TFN Blog 

Detroit’s Vacant Land: Strategies and Support

By Ceara O'Leary, Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow, Detroit Collaborative Design Center
0 comment(s)November 01, 2013

The amount of vacant property in Detroit is infamous. According to Detroit Future City (and highlighted in most accounts of the city), Detroit has nearly 150,000 vacant and abandoned land parcels and approximately 20 square miles of the city’s occupiable land are vacant. This figure excludes parks and other open spaces, which bring the city’s total vacant land to about 40 square miles. Detroit Future City (DFC), a strategic framework and vision for the city, also identifies an array of possibilities for this rampant vacancy, ranging from working landscapes to blue and green infrastructure ideas that warrant further refinement with neighborhood specificity.

While DFC is gearing up for implementation, there are already ample examples of how to put vacant property to good use in the city. In many cases, community-minded solutions offer effective models for productive land use. Detroit’s urban agriculture community is a well-documented and very active example of how Detroiters are reclaiming vacant lots as productive growing land, effectively contributing to beautification and community building as well as food security and income generation. Urban agriculture in Detroit ranges from side lot family gardens to the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network’s seven-acre D-Town Farm on the city’s west side.

In northwest Detroit, local community members have built the Brightmoor Farmway, a series of gardens, orchards and parks that together comprise a nine-block landscape of community agriculture that transforms the high-vacancy area into a notably green neighborhood. The Garden Resource Program supports over 1400 farms and gardens across the city, strengthened by a new urban agriculture ordinance that legitimizes these efforts.

While community gardens are reclaiming vacant land, strengthening neighborhoods and contributing both economic and nutritional benefits, other options for underused properties also abound. One option included in Detroit Future City and espoused by other Detroit groups highlights the potential of stormwater infrastructure systems. Blue and green infrastructure strategies such as rain gardens, bioswales and daylighting creeks have the potential to alleviate stormwater management issues while repurposing vacant land, creating community assets and spurring job growth. The Lower Eastside Action Plan has been particularly proactive at identifying green infrastructure opportunities on a lot-by-lot basis. The Detroit Free Press highlighted the relevance of blue infrastructure citywide.

Increasingly, artistic interventions are also serving social purposes and simultaneously occupying vacant land. From murals to sculptural skate parks to artful arrays of solar panels, creative design projects are filling gaps in Detroit’s landscape. In Southwest Detroit, The Alley Project (TAP) repurposes a vacant lot, donated garages, and the alley itself as a street art gallery and workshop space open to youth who are interested in honing their skills. Professional murals peppering the alley, weekly open houses, and lessons from experienced artists underscore TAP as a site for creative sharing that has made the most of the city’s vacant space. TAP Gallery is a project of Young Nation, a community-based and culture-rich youth group focused on “building relationships, community education, and passion-driven projects.”

As illustrated, many Detroiters have identified the latent potential in vacant land, despite the staggering quantity with which to contend. The Vacant Property Coalition (VPC) provides citywide support to community groups that aim to implement an array of activities that address vacant properties in their neighborhoods. An initiative of Michigan Community Resources, VPC provides resources and grants to fix up abandoned buildings and overgrown lots, answers common questions and provides links to additional support. VPC also plays an advocacy role, calling for stronger code enforcement and policies that deter scrapping and squatting. Ultimately, VCP endeavors to reduce blight and improve the quality of life in Detroit neighborhoods by supporting community-driven investment in vacant properties as opportunities for improvement.

Loveland Technologies, a Vacant Property Coalition collaborator with similar educational and empowering intentions coupled with technological prowess, is making headway untangling the city’s countless tax foreclosed properties and related auctions. Every year, Wayne County auctions off properties with three years of unpaid taxes, running the risk of irresponsible speculative buying or blight associated with unsold properties. In 2011, more than 10,000 tax-foreclosed properties were auctioned off, thousands of which were not sold. In 2012, about 22,000 properties went to auction, with 8,000 unsold. This year 43,000 properties are potentially up for grabs. Loveland’s mapping website Why Don’t We Own This? offers a tool for understanding which properties are at risk of foreclosure and likely to be sold at auction. Residents can use the online resource to purchase vacant properties in their communities and contribute to stabilization. Families at risk of foreclosure can link to helpful resources to avoid auction, including new state assistance programs for at-risk homeowners.

Both the Vacant Properties Coalition and Loveland Technologies serve as resources to help Detroiters address the challenges of vacant land. These initiatives also support investments in properties that will contribute to neighborhood stabilization, much like the gardens of Brightmoor and artscapes of Southwest Detroit. Importantly, effective examples of repurposing the city’s vacant land are often community driven and focus on creating opportunities for Detroiters, ranging from job creation and youth engagement to environmental benefits. Ideally, viable solutions to the abundance of vacant land and related support systems will continue to leverage the ingenuity of the city’s citizens and enhance economic and community development efforts in Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Ceara O’Leary is an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center. In this series of blogs, Ceara shares her perspective as a community development professional and relatively recent Detroiter.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities.

Photos by Harry Connolly


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