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.
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.
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