Reviving Abandoned Lots with Urban Agriculture and Wildlife Gardens

Cleveland has approximately 20,000 abandoned lots.                      photo Catherine B. Zimmerman

Over the past ten years I have been on a bit of a mission, a crusader for reducing monoculture lawn, eliminating pesticides, decreasing landscape water usage and restoring native habitat.  My focus has been directed at the typical urban and suburban “occupied” property.  I work with homeowners to help them understand important ecosystem services that native plants provide such as support of the food chain, habitat, carbon sequestration, pollination, water filtration, erosion control and increased wildlife.  I have happily found clients very receptive to changing previous notions about what constitutes a productive, beautiful landscape.   Planting wide expanses of non-native turf lawns and alien plants are being rethought in terms of their lack of valuable ecosystem services.

All well and good for lots that are being maintained, but what about unoccupied, derelict, abandoned or foreclosed properties?  This is becoming a burgeoning problem in the Rust Belt, large cities and areas like South Florida where housing values have plummeted leaving homeowners upside down on mortgages.  Folks are just walking away, leaving a once maintained property to be occupied by weeds and litter.

I hadn’t really given much thought to this issue until MJ Aagerstoun called after reading my book, Urban and Suburban Meadows.  MJ is a member of Northwood GREENlife, a grass-roots environmental action organization serving West Palm Beach’s North End communities.  The group is currently partnering with several like-minded groups to dramatically increase the tree canopy in a forty five-block corridor that spans six neighborhoods.  Trees will be planted in swales and public easements.  In addition, Northwood GREENlife would like to move their city “toward a policy of encouraging planting wildflower meadows on privately owned derelict lots.”

The first hurdles for the organization to leap are changing prohibitive weed laws.  MJ found a perfect resource at the Wild Ones website for a model ordinance and a model amending ordinance.

Derelict lots dot West Palm Beach neighborhoods.   photo  Northwood GREENlife

What I find so exciting about Northwood GREENlife’s efforts is the grassroots aspect, neighbors and communities coming together to bring beauty and ecosystem service benefits to blighted areas. I thought I might just visit and talk to groups in other cities to see how they are taking lemons and making lemonade.

Valley Community Garden volunteer coordinator, Rock Brown, loaded me up with fresh picked peaches from the urban garden.  photo Catherine B. Zimmerman

My first visit was to Wilmington, DE where Steve Castorani, owner of North Creek Nursery, introduced me to Lenny Wilson.  Lenny is the Assistant Director of Horticulture and Facilities for the Delaware Center for Horticulture.  DCH has been working at the grassroots level to organize, educate and help implement community gardens on vacant lots and plant sustainable landscapes in public rights of way since 1977.  Lenny explained the DCH leadership role as “knitting together the community by partnering with as many supporters as possible to make a successful project.”

In addition to helping to convert at least 50 vacant lots to vegetable gardens, the center works in neighborhoods developing demonstration projects to manage storm water with rain gardens and planting median strips and pocket parks with native plants.  One DCH successful partnership was a reclamation project along the CSX rail line corridor and overpasses that run through Wilmington. Partnering with corporations, residents, fire and police companies, invasive plants were removed and the area was revived with native plants and is maintained using sustainable practices.

Raised beds for urban vegetable gardens are a good solution in settings where soil may be poor, compacted and possibly contaminated.  photo  Catherine B. Zimmerman

The inspiration for the rail line project was the creation of a living memorial garden for Delaware’s 911 victims.   photo  DCH

Asters blooming in October. photo DCH

When completed, the railroad native planting will span a mile of track in Wilmington.   photo  DCH

Next stop, Cleveland, Ohio where 20,000+ vacant lots have been added to Cleveland’s land bank. Abandoned lots need to be cleaned up and mowed.  The cost of this maintenance to the city has a price tag in the millions. The city welcomes positive solutions. One of several non-profit organizations working on solutions and taking advantage of these lemons-to-lemonade opportunities is The Naturehood Project.  Naturehood is working in depressed areas on native plant education, helping on site preparation, design and installation of native wildlife gardens.  As part of the Cleveland land bank, lots improved through city efforts and by groups such as Naturehood can be sold to developers.  In many affected cities, this is the goal, improve lots and attract developers.  However, this is a slow process and in the meantime these gardens are providing important wildlife corridors and neighborhood enhancement.

Next growing season Naturehood will establish a non-profit, native plant nursery on two vacant lots to provide locally grown plants for vacant lot projects. photo Catherine B. Zimmerman

Goldenrod in bloom in urban neighborhood planting. photo Catherine B. Zimmerman

Meadow and prairie plants are adaptable to poor soils       often found in urban areas.                                                                photo  Catherine B. Zimmerman

Naturehood is only two years old and growing! photo Catherine B. Zimmerman

Cleveland urban garden organizers pointed me to the extensive work on lot reclamation in Youngstown, Ohio.  Loss of an industrial base and, in turn, high unemployment has exploded the abandoned, derelict lot crisis. The Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation  is a multifaceted neighborhood development organization partnering with the city of Youngstown to bring about targeted neighborhood revitalization. Liberty Merrill, program coordinator explains, “The key to YNDC’s approach is that it is comprehensive.  We were able to work with the city to target demolitions and get permission to begin greening work on tax delinquent land, work with another organization to clear title to the properties, and work with Mill Creek Metroparks to ensure that the land would be owned and managed into the future – in this way we know our investment in the neighborhood will have as much impact as possible.” YNDC developed the Lots of Green Program that “provides a new way of viewing vacant land as an opportunity to create productive and maintained spaces and economic opportunities for residents.”  Funded by block grants, in 2010 alone, 115 parcels were returned to productive use, which included community gardens, pocket parks, storm water mitigation sites, expansion of park land, a soil research site and wildlife gardens.

Before:  Abandoned homes slated for demolition.   photo  YNDC

After:  “We also worked to manage all vacant land in the neighborhood which, in conjunction with home ownership programming, is designed to stabilize the neighborhood and reduce future vacancy and abandonment.”  photo YNDC

In Wisconsin, Green Bay alderman and alternative education teacher Ned Dorff and his students, have installed the largest prairie garden in the city limits at Franklin Middle School.  Now, with a small group of volunteers, he is tackling converting a privately owned abandoned lot in downtown Green Bay to a prairie garden.

Teacher Ned Dorff and proud students pose in their thriving prairie garden.

Small group of prairie makers prepare downtown vacant lot site.  photo Nancy Nabak

Signage helps to explain the benefits of native plants.                 photo Nancy Nabak

Planting a high visibility, downtown vacant lot grows enthusiasm for more wildlife gardens.             photo  Nancy Nabak

Waukegan, IL, located on the shores of Lake Michigan, is fortunate to have GreenTOWN Waukegan, Inc, whose mission is to reclaim the town’s historic green heritage. Project coordinator Nada Finn says, “The city of Waukegan has about 200 vacant lots which they are willing to let us use until they are sold or our economy turns around.”  GreenTOWN Waukegan and residents converted four adjacent, downtown lots, about half an acre, to a demonstration garden.  The area is planted in vegetable and native prairie gardens.  The organization’s “current goal is to partner with schools, churches, social groups, civic organizations, and city government to create a network of neighborhood gardens, providing sacred spaces for communing with nature and plots for growing fruits and vegetables.”

Idle downtown lots before garden transformation.  photo  GTW

Student writes about his garden experience.  photo  GTW

Nada Finn says “members worked together to provided learning opportunities for visiting YMCA kids. We stressed journaling and they really seemed to enjoy it.  photo  GTW

Lessons are being learned.  Whereas funds are available through city block grants and private donations to establish community or sustainable wildlife gardens, the follow-up maintenance is often unfunded.  The task falls to neighborhood residents and volunteers.  Youngstown has partnered with the county Mill Creek Metroparks to keep up reclaimed land not being preserved by residents or neighborhood groups.  Program organizers are also finding wildlife gardens gain broader acceptance when grasses and wildflowers are under four feet tall and the area is encircled by fencing, split rail seems to be commonly used, or set off by a border, such as mowed grass.

All these efforts, large and small, are making an exciting difference and positively impacting urban blight.   Productive, beautiful spaces are being created and, in the process, strong, sustainable neighborhoods are on the rise.

Don’t Miss! Catherine Zimmerman’s Book and Companion DVD:

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      • Anne Cocklin says

        Catherine, thanks so much for forwarding me this information. The before/after pictures were fascinating. Nice to know there are other organizations, small but growing, around the country that have come up with ideas to change urban blight. And with all the foreclosures on the books these strategies will help existing homeowners.

  1. Bonnie says

    So glad to see pictures of children interacting with these plantings. We must help them connect with nature if they are going to understand and protect habitats and creatures.

    • says

      I like to think there is a might be a silver lining in the depressed economy. We have an opportunity to bring back the birds, bees and butterflies to cities by planting wildlife gardens. And while they are enjoying a new found home, they can help out with a little pollination action in the vegetable plots. Indeed, something for all!
      Catherine B. Zimmerman recently posted..WE ARE GROWING!

  2. says

    Catharine this work is exciting to hear about. To know so many organizations are reclaiming this land and making it sustainable makes me want to join in somehow in my community…I hope to research the area I live in to see if we have this and if not how can we get it going. Right now I have one abandoned lot in my suburban neighborhood and it is next door with a pool that has become a swamp and breeding ground for mosquitoes. Eventually the bank will sell this house but there are so many in the adjacent city that are vacant and need to torn down and the land reclaimed.
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Friend

  3. Bonnie Harper-Lore says

    Nicely done.
    A lot of hope blooming in those gardens at a time we’ve
    never needed good news more! Not only can these plantings
    visually, economically and environmentally inspire a community,
    they seasonally remind us of the common goals we can achieve,
    working together.

  4. says

    This is very informative and inspirational for me. The biggest difficulty I’ve seen in my town is getting a consistent commitment from volunteers to maintain the green spaces. They tend to love to come out once, but then it falls off their radar. Even our local “Wildflower Garden” which is maintained by the local garden club is not maintained consistently. People seem “too busy” these days. Urban food gardening has taken off well here, but “native plantings” seems a bit slower.
    Julie Stone recently posted..Good Intentions

  5. says

    Catherine, Ingenious and beautiful at the same time. Here in southwestern CT, abandoned homes are not a real issue so, truthfully, I never even realized this was an problem. Your before photos are eye-opening to say the least. I love that these groups have found a way to deal with the issue, beautify their neighborhoods, create an enduring sense of community and add much needed native habitat.
    Debbie Roberts recently posted..Planting Spring-Flowering Bulbs

    • says

      Same here. I really didn’t know this was a growing problem. I live outside Washington, DC where housing values have slipped but areas remain fairly stable. If a lot is vacant it is more apt to be snapped up by a developer and gentrified….
      Catherine B. Zimmerman recently posted..WE ARE GROWING!

  6. Cynthia says

    Great post! And I appreciate your approach, showing that it’s the residents making these efforts, not necessarily outside groups telling residents, you SHOULD do this.

    There is one error though–Waukegan is in Illinois, not Wisconsin. I grew up in a nearby town so I was happy to see what they are doing.

    • says

      Thank you for your comment. I was very impressed with the people I met and talked to. Take Rock Brown, who manages the Valley Community Garden in Wilmington. He already has a job yet finds time to coordinate the garden.. When I met him he was cleaning up after tornado force winds hit the area. There was a lot of damage and he was staking and tying up plants. He took the time to talk to me and told me all about the mural painted on the garden wall. It represents the past, present and future. What the residents see is a very positive future. People Power!
      Catherine B. Zimmerman recently posted..WE ARE GROWING!

  7. says

    Catherine, Thank You! This article brought me out of my funk. As I noticee the overwhelming number of foreign plants used in our landscapes, I despaired. Your documentation of the changes taking place in the midst of blighted areas, and other public spaces, gives me hope. Thanks,

    Hal Mann recently posted..UGH – Lawns

  8. says

    Great article – am passing it along to members of the Blue Ridge Chapter of Wild Ones. Inspiring people is not easy for most of us, but you have a gift for it…one of many gifts!

    Thanks, my friend!

    • says

      Donna. You are very kind!

      All this activity, and there is so much more lately, inspires me. Hopefully passing along the fact that communities are coming together to heal their patches of earth will beget more healing!


  1. […] Native grasses and wildflowers are a much better use of lawn area. You’ll be attracting butterflies, native bees and other pollinators, birds, and so many other critters. A native meadow helps to reduce stormwater runoff from your property in addition to creating something beautiful for you to enjoy. […]

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