
About the Author …
Carly Hopkins is from Marion, Ill. She is a senior in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences with a concentration in Human Dimensions of the Environment. She works as a research assistant for the Miller Research Group on campus. After graduation, she plans to study environmental law, and a career in environmental policy. This piece was researched and written for the CEW 498 capstone course in Spring 2019.