Vacant Lots Get a Green Makeover

Sandra Albro, a researcher with the Cleveland Botanical Garden, is working to transform Cleveland's vacant spaces by installing "green infrastructure" like rain gardens. (Photo by Sandra Albro)
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April 11, 2014 - 6:30am

Vacant lots are a big problem for cities that have lost a lot of their population, like Detroit and Cleveland. That’s got people tinkering with ways to do something meaningful with the space, such as plant an urban farm or create a neighborhood park. But those options take money, time, and maintenance, so researchers in Cleveland are testing a way to help revitalize an area — and improve stormwater management — without breaking the bank.

The city of Cleveland is home to 20,000 vacant lots. Last fall I trudged through one of them with Sandra Albro, a researcher with the Cleveland Botanical Garden.

There used to be an abandoned building here, flanked by houses in the city’s Slavic Village neighborhood. In its place Albro’s team is installing a rain garden amid rumbling Bobcats, bags of mulch, and plenty of mud. Galoshes were in short supply.

Sandra Albro plants the vacant lot with greenery that will help mitigate the city's stormwater problems.  (Photo by Anne Glausser, QUEST Ohio)

Situated on a slope, at the base of the site is a big, bean-shaped indentation in the soil that will soon be planted with thirsty native grasses.

“What we're hoping to accomplish with these beans, our little rain gardens, is to just slow the water down and capture it long enough to let it infiltrate into the soil,” Albro said.

These “beans” are part of an EPA-funded research studylooking at lower cost, lower maintenance ways to transform vacant land while benefiting communities and the environment. In the environmental engineering community, this kind of project is often called green infrastructure.

Albro has set up nine “beans” in this neighborhood and will be comparing their ability to capture stormwater runoff to control sites they’re also monitoring. Regardless of what the data yield, Albro said “greening” projects like this tend to benefit communities in many ways. “There's been a lot of evidence showing that intensive green in neighborhoods improves property values by about 30 percent,” she said. “It reduces violent crime and improves human health indicators. And then on the green infrastructure side, I mean, we do know that green infrastructure can absorb millions of gallons of stormwater every year, so we're hoping to achieve a mixture of those two things.”

Stormwater is a big issue in cities like Cleveland. Heavy rains overwhelm the sewer system here, forcing raw sewage to discharge into Lake Erie.

Cleveland's vacant spaces, highlighted in orange, all present opportunities for green revitalization.  (Graphic by Sandra Albro)

Albro hopes data from this study, and others like it, will help cities make smart land-use decisions. “We're definitely not promising this is the be all, end all of vacant land reuse and green infrastructure, but in two years we will be able to tell you exactly how it works and what the pros and cons are,” Albro said.

Right as Albro planted the site’s first seedling, an aster, the sky turned gray. I camped out under Marlane Weslian’s umbrella. Weslian is a longtime resident and works for the area development group. She said she joined the project because she cares about stormwater issues, but mostly to help her neighborhood get back on its feet. “I've actually been living in the neighborhood since 1972. I raised my kids here and I'm living here now with my partner and I'm not gonna leave. It's a great neighborhood. We'll weather all the ups and downs. We always have,” Weslian said.

The project’s plan is to tap into this sense of neighborhood pride, and recruit local volunteers to tend the rain gardens. Urban planners with whom I spoke, including Terry Schwarz with the Kent State Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, say this kind of dual-purpose green infrastructure project could go a long way in helping Cleveland dust off and rebuild.

“If you take a neighborhood that's on the — maybe on the brink — that has demolition and some vacant land but also has residents living there who would really like to see their neighborhood turn around, these individual vacant parcels become really important,” Albro said.

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