Vacant Land

One of many vacant properties in Baltimore, Maryland

The dysfunctional condition of real estate markets in shrinking cities, along with the neglect of conventional planning models to address issues of vacancy, abandonment and population loss, have directed leaders in Cleveland, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities, to pursue innovative revitalization strategies. One aspect of this process is the acquisition of vacant lots, in which the city of Baltimore has exceeded all expectations. As part of its anti-blight initiative, Project 5000, Mayor O’Malley established the ambitious goal of acquiring 5000 vacant and abandoned properties in order to promote new development, eliminate neighborhood blight and improve the quality of life of Baltimoreans. By 2007, the City had acquired and cleared title of more than 6,000 properties, setting the stage for development projects by different sectors and becoming a nationally recognized model for efficient partnerships and large-scale property acquisition. Furthermore, through its custom-built database and code enforcement actions, the City has created an effective toolbox for the clearance and maintenance of blighted properties, some of which have become thriving community gardens.

In spite of Baltimore’s commendable success in confronting and preventing neighborhood blight, gaining control of abandoned properties and establishing a growing network of green infrastructure, the City recognizes that effective strategies for the disposition of its vacant lots are still absent. Innovative mechanisms are needed to put these properties to good use and restructure the city’s physical environment in a way that responds to its current realities and those of its residents. As we have seen through the experiences of other shrinking cities, disposition of vacant properties is a common challenge. In response, a variety of programs and initiatives have been implemented in places like Cleveland and Philadelphia that test new approaches to right-sizing. Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all model; however, by building on the strengths and learning from the experiences of other shrinking cities, Baltimore can design appropriate tools that are more in line with its urban context.

Urban Voids Winner: Waterwork by Charles Loomis Chariss McAfee Architects

One idea could be organizing a design competition around the issues of a shrinking city. This strategy was adopted in the Philadelphia LANDVisions project through the Urban Voids design competition, a collaborative effort partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.  This initiative invited entries to create new design alternatives for the city’s vacant properties and asked proposals to engage neighborhood community groups in their implementation concepts.  Cleveland has also undertaken a similar approach through its annual Cleveland Design Competition, an effort initiated in 2007 in order to start dialogue around the underutilized areas of the city. Both competitions have been considered a success mainly because the winning entries have effectively incorporated sustainability, social and economic components into their proposals, addressing some of the most critical issues of shrinking cities.

Building upon the experience of places like Cleveland and Philadelphia, Baltimore can support a design competition initiative, engaging its residents and bringing together talented minds from around the country (and the world).  This effort can set the stage for professionals in the planning, policy and design fields to work collaboratively in formulating innovative right-sizing strategies while creating a more participatory planning model.


Baltimore interest groups are using a range of initiatives to handle the pressing issues of a shrinking city. Many neighborhoods are facing the same problems – too many vacant properties and abandoned buildings – but they are dealing with them in different ways. For instance, we saw how the City’s Code Enforcement Department is dealing with the issue from an economic perspective, in which code enforcement fees will assist in repairing or demolishing some of the properties. This enforcement process will even help acquire some of the properties (through a receivership process), which can then be sold to private developers in attempts to revitalize certain distressed areas. In addition, we witnessed how grassroots efforts at the neighborhood level could create community spaces that beautify the neighborhood, help the environment, and raise surrounding property values when led by residents themselves, as was the case with the Homestead Harvest Community Garden . On a larger scale, we learned how a nonprofit public/private partnership, East Baltimore Development Inc., was transforming East Baltimore through community initiatives and economic development, with a new neighborhood school and in cooperation with developers and Johns Hopkins University to create a science and technology park. The range of actors involved is also very broad, ranging from community groups led by residents, to small non-profits, large partnerships, and the City of Baltimore itself.

The proposed Science & Technology Park in the East Baltimore neighborhood


The diversity of the groups involved has led to a diversity of solutions, and I think that in the end, it’s going to need to be a combination of all these initiatives and actors that will help Baltimore successfully tackle this issue. There doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach to handle these problems between or within shrinking cities, so the combination of social, economic, and environmental initiatives is what will bring the greatest improvement to the city. The City of Baltimore should continue to embrace initiatives by these groups and encourage more ideas and projects to occur at the neighborhood level. Essentially, we learned that it takes team work to stabilize shrinking cities!

Abandoned rowhouses, Baltimore.

Walking through East Baltimore’s blocks of abandoned rowhouses and vacant lots, it’s hard to imagine what was. In the 1950s, the city was a thriving port and manufacturing center, the landscape of smokestacks indicating prosperity. In the second half of the twentieth century, Baltimore struggled severely, losing thousands of middle class manufacturing jobs that had once propelled this strong economic engine. When the jobs left, so did people–to the tune of almost 300,000 people since 1970. This incredible loss of population and jobs is laid bare in the built environment, with 17,000 vacant homes and lots across Baltimore. The abandoned homes, in particular, provide a haven for drugs and other illegal activity, exacerbating the pervasive social problems that plague the city.

Much has been written about the East Baltimore Development, Inc. plan to completely reinvent Middle East Baltimore adjacent to Johns Hopkins University’s medical campus; this effort will certainly make inroads on the vacant property problem in Baltimore, but it’s not a solution that will work anywhere else. In my opinion, small, incremental efforts at the neighborhood scale will be key in reducing the number of abandoned homes and lots; I find the most compelling of these strategies to be creating parks, open space, urban farms, and community gardens. This green infrastructure doesn’t just reclaim vacant property; it also offers an opportunity to strengthen connections among residents, to improve the quality of the land and water in the city, to provide Baltimoreans with healthier food options, and to teach technical skills to an underdeveloped workforce.


Parks and People is the foremost resource for those who want to create green space in their neighborhoods. They offer a number of tools on their web site, including the comprehensive Guide to Greening Neighborhoods: Creating and Caring for Neighborhood Open Space.  The guide gives detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to plan, design, build, and maintain community space, including technical details about what to plant, advice for organization roles in each step of the process, and instructions for navigating the legal aspects of using the property.

Once a community green space is established, Baltimore Green Space is one of the resources that can help protect the space from redevelopment in perpetuity. The organization is a new land trust that works with communities to preserve the green infrastructure they have built and maintained, even though according to existing zoning the green use might not be the fullest and best use of the land. The land trust approach allows the community to have control over their green space, doing the planting, weeding, and other work, while Baltimore Green Space handles the details like taxes, legal papers, and technical assistance.

The City of Baltimore has begun to show formal support for green infrastructure as a strategy for dealing with their vacant and abandoned property problem. The 2009 Sustainability Plan outlined an effort to modify the city’s zoning code to allow for urban agriculture, increasing the number of gardens, farms, and cultivated green space in the city. Furthermore, the plan calls for incentives for urban agriculture and a strong urban agriculture strategy that can respond to the underserved market for healthy foods in the city.

Two new reports have been added to the burgeoning literature on shrinking cities:

  • Growing a University in a Shrinking City – Dr. David Sweet, president of Youngstown University (Ohio), played a critical role in the development of the Youngstown 2010 plan. During the process, thousands of residents and community leaders participated in the visioning and execution of the city’s new master plan.  (To learn more about the planning process, read Austin’s post, Citizens and Shrinking Cities – Youngstown 2010). In this new report, Dr. Sweet shares his experiences in helping to revision the community, and emphasizes the importance of campus-community partnerships.
  • Texas Problem Properties Toolkit – For two years, the Community Development Clinic at the University of Texas Law School conducted research on the most effective strategies that cities in Texas, and around the country, are using to combat the problem of vacant and abandoned properties. The group’s research culminated in this toolkit, which outlines a number of strategies for Texas cities including, community engagement, vacant property registration, landbanking, and code enforcement.

Austin Watkins wrote a great post on the reuse of the Detroit-Superior Bridge.  In his post, he highlights the bridge’s unique site and ways it could become the anchor for redevelopment of trendy corridor.  It’s a proposal that’s well-considered and has an obvious model in the High Line Project in New York.  I think that there are larger factors that merit taking a different approach.

First, NYC is not Cleveland.  New York has not just numerical density but, one could argue, “a culture of density.”  Part of the mystique of New York is the combination of anonymity and close quarters.  One sign of the differences between the two cities — recent articles in on Gothamist, MSNBC and the New York Post about the Standard Hotel a high-end hotel near the High Line.  Apparently, both guests and staff like to engage in a bit of exhibitionism in the windows of the hotel.  A bellhop interviewed said:

“We don’t discourage it. In actual fact, we encourage it. One of the managers even got naked in a room, and filmed it—they were considering a live feed for the Web site.”

Call me a prude, but I don’t see any parts of that story happening in Cleveland — which is a good thing.  There are other more PG activities taking place close to the High Line, including a woman who gives cabaret performances with her friends on her fire escape overlooking the High Line.  My contention is that these are mostly “only in New York” activities.

The main reasons the comparison of the two spaces needs further investigation are physical, temporal and social.  Although the High Line and the Detroit-Superior Bridge are superficially similar, they are actually very different.  The High Line is an elevated track through a canyon of multi-story buildings.  It’s only about 20 feet above the sidewalk and open to the sky.  You can easily see and be seen (see above paragraphs) on the High Line.  It doesn’t have any commercial uses on the structure to interfere with recreational use, but the surrounding buildings can be/are packed with all kinds of service and retail. 

The Detroit-Superior Bridge is … a bridge.  It’s nearly a mile long and views in are obscured by the upper deck and the steel structure on each side; the Bridge is 96 feet above the river; if you could get out on a boat, you would need to be at least 96 feet away to get a useful site line on activities in the lower deck.  This all means the views out of the structure are great, but not so good into it.  The site isn’t surrounded by real estate, so any commercial uses would be on the streets at either end of the span, or take away from potential passive recreation space on the span.

The High Line Project represents over ten years of community activism and local pressure.  A visit to The High Line’s official web site notes that a the Friends of the High Line formed in 1999, and the city didn’t formally adopt the project until 2002.  Certainly efforts to activate the lower deck of Detroit-Superior have a similar long history.  But can Cleveland afford to make the kind of investment in the lower deck that New York made in the High Line?

The Re-Building Blocks  report developed by PolicyBridge paints a disturbing picture of demographics in Cleveland.  Downtown and Ohio City are the center of a small cluster of communities that were estimated to gain population in 2009.  Between 1950 and 2000, the two neighborhoods lost 50.6% and 64.7% of their population, respectively.  Ohio City has the highest level of residential vacancies of 36 months or more of all Cleveland neighborhoods, at 66.4%.  Looking at educational attainment, Downtown and Ohio City residents with less than a high school diploma are 15.8% and 37.7%, respectively; the average for Cuyahoga County is 18.4%.  The case can be made that, with the number of universities and medical facilities in Cleveland, the Creative Class is already there — they simply are not choosing to live these two communities.  Additionally, a strategy aimed at the Creative Class overlooks the needs of the current residents.

In the case of Cleveland, it is important to develop projects hat can generate positive outcomes quickly.  They should have a low investment threshold, be easy to carry out and easy to remove if they aren’t working.  They should also take advantage of the unique nature of the bridge — it’s a covered space with great views out and controlled access.  Why not:

  1. Continue the schedule of temporary events begun with the Bridge Project in fall 2009, but analyse these to decide what uses or combination of uses are likely to work as permanent occupants of the span.   One success of the Bridge Project is in 2010, Ingenuity Fest, billed as “Cleveland’s cutting edge festival of arts, music, and technology,” is holding its yearly week-long event the lower level of Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.  It is important to remember that the Bridge Project and other Pop-Up City efforts generate “buzz” precisely because they are temporary, so it is vital to understand what will work on a long-term basis.
  2. Offer uses that can promote positive outcomes for the neighborhood that’s already there, such as a workshop on GED and continuing education or an auction of city or CDC-owned homes.  These temporary uses take advantage of the bridge’s unique situation as a space “facing” two neighborhoods.
  3. Offer options that are not available in other spaces.  As an example, many coffee chains and fast-food restaurants are no longer offering free WiFi.  What if the lower deck became a huge free WiFi hotspot?  Educational and arts organizations could take advantage of the views for painting and drawing classes.  The large open spans and heavy-duty structure lend themselves to using the lower deck as a community wood shop or to classes in making large-scale sculptures.

It is important to remember that the liability issues for temporary uses might be very different from long-term occupations.  However, a series of well-considered temporary uses can help the city identify specific uses that serve the unique needs of Cleveland.  Cleveland has a wealth of heart and talent — given time, there’s no doubt citizens will find an “only in Cleveland” use that is as specific and successful as the High Line in NYC.

What could make two old women think it was a good idea to stay on a barely populated block in a Detroit neighborhood? Evidently, a blot could.

As described in Improve Your Lot!, Interboro Partners’ essay in Cities Growing Smaller Journal No. 1: Urban Infill, “blotting” is the process whereby Detroit homeowners expand their yards by claiming adjacent abandoned lots – either through purchase or informal adoption.  Interboro Partners acknowledges that the results of these expansions are often unattractive; the sites are often acquired to park multiple cars.  Nevertheless, as pointed out in Thomas Sheffer’s previous post, they represent a valid, grass-roots response to Detroit’s vacancy issues.

In my opinion there are two key elements of the Interboro analysis meriting further exploration.  First, blots often coincide with multiple generations of a family staying in a neighborhood and living on a single or connected set of blots.  Second, the inference that Detroit residents would buy these lands if possible, thereby bringing the lots back onto the tax rolls; and that the biggest impediment to purchase is the poor record-keeping and convoluted approval process of city government.

Many efforts on the municipal, county and state level have been proposed to improve this process.  The simplest, proposed by former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, was to simply allow residents to buy any adjacent vacant lot for $200.  Interboro sees this proposal as “in the spirit of the sort of planning … that attempts to identify, document, and finally advocate for potentially progressive practices that … already exist, but are underappreciated and have little legitimacy.”  They see the professional in this case as a sort of “ghostwriter,” helping the citizen implement grassroots ideas in the best possible way. (Armborst, D’Oca and Theodore 2008)

The issue of lost tax revenue is by no means a small one.  At the time of Interboro’s research, estimates projected that Detroit lost $60 million in uncollected property taxes every year, with more than $1 billion lost in the past 20 years. Detroit only collects 87 percent of its property taxes every year, when most cities collect 98 percent.  Records showed 33 percent of all properties in the city are tax delinquent, and that more than $165 million is owed in back taxes.  Detroit employed a total of two tax collectors to deal with this backlog.  (Armborst, D’Oca and Theodore 2008)  Certainly making the purchase of additional lots would increase potential tax revenues, but would do little to increase Detroit’s effectiveness in actually collecting taxes.

By far the most interesting potential outcome of facilitating blots is the development of intergenerational families in communities.  Detroit’s lack of a tax base and poor collection would mean that many services for residents are either being eliminated, scaled back or taken up by the non-profit sector.  Social researchers often point to the disruption of kinship networks and familial bonds in distressed communities as creating the need for such services.  The lives that Americans lead today, regardless of class, are defined by high levels of mobility, disbursed families, and an increased need to purchase services that were provided by nuclear or extended families 50 years ago.  When discussing the imminent bankruptcy of the Social Security System when the Baby Boom Generation retires, the question often asked is, “how are we going to pay for taking care of all these seniors as they age?”  It seems to me that the question should be, “Why are people not taking care of their parents, and how can we as a society facilitate kinship care?”

So let’s get back to those two old ladies in Detroit.  As described in Improve Your Lot!, the site developed as follows:

“Wanda Cowans and Helen McMurray are two sisters who created a shared blot.  The chronology of their blot formation is as follows: both sisters migrated from the South and upon arrival in Detroit were renters.  In the mid-1960s, Wanda lived in an apartment and Helen rented a house at 2005 Elmhurst Avenue (fig. 4).  Helen was in the process of saving money to buy a house, but at that time still couldn’t afford one.  In the aftermath of the 1967 riot, property values on Elmhurst Avenue plum­meted. In April 1969, Helen was finally able to buy a house at 1987 Elmhurst.  That summer, Wanda bought the house at 2005 Elmhurst that Helen had just vacated, which was just three lots away.  Like so many buildings on the block, the houses at 2001 and 1995 Elmhurst were abandoned and torn down.  The sisters acquired the vacant land from the city and created the large shared yard that now connects their two houses.”  (Armborst, D’Oca and Theodore 2008)

So let’s spell this out – two sisters relocated to Detroit and worked steadily over a period of 40 years, during Detroit’s worst decline, to buy houses on the same block. When faced with the abandonment and demolition of two houses between them, did they move out of the neighborhood into senior housing, or reduce their expenditures by moving into a single house?  They bought more property to create a shared garden.  Seems like the kind of residents Detroit needs to keep by any means necessary.

The theme of extended family is a consistent one throughout the Interboro analysis.  The Garden Blot is a six-lot blot next to Jean Anderanin’s home.  Assembled over a number of years, the lots are adjacent to Jean’s house, but three of the lots are owned by her son Michael.  Why do we care?  Michael lives in a home across the street, with neighbors on either side.  His purchase of three vacant lots did nothing to directly impact the value of his property.  Victor Toral’s expanded yard, combining purchased and appropriated lots, has allowed him to expand his garage and add a bedroom.  It has also created an enclosed playground for his kids with a tree house and swing set.

Would Michael Anderanin have purchased three vacant lots adjacent to a stranger’s house?  Would two neighbors, no matter how friendly, buy the lots between their houses to create a jointly owned garden?  Would Victor Toral have purchased or appropriated as many lots without a desire to create a really cool, safe playground for his kids?  I propose that the answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘no.’ Because even in today’s America, family matters.  In places like Detroit, where there is the distinct possibility that you would have no neighbors at all, family might be the only people who will stick it out with you.

Kinship and land ownership have been intertwined in American history since the beginning, and even today, accumulating land is one of the surest ways for Americans to accumulate and invest wealth.  The unexplored potential of the Interboro analysis is that it may offer cities whose lands have little material value a chance to package lands to increase their subjective value.  Detroit still has many assets, including good universities and cultural institutions.  What if it also became the place that facilitates multiple generations of families living together in close proximity, and affordably creating large compounds that offer the sort of intergenerational interactions so many of us seem to miss?

Both Thomas Sheffer and the researchers at Interboro contend that blots may be “anti-urban” or lack aesthetic quality.  I believe that nothing is more anti-urban or ugly than a street full of abandoned homes.  Further, I would contend that any of the families in these case studies would say that their blots are beautiful, not for what they look like but for what they mean.  For Ms. Cowan and Ms. McMurray, their blot is the culmination of forty years of fortitude; Victor Toral’s blot is a place his kids can play safely and with plenty of room.  Michael and Jean Anderanin’s blot is both a beautiful garden and the concrete symbol of a son’s love for his mother.  The beauty of these properties comes not from the abstract formal values of outsiders, but from deeply personal and specific meanings created as part and parcel of assembling these properties.

There are many ways that the blot process could be specifically targeted to, and marketed to, extended families.  Doubtless no program of this type could solve all of Detroit’s vacant property issues.  When approaching the phenomenon of blots, professionals need to keep in mind that beauty flows from meaning, not vice versa.  If we concentrate our efforts on facilitating residents’ efforts at creating meaning from vacant land, beauty will take care of itself.


Armborst, Tobias, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore. “Improve Your Lot!” Cities Growing Smaller Journal No. 1: Urban Infill, 2008: 45 – 64.

The use of ‘blots’, or ‘side lot expansions’, is a technique that gives homeowners with vacant land adjacent to their home the opportunity to purchase that property as an expansion to their own for a nominal cost. Essentially, this concept is an incentive to de-densify neighborhoods. This immediately strikes me as contrary to many smart growth principals, notably that in reducing density it makes transit less feasible and reduces the community attributes of neighborhoods.

Blot in Detroit

Blot in Detroit

The article, “IMPROVE YOUR LOT!” from Cities Growing Smaller, analyzes the growing use of blots in Detroit and shows several photo examples of blots with high, unfriendly fences (like the example above). This privatization of urban space might be contrary to the community-oriented fundamentals of New Urbanism, but not to what they call “New Suburbanism” – a term for “the process through which entrepreneurial homeowners take, borrow, or buy adjacent land.” Their analysis points out the many suburban amenities these blots enable homeowners to develop, including: additions to their homes, garages, pools, playgrounds and gardens.

Diagram of various uses of blots

During a class visit to Cleveland in October, my thoughts on blots quickly began to evolve into something more positive. The density of many neighborhoods in the city, built for mid 20th century industrial workers, no longer suits the city’s needs or many citizens’ ideology.  Cleveland’s metropolitan population statistics tell the tale; the city is shrinking but the region is sprawling (see map below). There are many reasons for this, but one is certainly the quest for more space and privacy…attributes that blots can help supply.

Cleveland Sprawl

Blots, or the New Suburbs, may not be part of smart growth, but they can serve as a valuable tool for “smart decline” as well as a way to combat urban sprawl. Setting aside certain neighborhoods with the best potential for successful density, mixed use and transit as “urban catchment hubs”, other areas can then be set aside for reducing density with the use of blots and other incentives, such as conservation easements, that set aside open space. Additionally, by attracting people seeking suburban values to stay in the city or move closer to urban hubs, this could also work to bring metropolitan growth back in to the city. This could be combined with many existing growth management tools that could be tweaked for shrinking cities, such as growth boundaries, impact fees and TDRs.

Creating a systematic way to use blots in this way is something that land trusts and land banks are already toying with, but perhaps government could take a stronger role. If nothing else, blots remove the burden of maintaining vacant lots and put that land back on the tax roll. Even modest shifts of population back towards the core would lead to many other positive outcomes that shrinking cities would definitely benefit from.

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