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.

It turns out that one of my coworkers, Emily Rice – a recent graduate from the Urban and Regional Planning Program at Portland State University – has also studied strategies to address vacant and abandoned spaces in cities. As part of the LocusLab, she and three classmates partnered with the Central Eastside Industrial Council in Portland on the project No Vacancy! Exploring Temporary Use of Empty Space in the Central Eastside Industrial District. The project looked at how to enliven vacant spaces in the district with temporary activities and developments.

Their scope of temporary use includes the usual urban gardens and public art, but also includes some creative and innovative uses, such as: live performances, food carts, mobile marketing, new technology demonstrations, and micro-enterprise developments. Also interesting is their broad definition of “temporary” – it’s not constrained to just a few years, but even as short as a month or a few hours.

Emily said that, “the experience proved to be extremely telling with respect to community dynamics, business motivations, and misinterpretations of intentions.”  And that she “realized early on that any temporary projects that could even remotely be linked to negative impacts on the District were not going to be easily accepted.”

So to help make the Central Eastside Industrial District (CEID) more open to unconventional temporary uses, the group produced two publications. One is a No Vacancy! Guide that serves as a how-to manual for planning temporary projects in the CEID, and includes step-by-step checklists for property owners and space users to ensure proper planning. The other is a Final Report that explores the temporary use of vacant spaces and the applicability to the Central Eastside Industrial District. The report examines the benefits of temporary use, identifies examples of other projects around the world, considers the opportunities and barriers present in the CEID, and makes recommendations to the Central Eastside Industrial Council for implementing a program that supports a variety of temporary uses.

When the group presented their work to the Portland community, they chose the most fitting location – a vacant space in the historic Ford Building.

After people leave a city, what should happen to the physical reminders of their presence? The treasurer of Genessee County, Michigan – which includes the city of Flint – advocates bulldozing abandoned properties, and reframing the built environment around the residents who remain.

In a post in Good.Is Magazine, Treasurer Dan Kildee offers up a refreshing thesis: that a city should be judged on the quality of life for the people who live there, not compared against itself in another point in time. Through the Flint Land Bank, the city has already reclaimed about 9,000 abandoned properties – 14 percent of the land in Flint. Some of those properties have been bulldozed, and some await developers to be remade into something new. Others have been annexed by existing parcels, expanding side yards or city parks.

Kildee advocates framing a strategy of a vibrant city with diverse land uses, and a land bank is one tactic through which that can be achieved. Bulldozing is another. By adopting a dual-pronged strategy of clearing some land and redeveloping other parcels, Kildee argues, it not only helps to right-size the city, but it also gives residents a choice as to where they want to live.

Currently, many Flint residents are in close proximity to abandoned properties and blight, relics of the urban past. Under a new scheme, residents could choose whether they wanted to be in a dense neighborhood or in a more typical suburban (even, perhaps, rural) environment with larger lot sizes.

In a related post, Mayor Dayne Walling says the horizon for change is 2020. The Flint strategy is a thoughtful extension of simply bulldozing vacant properties (covered in many places, including this article in Inhabit). Flint has recognized that the 90,000 residents who’ve left may never come back. But instead of mourning their departure, the city is pushing ahead to make life great for the ones who remain.

What do you think? Can a city use bulldozers as an agent of change for improving quality of life?

When structures no longer serve a human purpose, it appears that nature retakes control. In Detroit, one resident has begun documenting so-called “feral houses,” where trees and other plant life have taken over former houses.

See the set of Feral House photos from flickr user Sweet Juniper, and read the related blog post.