Everyday Remaking: Vacant Blots, Foreclosed Homes Become Parks

12.14.11 | From Los Angeles to Detroit, city governments and residents are making creative use of abandoned properties and foreclosed homes — reinventing these spaces to add value, livability, and green space to their communities.

Last month, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced plans for 50 new pocket parks around Los Angles as part of a larger effort to increase publically accessible green space in low-income communities, and to improve walkability and public transit in the city. Pocket parks are small public parks, often built on a single lot.

But the interesting part is the city’s efforts to transform at least 10 foreclosed homes, acquired through the federal Neighborhood Stabilization program, into parks, by knocking down homes and adding amenities like landscaping, walkways, fitness equipment, or playgrounds. This is the first large-scale effort in the city to reuse foreclosed sites, and city officials are working with community residents to tailor the new amenities to meet their needs, to ensure public buy-in, use, and to ensure the spaces don’t attract crime or other problems.

City officials told the Los Angeles Daily News that it was not cost-effective to repair all of the homes. Some say programs like these can be an inexpensive way to raise property values of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Residents in Detroit are taking matters into their own hands, according to a recent piece on National Public Radio. The city has 40 square miles of vacant land, by some estimates, and some residents there are fencing off entire city “blots” (an area between a block and a lot), clearing out trash, and adding fruit trees and gardens. Detroit residents are doing this work whether they are able to purchase these blots legally from the city of Detroit or not. Why?

“Cause we live next door to it,” resident Paul Browne tells NPR.

Browne’s family takes care of four blots next to their family home, only one of which they’ve been able to purchase from the city.  “If you go up the next block from here you’ll see what it would look like. Just overgrown brush piles. Trash. Car parts. And it’s only from stubbornness and perseverance that keeps it from becoming a debris pile.”

Cities often try to hold on to property they think has value for redevelopment, but NPR reports Detroit is one of several cities with programs to encourage residents to buy vacant lots next to their homes by decreasing red tape and the amount of time it takes for these sales to go through.

In Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans and many other cities, residents already get first dibs on adjacent empty lots. The idea is to stabilize neighborhoods and bring land back on the tax rolls. So for instance, some Cleveland homeowners can buy an empty side lot for as little as a dollar. In Detroit, it’s as little as 200 dollars. But the city owns 60,000 parcels of land, most of it vacant.

Residents are ready. Margaret Dewar, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan, sampled tax foreclosed properties resold by the city over a 20 year period and found that more than a quarter were bought by the homeowner next door.

“I call it an everyday remaking,” Dewar says. “Every day there’s a little step in this direction of remaking by people who are pretty invisible. But over time it becomes a dominant feature of the city.”

Listen to the full story at National Public Radio.

Photo by jaywei80.

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