Grounds for Change: Activating Vacant Land

About Grounds for Change

How Big is an Acre?

Activating Vacant Land

Our Mission

Urban vacant land is valuable for far more than the high-profile condos or highways it could support. We believe such lands offer a foundation upon which great places are built. Strategically re-purposed, vacant properties of all sizes can help strengthen communities by providing recreational spaces and amenities that mend breaks in the urban fabric.

American cities, from the most prosperous to the most troubled, are riddled with vacant plots of all sizes that present a multitude of opportunities for building the economic, social and environmental health of a region. Each city and community must thoughtfully assess its needs to determine the best use for these properties and the best practices to follow when transforming them. Vacant land is a valuable asset in several ways. Re-using vacant property reduced
the development and disturbance of greenfields. It mitigates crime and safety concerns and enhances existing infrastructure and neighborhood amenities rather than replacing or erasing them. Property values improve as a result. In areas facing population loss and housing surplus, alternatives to traditional development can contribute to the reconfiguration of urban systems to fit a shrinking city.

Traditional development can sometimes create jobs and attract businesses to a community; however, existing neighborhoods often pay the price through displacement. We believe that the most valuable form of urban transformation is community-initiated, planned and carried out to fulfill specific needs acknowledged by those whose homes and livelihoods are most closely affected by the change.

On this site, you'll find inspiring examples from urban centers across the United States and around the world, of communities pursuing transformation by re-purposing their vacant lots. The site is open to user input and debate as well, welcoming diverse perspectives and examples of work in the field. Over time, we hope that our project will become a record of efforts to transform vacant lots, tracking the successes as well as the failures and allowing builders and reformers to learn from each others' experiences.

How can one city respond to the crisis of vacancy?

Philadelphia and the Urban Voids Competition

Philadelphia, with over 40,000 vacant properties representing nearly 1,000 acres, has become one of the nation's foremost examples of urban abandonment and extensive sprawl. Philadelphia's dilemma is shared by cities across the nation, places where the 'economy is drifting as it responds incoherently to continued industrial restructuring.'

As in many eastern American cities, Philadelphia's fortunes fell with the decline of industrial manufacturing after World War II. Exacerbated by Federal highway development and Federal housing policies that encouraged new development outside the city, as well as racial and political unrest inside the city, large areas of Philadelphia's Center City and surrounding neighborhoods fell into disrepair. In addition, narrow lots crowded with small, aging townhouses (including Philadelphia's distinctively tiny three-story "Trinity" townhouses with one room per floor)
became less attractive to Philadelphians than larger houses in outlying suburbs. Philadelphia has consistently lost residents since 1950. Between 1950 and 1990 the city lost over 400,000 residents. In the 1990s alone another 4.3% of the population left, many headed for nearby areas, including Montgomery County.

The city has razed many of its unsafe abandoned buildings leaving vacant lots, while others remain standing.  Today Philadelphia has the highest per capita vacancy rate in the country. As of the 2000 census, almost half  (45%) of the residential street segments in Philadelphia contained some kind of abandoned property and more than one third (36%) contained at least one vacant residential structure, totaling approximately 26,000 vacant residential structures and nearly 3,000 vacant commercial and industrial structures-more than 40,000 vacant parcels to date.

Philadelphia is currently treating its vacant land, more than 900 acres, with transitional programs.  Imaginative long-term solutions that draw upon voices of the community and the city's ecology can inspire change and shape a new urban form for the 21st century. Philadelphia needs a compelling long-term vision for developing its vacant lots, a strategy that envisions how vacancy in Philadelphia can be changed from an obstacle (vacancy as absence) to an asset (vacancy as possibility).

In September 2005, City Parks Association launched Urban Voids, an international design competition addressing the urgent issue of urban vacancy. This web-based competition invited participants to suggest compelling ideas for Philadelphia's vacant land and imagine fantastic long-term solutions that inspire change and reshape urban and natural forms throughout the city.  Urban Voids attracted over 220 entries from 25 countries including Canada, Chile, Finland, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, United Kingdom, and Uruguay.

In January 2006 five finalists were selected and then awarded $5,000.00 to develop their ideas further. Each team was carefully matched with an existing site. Philadelphia City Parks Association and the Van Alen Institute worked closely with a selected group of city agencies to identify real public vacancy, and real community groups, sites that had identifiable relationships to natural resources and a relationship, or the presence of rivers.

Who is the City Parks Association?

Mission Statement

From its Founding in 1888, City Parks Association has “encouraged the establishment and maintenance of public parks and open space in the city of Philadelphia.” City Parks Association acts as a catalyst for change by advancing visionary thinking about natural resources in the urban community. City Parks Association’s programs foster ongoing dialogue and collaborative action among people and communities committed to environmental stewardship.

Who is the Center for Community Progress?

Mission Statement

The mission of the Center for Community Progress is to create vibrant communities primarily through the reuse of vacant, abandoned, and problem properties in America's cities and towns.  Community Progress helps local and state governments seize the potential of these properties for the economic and social benefit of their communities. We help leaders advocate for and implement the policy changes to prevent abandonment and to reuse these properties.