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Assessing the Benefits of Chicago's Large Lot Program

Research Issue

[photo:] Side by side images of one large lot in Chicago that was converted to a playground.While increased urbanization is the dominant global growth pattern, many older, central cities and neighborhoods continue to lose population.  In the United States, vacant land is a major consequence in shrinking cities of the Midwest and Northeast.  And for cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit the impacts of urban vacancy are disproportionately felt by African-American residents, whose once-vibrant communities have suffered successive waves of injustice and decline from the 1960s to the present.

Strategies to repurpose vacant land can aid in urban revitalization efforts, and programs that transfer city-owned vacant lots to local residents provide an important way in which grassroots stewardship efforts can return benefits to those who are most directly invested in seeing these programs succeed.

In 2014, the City of Chicago initiated the “Large Lot Program” that provides property owners in high-vacancy neighborhoods an opportunity to purchase one or two city-owned vacant residential lots on their block for $1 each.  By maintaining these properties, residents gain full rights of ownership after five years and can use them to expand their property, to build on, or to resell.  During this period, city planners expected most owners to use their “large lots” as private or shared greenspace for gardening, children’s play, and/or socializing.

Our Research

At the request of the City of Chicago, researchers at the Chicago Urban Field Station and University of Illinois led a program evaluation of large lots purchased in five community areas of the city during the first year of the Large Lot Program.  The study area encompassed four community areas of Greater Englewood on the city’s south side and East Garfield Park on the west side.  The study included two main components: a visual assessment of changes made in lot condition and care, and a social assessment of owners’ uses and perceptions of their lots and neighborhoods.  This research summary focuses on the visual assessment component. 

For the visual assessment, the principal unit of study was the purchased large lot, 424 lots in all. Research questions focused on the nature and magnitude of changes made over time.  Researchers also sought to understand how the condition and adjacency of an owner’s existing property affected treatment and changes made to their purchased large lots.  Finally, the researchers developed and tested a rapid-assessment scale to monitor lot condition and care over a five-year period (longitudinal analysis) and compare changes between the five community areas (cross-sectional analysis).

Data for the visual assessment came from multiple sources including property records, Google Earth and Street View imagery from which land use and landscape features were coded, and field photography to supplement street level imagery. These sources were brought together and coded to derive meaningful measures of condition and care, then analyzed at multiple points in time to assess whether and how changes due to stewardship activity occurred.

Results point to significant improvements made to lots after purchase and the importance of owner proximity to the lots they were caring for. Changes made to lots included an increase in gardens and other “cues to care” and an improvement in the condition of trees. Improvements to lots were highest in the first year after purchase but continued over the five-year study period, and improvement patterns were consistent across all five community areas studied.  Residents encountered during the visual assessment fieldwork were very positive about the program and our efforts in assessing it. These anecdotal observations were supported by mail survey and focus group findings from the social assessment and show that resident-led beautification of vacant lots can be an empowering way for communities to work for positive change.

Expected Outcomes

Condition and care are key expressions of landscape stewardship and are especially important in managing vacant urban lands. In this context, visible signs of stewardship have been associated with increased neighborhood sense of place whereas signs of physical disorder reflect perceived and actual crime.  Engagement in the program fulfills both personal and community goals.  Scientists are continuing to investigate how vacant lot stewardship leads to broader social outcomes, such as reduction in crime.

In terms of their broader application beyond this case study, these approaches have potential for addressing other questions about landscape change at the neighborhood scale, particularly with respect to visual resource stewardship issues.

Research Results

Gobster, Paul H.; Hadavi, Sara; Rigolon, Alessandro; Stewart, William P. 2020. Measuring landscape change, lot by lot: Greening activity in response to a vacant land reuse program. Landscape and Urban Planning. 196: 103729. 23 p. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2019.103729.

Gobster, Paul H.; Rigolon, Alessandro; Hadavi, Sara; Stewart, William P. 2020. Beyond proximity: Extending the “greening hypothesis” in the context of vacant lot stewardship. Landscape and Urban Planning. 197:103773-. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2020.103773.

Gobster, Paul H.; Rigolon, Alessandro, Hadavi, Sara; Stewart, William P. 2020. The condition-care scale: A practical approach to monitoring progress in vacant lot stewardship programs. Landscape and Urban Planning, 203, 103885. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2020.103885

Stewart, William P.; Gobster, Paul H.; Rigolon, Alessandro; Strauser, John; Williams, Douglas A.; van Riper, Carena J. 2019. Resident-led beautification of vacant lots that connects place to community. Landscape and Urban Planning. 185: 200-209. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2019.02.011.

Gobster, Paul H; Stewart, William P.; Rigolon, Alessandro; van Riper, Carena J.; Williams, Douglas A. 2018. Visual resource stewardship at the neighborhood scale: methods for assessing a vacant land reuse program. In: Gobster, Paul H.; Smardon, Richard C., eds. Visual resource stewardship conference proceedings: landscape and seascape management in a time of change; 2017 November 7-9; Lemont, IL. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-P-183. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. https://doi.org/10.2737/NRS-GTR-P-183-VCS-4.

Research Participants

Principal Investigators

  • Paul H. Gobster, Research Landscape Architect, USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station
  • William P. Stewart, Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Professor

Co-Investigators

    • Carena J. van Riper, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Assistant Professor
    • Alessandro Rigolon, Department of City and Metropolitan Planning, University of Utah, Assistant Professor
    • Sara Hadavi, Department of Landscape Architecture and Community Planning, Kansas State University, Assistant Professor

Student Assistants

    • Rose Grenen, Program in Environmental Sciences, Northwestern University
    • Douglas A. Williams, Sa Shen, Sanghun Park, and Wonjin Jeong, Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    • Debolina Banerjee, Department of City and Metropolitan Planning, University of Utah

Research Partners  

  • Last modified: July 7, 2020