From the Center for Community Progress:

REGISTRATION IS OPEN FOR OCTOBER’S RECLAIMING VACANT PROPERTIES CONFERENCE IN CLEVELAND!

Community Progress is pleased this year to partner with Neighborhood Progress, Inc. to bring you Reclaiming Vacant Properties: the Intersection of Sustainability, Revitalization, and Policy Reform. Join with us, and hundreds of your peers from communities across the country, to learn about the policies, tools, and strategies to catalyze long-term, sustainable revitalization. Share your experiences and insights, and become a part of the only national network focused on building the knowledge, leadership, and momentum to reclaim vacant and abandoned properties to foster thriving neighborhoods.

This engaging conference offers you three days of opportunities to build the skills and relationships to transform your communities:

  • Pre-conference training seminars on key strategies, including land banking, re-imagining older industrial cities, data and research, selling houses in weak markets, and taking nuisance abatement to scale.
  • Mobile workshops showcasing some of Cleveland’s successes, including adaptive reuse, community visioning, and legal tools in Slavic Village, historic preservation and brownfield revitalization in Detroit Shoreway, urban agriculture and green building throughout the city, and transit oriented development along the Euclid Corridor.
  • 35 interactive breakout sessions covering the full range of issues related to revitalization, including assessing tax incentives, accessing REOs and other foreclosure innovations, state and federal policy, temporary uses on vacant land, creative financing, decision making for site reuse, municipal code enforcement, and much more.
  • Plenaries highlighting innovative leadership and a keynote by Alex Kotlowitz (award-winning journalist and best-selling author.)
  • Networking opportunities allowing you time to exchange ideas with and get to know peers.
  • A new Poster Session designed so you can talk directly with even more experts.

We look forward to seeing you in October for this unique conference! Visit the conference web site to download the program and register.

A few additional notes about the conference:

  • One more opportunity to present: There is still an opportunity to participate as a presenter through the Poster Session. The Poster Session will offer conference participants one more way to hear about interesting case studies, research efforts, or projects. Proposals are due July 15th so don’t delay. If you already submitted an idea for a poster through the program RFP, you do not need to resubmit. Visit the program page on the web site to find out the details.
  • Scholarships: We hope to be able to post the application for registration scholarships soon. A limited number of scholarships will be available to nonprofit, public sector, or grassroots individuals. Watch for an update soon.

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.

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.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on a news article about neighbors in Flint, Michigan who transformed a parcel of vacant lots into a vegetable garden and fruit orchard.

Such neighborhood gardens are a popular strategy for improving vacant lots in ‘Shrinking Cities.’ Though in most distressed areas, these are perceived as temporary uses. For instance in this Flint story, the Genesee County Land Bank gave permission for this garden and orchard to be planted, but did not allocate this land for permanent community agriculture use. Because, conceivably, in few years, there will be interest to redevelop the land, and these neighbors will have to hang up their gardening gloves.

Yet there’s a burgeoning consensus that growing food within city limits is always a good thing – in shrinking and growing cities alike – for a number of reasons. In her article Small, Green and Good, Catherine Tumber synthesizes these arguments for local food production. She writes,

As Michael Pollan demonstrates in his best-selling The Omnivore’s Dilemma, agribusiness puts down an enormous carbon footprint. Sustainable agriculture and animal husbandry not only produce more nutritious food and less cruelty to animals, they are also far less dependent on petroleum for long-distance transportation, fertilizer, and neurotoxic pesticides (not to mention antibiotics). Building on the work of organic farmers and environmental activists since the ’70s, Pollan’s call for relocalizing agriculture coincides with rising alarm about the perils of climate change and dependence on foreign oil. Even the United Nations, which has long embraced agribusiness as the key to famine prevention, is beginning to recognize the role of sustainable, localized practices in food security.

So I think this Flint neighborhood has the right idea – pairing the garden and orchard. The garden is a great short-term greening tool and has helped to bring community together. And the fruit orchard is a more lasting approach to urban greening. If planted around the perimeter of these lots or in small clusters, these trees (or at least most of them) can remain even if the lot is redeveloped.

Mature fruit trees add character, provide healthy food and shade, and are relatively easy to maintain. Communities around the country are realizing the benefits of urban fruit trees. In Berkeley, California “urban gleaners” (or fruit philanthropists) pick fruit from neighbors’ yards to donate to local food banks. And around the country, community fruit exchanges are being established where neighbors can share their figs, lemons, and persimmons with each other.

I hope that the pairing of a garden and orchard becomes an increasingly popular strategy for dealing with vacant properties in other ‘Shrinking Cities.’ So even in instances where the garden is seen as a temporary use, the trees can feed and shade the community for many years to come.

How can we fix the failure?

Shrinking cities have been plagued by disinvestments for decades, despite the countless interventions by local stakeholders and other entities to stem the decline. The question is not so much why are the strategies not effective, but it is where in the decision making chain is the link the weakest. Those who failed to accept that their cities have a shrinkage problem are the weakest links. If decision makers do not acknowledge that the problem has existed, planning for the challenge is difficult at best. So how can we fix the failure?

A number of articles have been written about right-sizing strategies, how to spend NSP funds, public involvement, and so forth. However, shrinking cities-related articles and research are far and few, if any, on how to convince elected officials that there is an emergency. So where can practitioners find ideas on how to fix the failure?

Solutions to society’s problems are either new and innovative, or familiar ones that have been adapted from other purposes. For instance, sea shells are just that, but at one time people used them for currency. Clay has been used for pottery for centuries, and now it has been adapted as heat shield for space shuttles. The attributes of traditional towns have inspired people to borrow from those ideas to design today’s New Urbanist communities. Parks used to be at ground level, but within the last several decades people in urban environment have adapted them to rooftops. And now, one of the shrinking cities strategies is to demolish blighted properties and turn them into park space.

So from where and whom could practitioners draw ideas to fix the failure? Could it be from Capitol Hill lobbyists who have done so well at convincing politicians to support their self-serving agendas? From psychological warfare strategies? From books on how to sell your ideas? Unlikely sources should not be discounted as inspirations and ideas could come from anywhere. So how can we fix the failure?

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