In a recent effort to encourage economic development, the City of Chicago is moving forth with the “Large Lot Program,” which allows the City to “transfer City-owned vacant lots to residents for $1.” In Chicago’s neighborhoods that have severely declining populations, this program has been implemented to help combat the urban blight, crime rates, and disinvestment by businesses and community members.
So far, the program is not only garnering attention, but noteworthy praise— other cities have seen beneficial results after implementing similar programs in other urban areas plagued by a laundry list of problems. As housing units decay and residents find other, more attractive places to live, older urban areas lose the population density that once characterized them as thriving neighborhoods. With this loss of population comes more vacant buildings, loss of jobs, and poorer schools as a result of the decreased taxing base. Without intervention, these neighborhoods continue to decline, creating a vicious cycle of disinterest from the community.
Vacant homes, boarded up houses, dying businesses, graffiti, crime and drug activity all have a radiating negative effect on the people who live nearby, which encompasses everyone including college students. Yet in light of this tragic phenomenon, economic decline does not have to be a death sentence. Investment doesn’t have to come in the form of gentrification. Local governments can enact policies to encourage business owners to set up shop. Cities can encourage the development of vacant land by selling it at highly reduced costs, as the City of Chicago is doing.
However, with intervention—these neighborhoods can be revived. Intervention cannot restore neighborhoods to their former glory. Businesses of the 1920’s and 1950’s will not suddenly reappear with the ‘right amount of investment’. No amount of planning can make the original charm and character of the area come back. Despite this, careful intervention can ameliorate some of the conditions that plague our urban areas.
“Cities such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh have each lost more than 40 percent of their populations over the last four decades,” according to Daniel Hartley. Many other cities, including Camden, St. Louis, and Baltimore, have also seen similar declines. These losses in terms of population often are precursors to a loss of urban vitality. With a significant amount of our nation’s universities situated in urban centers, as with Washington University in Saint Louis, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, many undergraduate students are, on some level, privy to the realities of urban decline.
Other college students, however, remain blissfully unaware of the conditions of disadvantaged neighborhoods. However, in light of this ignorance, once people find out about these problems, there are dozens of ways to help. People themselves, especially college students, can invest not only financially, but time and sweat equity to make their urban environments more liveable, inviting, and productive.
One of the ways that vacant plots of land can be reinvented is through the creation of community gardens. Community gardens, if done properly, can “beautify urban neighborhoods, improve access to fresh produce, and engage youth” according to an article published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Health. Economically, community gardens have a “significant positive impact on residential properties within 1000 feet” according to researchers Vicki Been and Ioan Voicu in the Journal of Real Estate Economics. Community gardens are, quite literally, hands-on places where college students can work directly with other community members to promote urban agriculture. Another way that the public can have a positive impact on their surroundings is through the creation of murals. Within the context of the city, murals are large paintings that are generally executed on the side of buildings by local community members.
One of the more unique ways that our urban environment can be changed is through the creation of urban vineyards. One such project is The Vineyards Of Chateau Hough in Cleveland, Ohio. Situated in one of the declining neighborhoods of Cleveland— the vineyard was created on a previously vacant plot of land. The vineyard employs ex-convicts to help with maintenance of Chateau Hough’s property. Through this, not only is the project aesthetically pleasing and helping people with a criminal past to build up work history, but it is developing into an economic catalyst for the region.
From murals to vineyards and community gardens, there is a plethora of ways that we can improve our declining urban areas. And with these, there is plenty of opportunity for college students to not only invest their time in these projects, but to get involved in a way that not only benefits the local community, but benefits themselves.
In the age where there is a collective frenzy among college students to rack up as much experience as possible, gaining experience with projects like community gardens or vineyards can be less-competitive to become involved with. Bolstering one’s resume through these avenues can not only be rewarding, but relatively easy. The type of work done in a community garden can be beneficial for people looking to go into many different fields of work. Interested in going into public health? Access to fresh fruits and vegetables is always a hot topic in nutrition circles.
Want to work in business? Some community gardens are actually termed ‘market gardens’: gardens in which the produce is sold to local restaurants and vendors. If you find a garden or project that fits your interests, asking for an internship is usually as easy as determining the type of work you want to do, how you can work independently to advance the mission of the garden, and making a time commitment. Being involved is actually asking for an internship, not just showing up to volunteer.
Many community gardens and investment projects like murals are also funded or overseen by nonprofits or ‘community development’ organizations. These can help college students to gain connections to potential jobs and other internships in related fields. College students, through getting involved with urban reinvestment projects like community gardens and vineyards, can be a part of the solution to economic decline. We can reimagine the possibilities for our declining urban land, and in turn, be a part of the solution. Although we, as a collective body, can not instantly solve problems that have been brewing for decades, we can most certainly help to ameliorate them to create more livable, safe, and economically vibrant cities. And with opportunities for resume building, networking, and skill-building, what’s not to love?
City of Chicago. Chicago Department of Planning & Development. Green Healthy
Neighborhoods. CMAP: Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 July 2014.
Hartley, Daniel. “Economic Commentary: Urban Decline in Rust Belt Cities.”Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. N.p., 05 May 2013. Web. 15 July 2014.
Allen, Julie Ober, and Katherine Alaimo. “Growing Vegetables and Values: Benefits of Neighborhood-Based Community Gardens for Youth Development and Nutrition.” Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition 3.4 (2008): 418-39.
Voicu, Ioan, and Vicki Been. “The Effect of Community Gardens on Neighboring Property Values.” Real Estate Economics 36.2 (2008): 241-83. NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Web. 15 July 2014.