Vacant Land in Cities Could Provide Important Social and Ecological Benefits

Here is a short list of the potential benefits that small investments to transform vacant land into more useful spaces could provide to cities:

  • Stormwater absorption
  • Air temperature regulation
  • Wind speed mitigation
  • Air purification (pollution absorption)
  • Carbon absorption
  • Flood control
  • Habitat for biodiversity (e.g. plants and pollinators)
  • Green corridors between urban natural areas
  • Recreation space
  • Community garden space
  • Social gathering space
  • Temporary art installation space
  • Crime reduction
  • Noise reduction
  • Neighborhood beautification
  • Increased adjacent property value
  • Sense of place
  • Environmental education opportunity
  • Sense of well-being
  • Green spaces for low-income neighborhoods
  • Residential and commercial building energy savings

However, the full ecological potential of the urban environment, especially in vacant land areas, is just beginning to be understood.

Some U.S. cities are beginning to get the idea. In Baltimore, Maryland, a city leading the way in urban ecological research by way of the long-term Baltimore Ecosystem Study, vacant land has been considered from the perspective of pockets for urban plant diversity. In Brooklyn, New York a non-profit group,, has mapped all the vacant lots in Brooklyn and is working with local neighborhood communities to turn these spaces into gardens; places not only for growing food, but also as social spaces for neighborhood residents. In Detroit, citizens, farmers, and entrepreneurs are turning vast amounts of vacant land into urban farms. And in Philadelphia, when researcherscleaned up and greened vacant lots, the crime rate fell.

At The New School in New York City, post-doctoral fellow Peleg Kremer and PhD candidate Zoé Hamstead have been working with me to map vacant lots to understand the social and ecological value of these spaces. Our goal has been to understand the combined value of urban vacant land in order to illuminate overlooked spaces in the city where policy and planning could simultaneously meet goals for biodiversity habitat, ecosystem services provisioning, and social justice. This work (currently in review for publication) shows that, at least for New York City, vacant lots are already providing a host of cultural, provisioning, and regulating ecosystem services.

2 years ago
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