Vacant Lots: Crowd-Sourcing The Sustainable Neighborhood

What happens when you get everyday people thinking about the challenges that have occupied city planners for years — and give them the tools to do something about it? The City 2.0 project recently caught our attention for doing just that, and now we’ve seen nonprofits like the Network Center for Community Change in Kentucky and People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) in New York using this people-powered approach to tackle a key issue in creating sustainable, livable neighborhoods: vacant buildings and lots.

Network Center for Community Change, a community action group based in Louisville, has been mapping neighborhoods to identify vacant lots and houses that need renovation, along with more stable pieces of property. In so doing, it aims to help the community make decisions that better reflect local conditions and needs. Once these “opportunities for improvement” have been established, the group mobilizes residents and other stakeholders to work with municipal authorities in developing strategic redevelopment projects that will boost local property values, increase quality of life in the neighborhood, and/or create jobs.

Green Development Zone community garden

image via PUSH

The Network started this Louisville initiative back in 2010 because it realized that official statistics concerning vacant properties in the area were often inaccurate, often by as much as 30 percent in either direction. Having accurate numbers, in terms of neighborhood vacancies, has aided the group in getting local elected officials on board with the development/redevelopment projects deemed most critical by the people who actually live and work in these communities.

In Buffalo, a related effort is underway with the Green Development Zone, a project of PUSH. This grassroots effort began with the intention of creating a new community economy in a blighted 25-square block area of the city’s West Side — which, like many urban areas across the country, was faced with deteriorating housing, hundreds of vacant lots, and fewer and fewer jobs for local residents. In 2005, residents discovered that a New York State housing agency was using these vacant houses and lots in Buffalo to speculate on Wall Street; the organization formed and proceeded to launch a militant campaign in response to this that resulted in millions of dollars for the state’s neighborhoods through New York’s Block by Block program.

Network Center neighborhood map

image via for Network Center for Community Change

Using people power, PUSH was able to start rehabilitating neglected housing on the West Side. In 2011, those efforts paid off in widespread recognition, as the Green Development Zone initiative was one of three programs from a list of dozens of sustainable housing efforts around the world to win the award for Sustainable Housing: Collaborating for Livable and Inclusive Cities from Ashoka Changemakers, an organization dedicated to collaboration in the service of affecting global change.

Through this and other programs, PUSH has succeeded in insulating and winterizing older homes in Buffalo, developing new green affordable housing units, building the city’s first Net-Zero Energy House, and a major park renovation/improvement (created with widespread community input), as well as turning numerous vacant properties into community gardens and rain gardens.
A key tool used by both campaigns has been maps of vacant areas created based on reports from community residents. By creating publicly available maps of vacant areas in need of improvement, these community groups are paving the way to neighborhood improvement at the grassroots level.

Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.