“One Abandoned Yard is a Mess; 20,000 Abandoned Yards is an Ecosystem”

Cities all over the country are desperately trying to battle population decline. As people flee the city, vacant lots seem to be taking over. In the New York Times article “Finding the Potential in Vacant Lots,” Michael Tortorello gives insight to the slowly changing perception of the dreaded vacant lot. He describes Cleveland’s interesting approach to turn 3,600 vacant acres into an ecological experiment, Ultra-Ex, and their ecological and biological discoveries. Currently there are mixed reviews of the potential for the lots. Some cities find it imperative to continue to mow and maintain the lots for those who can’t see the “ecological value.” While others are reminded of simpler times and have become attached as they watch an empty lot fill with a diverse array of plant life.

Midtown Urban Farm in Cleveland (David Joseph NY Times)

I can understand, when focusing on the negative, why people despise “vacant lots,” as they often symbolize a city’s decline. I must just be an optimist, because I see them as pockets of opportunities. Many “It” cities have people just waiting for the opportunity to move there, cities like Seattle, Portland and even New York. So, what makes them special and why do so many people want to live there? Being in the landscape profession, I may be biased, but I believe it is because these cities have worked very hard to incorporate nature throughout their urban landscape. Their diverse collection includes, pocket parks, large parks (like Central Park), nature preserves, bioswales, greenways, and the list can go on. Following their example, other cities try their hardest to seek land that can be transformed into these amazing breaths of fresh air. They seem to be overlooking pieces of land that are just willing to do it themselves.

These vacant lots have many potential benefits. They can help alleviate a city’s watershed burdens, promote ecological diversity, be used as community gardens, which not only gives back to the growers but also enables a sense of community, offer passive or active recreation, and can be aesthetically appealing. The only argument against vacant lots would be aesthetics. For the lots that are left to their own ecological processes, many people can’t get over the stigma of urban decline. But, if we take a step back and truly assess what it is to have a “hands off” approach, it is no different from the many great state and national parks that showcase the preservation of natural environments and just because one may be in the city doesn’t mean it’s not near nature.

Union Avenue in Cleveland (David Joseph NY Times)

So, as a member of the community and a supporter of nature, I am making an executive decision to announce that “vacant lot” has negative connotations and doesn’t help “the cause”. They should be called something trendy like “nature reclaims” or “pocket preservations.” It doesn’t make sense when so much effort is put into finding places to optimize parks not to use the land that is begging to be returned to a natural state. These “nature reclaims” can then be used based on local demand, i.e. a park or community garden, and then if there is no obvious use (or money) they can be untouched preservations, allowing nature to take hold and grow vibrantly. It probably won’t give the public an epiphany, but eventually people will begin to appreciate their local ecology as beautiful and not feel the need to impose their ideas of “the American Lawn” (which came from Europe).

All images are from Finding the Potential in Vacant Lots



  1. I think people have a negative opinion to vacant lots over grown with Kudzu and scraggly sumac trees because they are trying to hold onto the idea of the neighborhood at the point of it inception. When everyone had freshly painted picketed fences and children ran aimlessly in the streets without fear of kidnapping or drive-bys.

    In fact here in St. Louis I am a member of a community garden that is located in a vacant lot in an older neighborhood. The lady who runs the garden live adjacent to the garden. She told me, “You know, the neighborhood saw my wonderful garden and everyone got together to donate this lot and make it a place for us folks to come together…” Everyone takes part in the weekly meetings every Sunday, and one of the local guys just donated 5 pear trees to be planted in the garden next spring.

    I am also a strong proponent for the hands off approach, many species of trees and fragile forbs and grasses thrive in derelict soils that HAVEN’T been disturbed. Although many people see these site as places for hoodlums to do and deal drugs, I feel they have much more value to simply be kept in check because of this small limiting factor.

    There is also a method of guerrilla gardening which employs seed grenades to populated utterly sterile and uninhabitable landscapes with a melody of wildflowers and trees. As no none pays attention to these places you can grow a starter forest and build your own ecosystem right inside the city!

    here is an example of a seed grenade :::: http://www.parrotized.com/environment/seedsprouting-flower-grenades-explode-in-the-uk.htm

    1. Let me start by saying, I LOVE the seed grenades!

      I liked this article because I thought it was interesting how generally, open nature is a commodity, so much so that people seek out nature parks as vacations spots for the weekend. But, when there is a chance to incorporate it close to home, people “can’t bare the site of it.” There are people who recognize the value of nature in daily life, like community gardeners and gorilla gardeners, and I think they are the ones that will help remove the stigma for the rest of the public.
      I think the hardest thing to get over with vacant lots, is that, in the beginning, it does look scraggly, with “weeds” and such. But, if we can restrain ourselves to let it be, it transforms to something people generally recognize as natural beauty, (although I personally enjoy the beauty of decay). Many people can’t grasp the idea, that the ecosystem and the world in general, are dynamic! Nothing stays the same forever, and to prevent it is exhausting and pointless, instead we should promote growth and change.

      Also, organizations in many cities have acknowledged the need to transform dead spaces and infuse nature into city life. There was one I saw in New Orleans that helps community members purchase empty lots to transform them into gardens, but I can’t seem to find it again. PlantSF is another organization (that I did find the website for) and there mission is to “promote permeable landscaping equally as sustainable urban infrastructural practice and as a beautification effort…” Eventually everyone will catch on to the importance of “the cause” and we will no longer have to transform “dead spaces” and incorporate them from the beginning!

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