VACANT LAND AND URBAN SYSTEMS IN DETROIT, Ml
Kathleen L. King
B.A., University of Michigan, 2006
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
This thesis for the Master of Landscape Architecture
Kathleen L. King
has been approved
12 April 2012
King, Kathleen L. (M.A., Landscape Architecture)
Designing Vacancy: Vacant Land and Urban Systems in Detroit, Ml
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Joern Langhorst
Industrial relocation, disinvestment in urban areas and resultant population
decreases in post-industrial cities has resulted in the proliferation of urban vacant
land. The current discourse on vacant land in cities addresses the phenomenon as a
problem. This thesis proposes an alternative position that understands vacant land
as one of the many urban systems operating in and contributing to the structure
and function of the city. Using Detroit as a case study, the thesis employed a range
of qualitative methods to map conditions of vacant land and other urban systems
in two Detroit neighborhoods. The thesis proposes a method for site analysis and
design based on Carl Steinitz's six-level framework for spatial inquiry (1990). This
method ensures a decision-making process that is responsible to and responsive of
the community, economy and ecology with which the vacant land system is working.
The thesis also evaluates current strategic and tactical approaches to the re-design of
urban vacant land and found that a tactical systemic approach significantly impacted
the community, economy and ecology of a Detroit neighborhood. If the analysis
and design method proposed in this thesis is implemented using systemic tactical
approaches, the perception of vacant land as an urban problem has the potential to
be altered; vacant land should be understood and used as an urban resource.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidate's thesis.
I recommend its publication.
I would first like to thank Joern Langhorst for your endless support and advice as I
tackled what felt like this monstrous beast. I've learned so much from you and truly
appreciate all the time you've given me.
I want to thank Jeremy Nemeth for your ability to reel me in when I've gone astray
and for insisting on answers to the important questions of this project.
Dan Pitera, Your enthusiasm for my project as well as your own endeavors have been
very inspiring. I thank you for your guidance, inside opinions and time.
joni palmer has given so much time, advice, revisions, guidance and support
throughout the entire process of this project. In addition, my mental stability over
the past year would have been lost without you. Thank you so much.
Thanks also to Ann Komara, Charlie Chase, Tony Mazzeo, Ryan Sotirakis, Patsy
McEntee-Schaffer, Jessy Bergeman, Becky Heavner and Ben Brahmer for your
revisions, opinions, time and support!
Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Brandes for helping to fund this work. I hope your interest
and support for research in the field of landscape architecture will inspire more
students and professionals alike to continue contributing to this field.
Thank you to my road dogs for running through the streets of Detroit with me:
Denice LeVassseur, Michelle LeVasseur, Elise Fields, Cay Ian Cooke and Anne Nechal.
Last but not least, thank you so much to my nearest and dearest family and friends
for sending me articles, letting me use your offices, sharing your contacts, being
supportive and enthusiastic, and not excommunicating me for never returning phone
TABLE OF CONTENTS
List of Figures........................................................................vii
1.3 Research Question...........................................................2
1.4 Key Recommendations of the Thesis...........................................2
2. Research Design and Methodology
2.2 Establishment of a Research Relationship....................................5
2.3 Site and Participant Selection..............................................6
2.4 Data Collection Process.....................................................7
2.5 Data Analysis..............................................................13
2.6 Challenges and Limitations.................................................16
3. Vacant Land in the City
3.2 Describing Urban Vacant Land...............................................18
3.3 Origins of Urban Vacant Land in the United States..........................21
3.4 Vacant Land in Detroit, Michigan...........................................22
3.5 Descriptive Analysis of Vacant Land in Detroit.............................26
3.6 The Process of Vacant Land in Detroit......................................31
3.7 Scaling Vacant Land Systems................................................34
4. Vacant Land: An Urban System
4.2 Modeling a Vacant Land System............................................37
4.3 Evaluating Vacant Land Systems...........................................44
4.4 Impact of Changing or Not Changing the Vacant Land System................49
4.5 Decisions and Decision Making: Using the Method to Determine
5. Making a Change: Strategies and Tactics
5.2 Strategic Approaches for Designing Urban Vacant Land.....................54
5.3 The Brightmoor Farmway: A Tactical Approach for Designing
Vacant Land Systems........................................................56
6.1 Closing Discussion.......................................................58
6.2 Future Research..........................................................60
Bibliography with Selected Annotations................................................76
LIST OF FIGURES
2.1 Research Timeline........................................................4
2.2 Vacant Lots as Percentage of Residential Parcels in Detroit, Ml..........8
2.3 Five Most Common Characteristics of Vacant Land in Detroit, Ml..........13
2.4 Design Project Matrix................................................14-15
3.1 Location map of Detroit.................................................23
3.2 Detroit Ribbon Farms....................................................24
3.3 Method for Analysis and Design of Vacant Land...........................27
3.4 Unstable Vacant Structures..............................................29
3.5 Maintained Sidewalk.....................................................29
3.6 Vacant Lot Maintenance by Neighbor......................................29
3.7 Unmaintained Lot and Sidewalk...........................................29
3.8 Debris in Vacant Landscape..............................................29
3.9 The Contagion Effect....................................................32
3.10 Spread of Vacancy in Detroit Neighborhood.................................32
3.11 Vacant Blocks on the Lower East Side......................................33
3.12 Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Structural Relationships of Vacant Lots.34
3.13 Hierarchy of Vacant Land Systems.........................................36
4.1 Brightmoor Neighborhood, Detroit........................................37
4.2 Brightmoor Study Site...................................................38
4.3 Alley in Succession.....................................................41
4.4 Brightmoor Study Site Analysis..........................................42
4.5 Brightmoor Study Site Composite Map.....................................43
4.6 Woodbridge Neighborhood, Detroit........................................44
4.7 Woodbridge Study Site Analaysis......................................46-47
4.8 Blotting Practices at the Study Site....................................48
5.1 The Brighmoor Farmway...................................................58
5.2 Bright Colors on the Farm way...........................................58
5.3 Farm way Signage........................................................58
5.4 Keeping Brightmoor Clean................................................58
5.5 Defined Paths on the Farmway............................................58
This thesis is submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Master's
Degree in Landscape Architecture at the University of Colorado at Denver. It contains
work executed from December 2010 to April 2012. This project has been supervised
by a committee chosen by me to aid and guide me in this work. The committee is
composed of Jeremy Nemeth, Assistant Professor and Director of the Urban Design
Program at the University of Colorado Denver, Dan Pitera, Executive Director of
University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture Detroit Collaborative Design
Center, and is chaired by Joern Langhorst, Assistant Professor in the College of
Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado Denver.
This project began as a final paper for a class instructed by Joern Langhorst called
"Contested Terrain." The paper was titled "Approaching Vacant Space: Considerations
for the Development of Vacant Land in Urban Areas" and described how three
designers used natural environments, public history or existing conditions to guide
their approach in development of urban vacant land. That paper and my personal
interests in vacant land design initiated the development of a thesis proposal
accepted by the Department of Landscape Architecture in the Spring semester of
My personal interests in vacant land design have been cultivated over years of living
in and travelling through cities. I was raised a few miles north of the city of Detroit,
Michigan and have watched the city simultaneously suffer and celebrate throughout
my life. There is a certain pride and unwavering faith possessed by Detroiters. You
just want to see the city succeed and many are willing to give whatever they can
to help. Right now, this work is my contribution to that effort. It is my hope that
the theories and compilation of strategies and tactics in this thesis will help my
hometown plan for the future.
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION
In their 2001 study of Detroit, Charles Waldheim and Marili Santos-Munne called the city's
vacant lands "curious landscapes of indeterminate status." They claimed that in the context
of post-industrial cities with decreasing populations, and significant abandonment of
structures "landscape is the only medium capable of dealing with simultaneously decreasing
densities and indeterminate futures" (110). Vacant landscapes play a significant role in
both the structure and function of cities. Increasing amounts of vacant land in urban areas
presents an excellent opportunity for landscape architects to study, invent, and experiment
with these spaces in order to solve urban problems and enhance urban life.
Current discourse on urban vacant land addresses the phenomenon as a problem a
negative condition in the city that is symptomatic of poor economies and dwindling
populations. This thesis encourages a change in the connotation of and conversation about
vacant land in cities. Taking the position that vacant land can be a positive force and a
resource in evolving urban environments, this thesis proposes a method for designing vacant
land in cities by analyzing the current conditions of vacant land in Detroit its structure, its
functions and its potential and examines how current strategies and grass roots projects
have attempted to positively alter these conditions for the communities, economies and
ecologies that co-exist with these spaces. The thesis begins with a description of the various
research methods employed for the study. Then, the concept of "urban vacant land" is
broken down into the elements of content, space and time in order to assess how these
properties are structured and functioning. This analysis is used to inform a design process
that will allow the landscape architect, designer, planner or other interested party to make
responsible decisions about vacant land and its communities within the urban network.
The thesis concludes with an examination of large-scale strategies for approaching vacant
land management in cities and a review of a systems-based design tactic that has been
implemented in a Detroit neighborhood.
The process of converting vacant lands in an effort to revitalize the social, cultural and
economic states of urban neighborhoods is not unique to Detroit. Over the past forty
years, industrial production in the United States has moved from traditional downtown city
centers, to the "urban periphery," and even overseas (Berger 2006). Industrial relocation,
disinvestment in urban areas and resultant population decreases in formerly industrial
cities, such as Cleveland, Ohio and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, have produced vacant
lands throughout the nation's "Rust Belt" (Bluestone 1982). This problem is even evident
internationally: the landscapes of the Ruhrgebiet area and Dresden, Germany and Turin,
Italy have suffered the effects of deindustrialization. These cities have also been making
efforts towards the productive development of their vacant lands (Gallagher 2010). As
industrial production throughout the world continues to relocate and shift from mechanical
production to technological industries, cities will continue to be confronted with vacant
lands and their challenges.
1.3 Research Questions
The overarching question guiding this research is: How should spatial designers, planners
and city stakeholders approach the design of vacant land in cities? In order to develop
answers to this question, the research was broken down into three main components:
1. What is urban vacant land?
This research is driven by the need for a common understanding and language among
city stakeholders and designers to discuss the issue of urban vacant land. What is "urban
vacant land"? How might we operationalize this term in order to develop design strategies?
Currently, there is no formal or standard description of urban vacant land that exists within
the United States (Pagano & Bowman 2000). Definitions of and qualifications for vacant
land can vary from city to city, within city governments, and even between individual
departments (Pagano & Bowman 2000)1.
2. How does vacant land function in the city?
A common language to discuss these types of lands will allow for further study of how urban
vacant lands are currently performing from the micro to macro scale. What activities take
place on vacant lands and how do these activities affect the surrounding environments and
actors? Within neighborhood and regional contexts, how do vacant lands affect the life of a
neighborhood? How do they affect the life of a city? What is the interaction between vacant
land and humans? What is the interaction between vacant land and other urban systems?
3. Should vacant land in cities be altered? If so, how and why?
Determining the performance of urban vacant land at different scales can prompt a
discussion that determines their future. Is it necessary to revise and redesign vacant land? If
urban vacant land is to be altered, what is the design process for this type of work? How are
decisions about this design process to be made?
1.4 Key Recommendations of the Thesis
Through the development of this thesis, three major recommendations evolved that are
aimed at helping landscape architects work with a design process that analyzes various
1 Interview with legal resource worker, July 27, 2011.
conditions of urban vacant land and provides options for its future. These recommendations
1. In order to develop a common language about urban vacant land, these landscapes should
be described in terms of content, space, and time. These three key elements will allow
those working with vacant land in cities to be consistent in their assessment and evaluation
of these spaces and will make categorizing vacant land a more efficient and harmonized
process across practices.
2. Post-industrial cities have been looking to the redevelopment and redesign of vacant
land as a way to revitalize neighborhoods in the city. Unfortunately, these lands are being
regarded as single, disconnected lots. To make significant changes to the perception and
use of vacant land in cities, these spaces need to be understood and adressed as connected
systems that operate in conjunction with other urban systems in the urban network.
3. For productive design of vacant land in cities, designers, city stakeholders and contributing
organizations should use a decision making process that considers representation, process,
evaluation and impact as key steps to determining appropriate design responses to vacant
spaces as well as considering the possibility that these landscapes need no alteration.
FIELDWORK IN DETROIT, MICHIGAN:
1. DOCUMENT COLLECTION
2. MAPS AND OBSERVATIONAL RESEARCH
1. DOCUMENT COLLECTION
1. COMPARATIVE STUDY OF
2. ALTERED STEINITZ METHOD
3. PATTERN MATCHING
3 DESIGN SITES:
1. PHOTOGRAPHY 2. RELATIONSHIP ANALYSIS
2. MAPS AND 2. WRITE UP FINDINGS
Figure 2.1 Research Timeline
The research and analysis for this thesis was performed over a nine month period. Methods included document collection, mapping, observational research,
photography and interviews.
CHAPTER 2: RESEARCH DESIGN & METHODOLOGY
The intention of this thesis was to study urban vacant land in post-industrial cities and
its interaction with surrounding communities, ecologies and economies in order to offer
appropriate design strategies and tactics that would improve the conditions of these
associated communities, ecologies and economies. In order to achieve this, I first had to
determine what urban vacant land is, in both physical composition and intangible factors
such as value and meaning. I chose the case study as my methodology. "A case study
is an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life
context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly
evident,"(Yin 2003, 13). In this case, the phenomenon is vacant land and the context is the
post-industrial city: Detroit.
I spent a total of nine weeks in Detroit performing qualitative research methods to
document vacant land within the city limits. I studied two types of vacant land. The first
is vacant land that had not been subjected to any kind of design intervention. The second
type of vacant land is vacant land that had been subjected to design intervention. In order
to collect data about these two types of spaces, I employed a variety of methods including
photography, mapping, informational interviews and observational research.
This chapter is structured according to the four components of a qualitative study: the
establishment of a research relationship; site and participant selection; data collection; and
data analysis (Maxwell 2005). Within these subsections the methods employed are further
described and causal relationships explained. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the
unique challenges and limitations of this work.
2.2 Establishment of a Research Relationship
"In qualitative studies, the researcher is the instrument of the research, and the research
relationships are the means by which the research gets done" (Maxwell 2005, 83). In the
design of this research, I had to establish a relationship with the setting of the research
and relationships with participants. Choosing Detroit as the case study allowed me to take
advantage of previously founded relationships as well as to develop new ones.
I have lived just outside Detroit for the majority of my life. Before my first site visit I already
had a base knowledge of the city; I am familiar with the major roads and transportation
routes, the neighborhoods and their associated characteristics, local landmarks, local politics
and local history. My personal history with the city and this base knowledge provided a
level of comfort for working in Detroit. In addition, this comfort level also aided in my
participation with local events, neighborhood meetings and volunteer work that helped to
further shape the design of this qualitative research.
Siting this study in Detroit also gave me a significant advantage in establishing relationships
with interview participants. Through family members, friends, former colleagues, and my
local advisor, Dan Pitera, I was allowed to gain access to people and settings who may not
have been interested in participation without these personal connections. My relationships
with these "gatekeepers" (Maxwell 2005) of information also significantly contributed to the
evolution of the research design for this thesis.
2.3 Site and Participant Selection
While a personal history with Detroit provided certain advantages for establishing
relationships within qualitative research design, the site selection of Detroit for this study
was based on an assessment of the site's ability to answer the three main research questions
of this project2. While there are a number of post-industrial cities both in the United States
and abroad that would be capable of answering these questions3 (Pagano and Bowman
2004; Schilling 2008; Berger 2006), my assessment led me to believe that Detroit provided a
critical case for the study of urban vacant land. Because a significant intention of this project
is to contribute to the field of landscape architecture, choosing a critical case will allow me
to test and build on existing theories of vacant land design as well as to help the field refocus
future investigations. (Yin 2003)
During the third phase of my research, I concentrated data collection and analysis in three
"study sites" within Detroit. The intention of the method described in this project is that
it can be applied to any site, in any city. As such, I chose three sites in three different
neighborhoods across Detroit that would demonstrate that variability in conditions does
not affect the method. An assessment of vacancy rates, geographic location, population
demographics, property sizes and property shapes generated a list of three study sites from
the twelve under consideration.
Participant selection for this study was based on a method Joseph Maxwell calls "purposeful
selection" (2005). Purposeful selection is "a strategy in which particular settings, persons,
or activities are selected deliberately in order to provide information that can't be gotten
as well from other choices" (Maxwell 2005, 89). Due to the time constraints of this study
the participant selection for interviews was limited to those persons who could inform me
on either the creative or administrative processes or both that design strategies and tactics
go through in order to be implemented into vacant land sites. The goal of this purposeful
selection was to examine participants who were critical to the theories about design
2 What is vacant land? How does vacant land operate in the post-industrial city? and Should vacant
land be altered, if so, how and why?
3 Other cities under consideration for the case study included Buffalo, New York, Philadelphia, Penn-
sylvania and Youngstown, Ohio.
strategies on vacant land that I had been developing throughout the research (Maxwell
2.4 Data Collection Process
The data collection process for this thesis was qualitative in nature and employed multiple
methods. I collected data from a variety of sources to use a strategy Maxwell calls
''triangulation" in order to avoid biases as well as to gain a more extensive understanding of
vacant land and the landscape design strategies that have been associated with it (2005). In
addition to this, the range of methods I employed allowed me to compare and contrast data
collected from these various sources in order to strengthen my argument.
The data collection process was achieved in three phases over a nine month period from
May 2011 through January 2012 (see Figure 2.1) and took place in both Detroit, Michigan
and Denver, Colorado where I now live. The first phase was fieldwork in Detroit, Michigan
during the summer of 2011 where I collected documents, performed observational studies
and photography and conducted interviews. During the second phase, which took place in
Denver I continued to collect documents and literary sources as well as followed programs,
projects and planning for the city of Detroit through digital sources and social networking
sites. Returning to Detroit in December of 2011 for the third phase of data collection, I
focused photography, maps, and observational studies in three study sites within the city.
2.4.2. Phase I: Large Scale: Detroit
Document Collection, Observational Studies, Photography and Interviews
In the summer of 2011 I set out to collect information across the city of Detroit on urban
vacant land in order to answer three research questions: What is urban vacant land?, How
does vacant land function in the city?, and Should vacant land in cities be altered? If so, how
and why?. Using these questions to guide the data search, I began collecting information
and maps created by Data Driven Detroit. Data Driven Detroit is an independent, non-profit
data center that provides data and analysis on various economic, social and environmental
indicators in Detroit neighborhoods. Guided by this data and my first few days of exploration
in the city, I decided to focus my studies of urban vacant land on residential and commercial
parcels within the city.
The exploration and subsequent data collection of these spaces was then divided into two
categories: urban vacant land that had not been subjected to design intervention and urban
vacant land that had been subjected to design intervention. I spent three weeks studying
vacant land that had not been subjected to design intervention using a map created by Data
Driven Detroit in 2010 (see Figure 2.2) as a guide for locating different rates of vacancies
in a variety of Detroit neighborhoods. Studying un-intervened vacant land in a variety of
neighborhoods with different rates of vacancy helped to prevent bias in my study. Using
photography and observational studies, I developed my own series of maps describing urban
Vacant Lots, as Percentage of Residential Parcels,
by Census Block Group
DATAi i l
Sources: Detroit Residential Parcel Survey:
Data Driven Detroit. 2/15/2010
Figure 2.2: Vacant Lots, as Percentage of Residential Parcels, by Census Block Group.
Detroit, Michicagn. Map created by Data Driven Detroit: 2/15/2010.
This map was used as a guide during on-site research to locate areas with different
vacancy rates throughout the city.
vacant land characteristics under the headings of physical condition, ecological opportunity,
human presence and human movement, and social and commercial adjacencies4.
Three weeks were also dedicated to documenting vacant land that had been subjected to
a form of design intervention. I termed this intervention "design strategies" and created
a list of design strategy projects located in Detroit that fell into three categories: urban
agriculture, urban art and urban garden. The list of projects was assembled through
document collection and contact recommendations. These design strategies were also
documented using photography and observational studies.
In addition to the fieldwork, while in Detroit I conducted informal semi-structured
interviews with a select group of individuals who could inform me on either the creative
or administrative processes or both that design strategies on urban vacant land go though
in order to be implemented. The interviewees fell into one or more of the following
4 For a full list of urban vacant land characteristics please see Appendix A.
categories: civic stakeholders, non-profit organization members, and creative professionals.
Additionally, informal spontaneous data was gathered in person from various city
stakeholders at community events, while on site performing observational studies, or in
social settings over the summer.
There are many stakeholders and interested parties in the future of Detroit's vacant
land. The information regarding this topic is constantly discussed, debated and updated.
Throughout this project, it has remained important to me that this study is relevant and
uses the most current data. Because of this, the document collection process which began
in Phase One of the research design, has continued throughout the entirety of the project
and even the during writing of the final product. The purpose of collecting documents
was threefold: 1. To understand the history and development of vacant land specifically
in Detroit. 2. To develop a list of sites and contacts for participation in the study, and 3. To
develop my understanding of the complex role vacant land plays in the city of Detroit.
The compilation of these documents came from city departments, arts programs, public
and non-profit organizations, newspapers, journals and magazines. These sources were
acquired both in print and through digital sources. The digital sources include not only
more traditional online newspapers and zines but also a social networking site. Many non-
profit and community groups have developed Facebook pages. As I gathered information
on some of the design strategy projects, Facebook became an important tool for learning
about events that took place on or about these sites, interested parties and participants
who interact with these spaces, contact information for design strategy or community group
leaders, as well as links to other Facebook pages of sites that I considered for study.
Maps and Observational Studies
In Phase One of the data collection process, maps were used as both a guide and type of
fieldbook while I performed observational studies. As I moved through the city during the
summer of 2011, the Rand McNally Detroit Metro Streetguide (2008) allowed me to navigate
the city and mark significant landscapes. I also used these maps to make notes, draw in
design strategy locations, and mark where I had been5.
Employing the case study method meant that I needed to observe the elements that
comprised the phenomenon of vacant land, the relationships among these elements, and
their contextual influences (Zeisel 2006). In order to do this, I performed observational
studies of both vacant land not subjected to design intervention and vacant land subjected
to design intervention (design strategy projects). In most cases, I drove to a specific site or
neighborhood and walked the area using both my maps and a fieldbook to take notes on the
characteristics of the vacant land or design strategy project. In areas where I did not feel
safe walking a site. I had a partner accompany me and drive a car while I took notes from the
5 See Appendix B
passenger seat or walking closely by the car.
While walking or driving these sites, I observed physical traces and environmental behavior
to collect data. Physical traces can be material or markings unconsciously left behind by
humans or wildlife. They also consist of material, markings or environmental changes
consciously made or left behind (Zeisel 2006). Recording these physical traces is an
unobtrusive method for collecting data, as it does not influence the behavior that caused the
trace (Zeisel 2006). Observing and recording environmental behavior on the other hand, can
have an effect on how people behave in an environment but I wanted to use the method in
order to generate data about people's activities in and around sites and the way people use
or misuse these vacant properties and design strategy projects (Zeisel 2006).
At a number of sites, I acted not just as an observer but also as a "participant-observer" (Yin
2003). In the cases of urban vacant land not subjected to design intervention, I recorded
my personal feelings about sites as they related to vacant land characteristics. In the cases
of design strategy projects, I also recorded my feelings about sites relating to physical
characteristics. Additionally, I engaged in activities taking place at various design strategy
project sites. For example, at Earthworks Urban Farm I volunteered to work on the farm on
two different days to see how volunteers used and interacted with the project as well as to
record my personal thoughts and feelings about an interaction with the site.
In conjunction with the notes collected from my observational studies, I used photography
as an additional method for collecting and recording data about urban vacant land. This
photo documentation gave me a visual source to refer back to when analyzing my notes
from the observational studies. Photography also allowed me to record and comparatively
analyze data across sites. Using "shooting scripts" (Rose 2007) I followed a set of sub-
questions to my research questions that allowed me to focus my photographs on recording
specific data as well as insuring that my photos were linked to the research questions. These
1. What do these vacant lands have in common?
2. What makes these lands different?
3. Flow are these lands currently being used by the city and by residents within
proximity to the area?
The fourth method employed during the first phase of data collection was the semi-
structured informational interview. Through document collection, social networking and
personal contact sources, I developed a list of people who could provide specific information
about how vacant land is used and transformed in the city of Detroit. This list was composed
of four categories of informants: 1. City government officials; 2. Civic Stakeholders;
3.Non-profit organization members; and 4. Creative professionals. Unfortunately, I could
not convince any of the city officials on my list to speak with me so the interviews were
limited to civic stakeholders, non-profit organization members and creative professionals.
The interviewees were contacted either by email or a telephone call and asked to participate
in an informal discussion with me on my topic of study. The interviews lasted between 45
minutes and one hour, and the location of the interview was determined by the interviewee.
The interviews were semi-structured and guided by a list of open-ended questions I
prepared in advance6. Each set of questions was modified for the particular interviewee,
however, the main topics of inquiry were consistent. Main topics of discussion included:
project or group organization; funding; participants; problems and challenges. I used open-
ended questions to allow for possible discussion of topics with which I was unfamiliar prior
to the interview. The open-ended questions also allowed me to gain access and record
information about vacant land and design strategies in Detroit that I could not acquire
through document collection; this was a main goal of using the interview as one of my
Another goal of using interviews was to establish my presence in the city. All interviews
were conducted in person. I wanted to establish relationships with interviewees and allow
participants to not only feel comfortable with my presence as a researcher but also to feel
confident about recommending other contacts or projects. I conducted the interview as a
conversation in which I took notes, again hoping this method of recording would provide a
level of comfort. Each interview was followed up with a transcription of these notes and the
mailing of a thank-you note to the informant.
In addition to these prearranged interviews, I also gathered data through personal contact
in informal settings. There were a number of instances where I attended community events,
was at a site conducting observational studies and/or photography, or spending time socially
in the city and encountered a possible informant. Through informal and unstructured
conversations I was able to gather data about either vacant land that had not been subjected
to design intervention, a group or organization that works with vacant land in Detroit, or
a design strategy project. In the majority of cases, I took notes in my fieldbook during the
conversation and transcribed the notes at a later time. These spontaneous conversations
also contributed to the accomplishment of the goals of the interview process as well as
added data to the project.
2.4.3. Phase II: Off-Site Research: Denver
Returning to Denver in the Fall of 2011, I continued the process of document collection while
assembling and analyzing the data I gathered over the summer. Continuing the document
collection process allowed me to constantly update and focus my analysis, keeping the
project relevant. Additionally, collecting data through Facebook allowed me to follow events
6 To see an example of the interview protocol, please refer to Appendix C
in Detroit, news about city planning efforts and the changing built environments of various
design strategy projects.
2.4.4 Phase III: Small Scale: Detroit
Maps and Observational Studies, Photography
My second trip to Detroit took place in December of 2011 and January of 2012 and consisted
of a detailed study of three selected "study sites" within the city. Three four-block areas in
three different neighborhoods of the city were chosen for a lot by lot study in order to assess
relationships that exist between and amongst vacant properties built upon my hypothesis
that developed over the Fall of 2011: vacancy in Detroit has been integrated into the urban
network and design strategies that address single vacant lots will not be as productive as
strategies that consider a larger system of vacant lots. While the summer research provided
me a basis for this work, the winter research allowed me to delve further into my research
questions and glean the data that supported my hypothesis.
Maps and Observational Studies
In Phase Three of this research maps again provided a base for my data collection as well
as acted as a fieldbook for my notes. Using the 2009 Detroit Parcel Survey created by Data
Driven Detroit, I walked each four-block site noting vacant lot characteristics. Because many
of the lots are unmaintained and in a second phase of ecological succession, these maps
allowed me to determine borders between lots, number of lots per block and allowed me
to associate structures with a physical address7. Using a spreadsheet I created for notation,
I followed the map at each site and was able to mark whether a lot contained a structure,
whether it was occupied, showed signs of maintenance and note any other observations8.
In addition to noting the physical characteristics of the site, I also studied the environmental
behavior of residents and passer-bys to note their interaction with vacant lots. The three
week in-depth study allowed me to spend more time at each site than the quick visits I
was allowed during the summer research when the quantity and variety in vacant sites
held more value to me. I was able to see how sites changed over the course of the day,
over different days of the week. However, due to concerns for personal safety and the fact
that I was alone for the majority of these site visits, I did not acquire any data regarding
environmental behavior after dark. Generally, data collection stopped at or before 4:00pm
for all sites.
Photography was again used during Phase three of the data collection process as way to
record the vacant land characteristics and visually enhance the notations I made during
observational research. During this phase, the photography was used to document specific
7 See Appendix D for an example of the Detroit Parcel Survey with notation.
8 See Appendix E for an example of the spreadsheet.
characteristics of vacant lots within the three study sites. There was no shooting script
during this phase.
2.5 Data Analysis
The aim of this project was to study and develop an understanding of vacant land in the
city and offer design solutions for what at the time of writing the thesis proposal, I thought
was an urban "problem". What has come out of this project however, is the understanding
of vacant land as an urban "resource" that is embedded and integrated into the urban
network and the development of a design and analysis process that will allow the designer
to evaluate urban vacant land and make well-rounded, informed design decisions. This
outcome is a result of the exploratory qualitative analysis process I undertook for this
The analysis process took place in two phases. The first phase entailed creating lists of
vacant land and design strategy characteristics and looking for patterns among them to
discern some commonalities and distinctions. Additionally, the Steinitz framework for
spatial inquiry (Steinitz 1990) was employed to help organize vacant land characteristics into
three categories. The second phase, which took place during January and February of 2012,
analyzed the selected study sites in Detroit. Again pattern matching was performed along
2.5.1 Phase I:
Pattern Matching, Steinitz Method
Using the observatory research noted in my fieldbook along with the photographs, I
began organizing all the vacant land data I collected and their locations by listing their
characteristics. These lists were then compared to develop a final list of the top five most
common characteristics (see Figure 2.3). This
list of characteristics allowed me to modify the
Steinitz method using vacant land structure and
function as guiding principles. Replacing parts of
the Steinitz method with language that reflects
these landscapes and their characteristics gave
me a method for categorizing vacant land.
Data I collected on the design projects were
organized into a matrix9. This matrix allowed me
to compare projects and again look for patterns
2.5.2. Phase II:
9 See Figure 2.4 to see the matrix of design strategy projects
5 Most Common Characteristics of
Vacant Land in Detroit, Ml
No structure present
No visible maintenance
Presence of Debris
This list of common characteristics guided the
development of the altered Steinitz method.
PROJECT NAME IMAGE SIZE TYPE LOCATION OWNERSHIP CONDITION MISSION/ GOALS WHO'S INVOLVED?
Gallery j System Urban Art Southwest 9233 Avis Purchased Active (construction com- pleted 7/4/11) Ongoing - Promote and support creative expression, community responsibility and participatory process - Foster positive youth/adult relationships Erik Howard, artist and neighbor DCDC
ll Earthworks Urban Tfl Farm System Urban Agriculture East Side Meldrum & St. Paul Purchased & Squatting (with permission) Active (Partially locked) - Promote sustainable agricul- tural practices, nutrition, and care for the Earth - "We strive for peace, respect and harmony between Neighbor and Nature." Capuchin Soup Kitchen Gleaner's Food Bank
Urban Garden East Side Meldrum & St. Paul Squatting (2010) No longer in place (2011) Inactive during July/August 2011 Change the impression left by a turned out building (fire took Dlace in 2008) Team Detroit Greening of Detroit University Cultural Center Association
1 Brightmoor IM Farmway 0j^ System Urban Agriculture Urban Art Urban Garden Brightmoor (20 block target area) Majority Squatting Some purchased Active (un-locked at all times) - Equip families and individuals to help each other to live safer, healthier and prosperous lives. -To build community through people, relationship, coopera- tion, hospitality and generosity. Neighbors Building Brightmoor Greening of Detroit Detroit Community Schools various churches and school groups
Riverwalk System Urban Garden East Riverfront 3 1/2 Miles Purchased Active 75% Complete - Develop access to the Detroit Riverfront - "Ride. Bike. Fish. Play. Discover your Riverfront!" Detroit Riverfront Conservancy
Figure 2.4 Design Project Matrix
Ten projects in Detroit provided data about converting vacant land using various design strategies and tactics.
PROJECT NAME IMAGE SIZE TYPE LOCATION OWNERSHIP CONDITION MISSION/ GOALS WHO'S INVOLVED?
1,000 Papillons System Urban Art City-wide Squatting Active - "Psychological Readjustment" - "It's a great metaphor to see Detroit as a butterfly a papillon to re-emerge" Chazz Miller (artist) Public Art Workz
The Shack Community Garden Â§nÂ§n Single Lot Urban Agriculture Urban Garden Woodbridge: Merrick & Trumbull Purchased Active (unlocked) - Share resources - Restore a neighborhood Andrew Beer (bought the lot) Neighbors WSU students
Spirit of Hope Garden Hi* Urban Agriculture Urban Garden Corktown Trumbull & MLK Owned and Squatting Active (unlocked) - Raise food for food programs, ood pantry and community citchen - Beautify neighborhood by using vacant/dormant land - Teach community to grow food Spirit of Hope Church Greening of Detroit
The Heidelberg Project | System Urban Art East Side Blocks on and surrounding Heidelberg Street Owned/Purchased & Squatting Active and Expanding - Improve the lives of people and neighborhoods through art - Use art to provoke thought, promote discussion, inspire action and heal communities Tyree Guyton (artist) Heidelberg Project now an organized NPO
North Cass Community Garden Â§M Single Lot Urban Agriculture Urban Garden Midtown 2nd & Willis Purchased & Squatting with permission Active (Locked) - university cultural center rents plots to neighbors and community members for a fee University Cultural Center Association
Mapping, Relationship Development
Phase Two of the analysis process used the data collected from three study sites in
Detroit. Using the list of characteristics and altered Steinitz method developed in Phase
One, I developed a series of maps for each design site. Each map was composed of a
compilation of layers that describe urban systems and urban vacant land. Creating these
maps and comparing the layers revealed relationships between vacant land and vacant land
characteristics and other urban systems that operate within the city.
2.6 Challenges and Limitations
While this research and the fieldwork were very enjoyable and provided a great learning
environment, there were a number of challenges encountered during development of this
project. Most significant to this discussion, are the challenges I confronted during fieldwork
in the city of Detroit. The first of these challenges was the scope of the project, the size of
the city and the large proportion of vacant land in the city. Other challenges included time
limitations, and safety concerns. This section will discuss these challenges in their relation to
the collection and analysis processes.
Scope of the Project
Detroit is a city comprised of 139 square miles, 45 of which are vacant (Pitera 2010). This is
an independent project in which the fieldwork lasted a total of nine weeks. While I did limit
my study to vacant residential and commercial properties, there are miles of vacancy I did
not have the chance to see or document. To address this challenge, I tried to choose vacant
sites for study in a number of different neighborhoods across the city and used the data I
collected as representational of all urban vacant land in Detroit.
Additionally, vacancy in Detroit is constantly fluctuating. Sites that were not vacant during
the summer 2011 fieldwork, were considered vacant during the December 2011- January
2012 fieldwork. In the same vein, sites that were considered vacant for the purpose of this
study in the summer, had undergone a design intervention by December 2011. While these
changes contributed to the data and helped shape the project, it was difficult to go back and
change information about sites that had already undergone analysis in their previous state.
As the vacant land in Detroit is not a static subject, neither is the city's planning department.
Attempting to keep this project relevant to current efforts the city and its partners are
currently undertaking, has been a great challenge. I have tried to keep track of the persons,
firms and organizations involved in the evolving city in order to use similar language and
keep this project up to date regarding the latest efforts and data. In February 2011, the data
collection process was brought to a close in order to make more significant strides at analysis
and develop conclusions.
As previously mentioned, the fieldwork for this thesis lasted only nine weeks. I had many
objectives during both visits to Detroit and accomplishing these in short periods of time was
difficult. Generally, I conducted research five days a week during daylight hours only. These
time constraints express a limit to the study and data collected.
Additionally, I am originally from Detroit and do not get home to visit family and friends
very often so additional personal obligations influenced how my time was spent. I mention
this because it is my belief that this particular challenge would not have been an issue
had the fieldwork been conducted in a city where I had no relations. While this did affect
the amount of time I could afford the project, personal relationships in the city provided a
wealth of opportunities for data collection that I believe outweighed the possible limitations.
I have mentioned that data collection in the field was performed during daylight hours only.
Unfortunately, violent crime and murder rates for Detroit are comparatively high nationally
(Criminal Justice Information Services Division 2011). In addition, vacant land in cities
can attract criminal activities or undesirable behavior (Bowman and Pagano 2004). These
realities made me extra cautious while alone in the city. It was recommended by an advisor
in Detroit that I do not spend time at vacant sites after dark. While this information could
have significantly impacted the study, the associated risks and advice of Detroit residents
convinced me to err on the side of caution.
CHAPTER 3: VACANT LAND IN THE CITY
In order to discover how urban vacant land works and how it can be used as a resource, it
is necessary to first define what exactly the term urban vacant land means. Despite the fact
that this phenomenon has a place in cities all over the world, a clear definition of urban
vacant land remains elusive. Through a review of the literature and a description of vacant
land in Detroit, this chapter attempts to provide those working with urban vacant land a
clear and comprehensive understanding of the term. This thesis describes vacant land in
terms of content, space and time in order to help designers and stakeholders develop a
common language for the description and representation of these landscapes.
3.2 Describing Urban Vacant Land
Within the fields of landscape architecture and urban planning the concept of urban vacant
land has been described by a few people in many ways. Some common names include:
derelict landscapes (Jakle and Wilson 1992), lost landscapes (Trancik 1986), dead landscapes
(Adams 1980), middle landscapes of urban voids" (Gallagher 2010), terrain vagues (Sola-
Morales Rubio 1995) and wastelands (Berger 2006). What these terms include varies
regarding physical-spatial components as well as phenomenological states. Unfortunately,
the only commonality these terms share is a negative connotation. Perpetuating this
perception, the National Vacant Properties Campaign (now known as the Center for
Community Progress) attempted to define urban vacant land in the following manner:
THE NATIONAL VACANT PROPERTIES CAMPAIGN (NVPC) views
vacant properties through a continuum of residential, commercial,
and industrial buildings and vacant lots that either:
Threaten public safety (e.g., meet the definition of a public
Have been subject to the neglect of fundamental duties of
property ownership (e.g., failure to pay taxes or utility bills,
defaults on mortgages, and liens against the property).
These problem properties can include abandoned, boarded-up
buildings; lots with trash and debris; vacant or under-performing
commercial properties known as greyfields (such as shopping malls
and trip commercial properties); and neglected industrial properties
with environmental contamination, known as brownfields. The
NVPC continuum also includes deteriorating vacant single-family
homes, apartments with significant housing code violations, and
long-term vacant housing as indicators of future abandonment.
While vacant land can exacerbate urban problems, using a term like "problem properties"
not only limits how people will think about the opportunities of vacant land but could
also potentially turn city stakeholders, developers or designers away from working with
the problematic vacant land in the city. Making strides to change the perception of urban
vacant land, the Cleveland Land Lab at the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative uses the
term "excess land" or "surplus land" to talk about how these spaces provide an opportunity
for new ideas and new developments in the city (2008). Framing vacant land as a resource
rather than a problem can enhance its potential for investment, redevelopment and design.
Within the literature, the most inclusive and coherent definition of urban vacant land comes
from a study performed by Ann Bowman and Michael Pagano (2000). To determine the
amount of urban vacant land in the United States, Bowman and Pagano surveyed U.S. cities
on their urban vacant land using the following definition: "Vacant land includes not only
unused or abandoned land or land that once had structures on it, but also the land that
supports structures that have been abandoned, derelict, boarded up, partially destroyed or
razed." This definition provides a basis for what can be considered vacant land in the urban
environment without assigning qualities or specific values to the landscape.
Of the more theoretical approaches to defining urban vacant land, the term "terrain vague"
which was first used to describe vacant land by Ignasi de Sola-Morales Rubio in 199510, is
commonly cited (Daskalakis, Waldheim and Young 2001; Berger 2006). The terrain vague is
used to inspire an emotional response to the landscape of vacant lands. Sola-Morales Rubio
describes these terrains vagues as "forgotten oversights and leftovers which have remained
outside the urban dynamic. Converted into areas that are simply un-inhabited, unsafe,
un-productive. In short, these are places that are foreign to the urban system, mentally
exterior in the physical interior of the city, appearing as its negative image as much in the
sense of criticism as in that of possible alternative." (Sola-Morales Rubio 1995, 121) In this
vein, most of the literature takes the position that vacant lands harm the image of the city,
Georgia Dakalakis and Omar Perez argue that these terrains vagues are of value on their own
merit because they express the feelings of city dwellers, empathizing with the sentiments of
placelessness and dislocation people can feel in urban environments (Daskalakis, Waldheim
and Young 2001).
Another theory that understands vacant lands as places of importance within the city,
includes Alan Berger's concept of "Drosscapes" (2006). Berger proposes "dross," or
wastelands, are necessary to the health of a city. According to his theory, cities "breathe"
or have a cyclical existence of production, growth, waste, and shrinkage. The appearance
of dross within the landscape signals that the dynamics of the city continue to exist.
10 Rubio, Ignasi de Sola-Morales. "Terrain Vague," Anyplace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Pres, 1995), 118-
Berger contends that within this breathing city, vacant lands are not spaces of transition,
or places to ignore, but instead are sites for action and reintegration. Drosscaping is the
strategic design of vacant lands to incorporate their presence into cities by using "cleaner"
or "greener" technology and practices that cannot be used by more traditional forms of
development (Berger 2006, 237).
To study drosscapes, Berger created a typology of waste landscapes (vacant lands) using
examples from cities mostly in the western and southwestern United States. This typology
includes: Waste Landscapes of Dwelling, Waste Landscapes of Transition, Waste Landscapes
of Infrastructure, Waste Landscapes of Obsolescence, Waste Landscapes of Exchange, and
Waste Landscapes of Contamination (Berger 2006). Although this typology does classify
vacant lands by their current uses, these categories do not consider the abandoned and
"middle landscapes" (Gallagher 2010) that exist in cities such as Detroit.
Another typology used to describe vacant lands was put forth by Ray Northam in 197111.
This typology classifies vacant lands based on their ownership and ability to be converted for
urban development and consists of the following five types:
1. Remnant parcels of land that are left over from adjacent development and are too small
or have irregular shapes that prevent development
2. Land that remains vacant due to physical limitations, such as steep slope, preventing
3. Land owned and reserved by businesses or corporations for future development
4. Land owned by corporations or single parties with the expectation that it will be sold for
profit in the future
5. Land owned by public or semi-public organizations with the intent to develop when
Perhaps due to the time period in which the article was published, this typology also proves
inadequate for describing the types of vacant land that exist in post-industrial cities today, as
it excludes the "waste" (Berger 2006) or "derelict" landscapes (Jakle and Wilson 1992).
A third typology within the literature is known as T.O.A.D.S.: "temporarily obsolete,
abandoned, or derelict sites." This typology is composed of three classifications:
1. Formerly productive and valued sites, such as automobile
factories, furniture plants, warehouses, or textile mills that
have since been abandoned by their owners;
2. Formerly productive but unwanted sites that housed
less desirable activities, such as slaughterhouses, leather
tanneries, and paper mills; and
_______________3. Unused parcels of overgrown land that for various
11 Northam, Ray M. "Vacant Urban Land in the American City" Land Economics 47, no. 4 (November
reasons have not been developed
(Bowman and Pagano 2004)
This typology certainly addresses the "derelict" landscapes of post-industrial cities. It is
broad, inclusive and useful with regards to classifying land based on productive use. In
their discussion of this typology, Bowman and Pagano point out that "vacant land is not
necessarily damaged or derelict. It can simply be neglected land, that is, unused but capable
of some beneficial use," (2004, 7).
This thesis aims to direct the discussion about urban vacant land in the same direction
Bowman and Pagano begin to analyze the topic: urban vacant land is capable of beneficial
use. Additionally, to work with urban vacant land, the perception of it as a negative force
that is separate from the city needs to be altered. Urban vacant land is not only a valuable
part of the city, but it is a part of the city that functions in reciprocal relationships with other
parts of the city.
3.3 Origins of Urban Vacant Land in the United States
The study of an increasing presence of vacant land in cities has been a popular topic in urban
literature since the 1980s. The political and economic histories of modernism, capitalism
and globalization practices since the 1940s as catalysts for the production of vacant land
is prevalent throughout the literature (Harvey 1989; Jakle and Wilson 1992; Daskalakis,
Waldheim and Young 2001; Berger 2006). In the United States, the planning of modern
cities under a capitalist regime led to deindustrialization and decentralization of urban cores;
traditional manufacturing and city residents left the city and vacant lands grew in their place
(Trancik 1986; Jakle and Wilson 1992; Bowman and Pagano 2004).
After the economic successes of World War II, people were very unwilling to return to the
pre-war state of unemployment and hunger. In order for politics in the United States to
remain democratic and capitalistic, they "had to address questions of full employment,
decent housing, social provision, welfare, and broad-based opportunity to construct a better
future" (Harvey 1989, 68). Under the ideals of capitalism, the country turned to mass
production, construction and planning as a means of acquiring profit. (Harvey 1989; Jakle
and Wilson, 1992) Within the literature, the modern capitalist cycle of mass production and
profit is termed "Fordism" (Daskalakis, Waldheim and Young 2001; Berger 2006). According
to Berger, the Fordist system motivated the organization of cities from the 1930s until the
1950s (2006, 53). This approach to urban planning reflected the principles of machine
manufacturing (decomposition, differentiation, repetition and integration) made famous in
Detroit by Henry Ford. Schumaker and Rogner argue that this theory is evident in the Ville
Radieuse (1933) by Le Corbusier. The modern plan divided the city into distinct functional
zones (decomposition and differentiation). The function of each zone was homogeneous
(repetition), and a hierarchy of transportation linked the zones together (integration)
(Daskalakis, Waldheim and Young 2001). In order to continue the cycle of production
and profit, government began supporting this theory of city planning; construction and
development became a major branch of the capitalist government while the urban
landscape was being built farther and farther away from the urban core (Harvey 1989).
Termed "decentralization" or "horizontal urbanization" (Berger 2006) this development of
the urban periphery drew city dwellers from the urban core to the suburbs, leaving behind
masses of vacant residential lots.
Since the 1950s industrial manufacturing plants have also been relocating from the urban
core outside the city and even to other countries (Berger 2006). In order for capitalism
to succeed in industry, industrial locations could only remain on a site for as long as that
site offered cost savings "in the form of lower labor costs, better access to raw materials,
proximity to markets, and better tax benefits among other advantages" (Jakle Wilson
1992, 58) Under capitalism, the well-being of workers, the improvement of products or
the satisfaction of customers is not the primary concern. The primary concern is to make
money at an "acceptable rate of return" (Jakle & Wilson 1992; Harvey 1989). Advances
in technology, transportation and communication allowed for the dispersal of industrial
manufacturing and production. To keep industrial investments afloat, plants moved outside
the city, abandoning hundreds of acres of urban land, to sites where the taxes were lower,
construction was less expensive, and labor was cheap. (Berger 2006)
This is a general review of the history and development of urban vacant land. The processes
of deindustrialization and decentralization that resulted from capitalism in the United
States provide the backbone for vacant land proliferation in Detroit. While acting as a prime
example of a post-industrial city, Detroit also has a number of special conditions that have
contributed to the development of urban vacant land in the city. The following section
discusses how Detroit's history and current economic, political and social climate has created
a crucial model of a city containing vacant land.
3.4 Vacant Land in Detroit, Michigan
3.4.1. Site context
Detroit is a city of 139 square miles (88,960 acres) with a population of 713,700. It is located
along the Detroit River in southeastern Michigan and serves as a port connecting the Great
Lakes to the Saint Lawrence Seaway (see figure 3.1). The city is composed of a downtown
core and surrounding residential and industrial neighborhoods. The downtown area has a
variety of cultural institutions, sports arenas and serves the metro region as both a business
center and an entertainment district. Outside the city's core, single-family residences make
up 85% of the urban form (Pitera 2010). Approximately 32% of this city's landmass is vacant
This statistic is more than twice the percentage of vacant land for the average large city in
the United States (Bowman and Pagano 2004). Detroit's approximate 45 square miles of
vacant land (Pitera 2010) is spread across the entire city and affects every neighborhood
(See Figure 2.2). While construction and development in the city has invigorated some
neighborhoods like Midtown in recent years, property values in the city have deterred
investors from building new construction. Between 1978 and 1998, there were 108,000
demolitions and only 9,000 new buildings (Oswalt 2004). As the population of Detroit
continues to decline, an estimated 2,400 properties become newly vacant every year
3.4.2 Historical Context
"History is more or less bunk. The only history that is worth a tinker's dam is the history we
make today." Henry Ford, Chicago Tribune, May 25,1916
This section provides brief overview of Detroit's history and its people, describing the
evolution of an industrial boomtown that suffered the colossal effects of deindustrialization
to the current "Growtown" where farms have begun to take root across the urban
Settlement and Development
When Detroit was first settled by the French in the 1700s, the landscape of the area took
advantage of the city's riverfront property. "Ribbon Farms," which were one to two mile
long strips of property, ran from the water's edge straight back into the interior of the city
allowing each family access to water and irrigation (Gavrilovich and McGraw 2000). This
riverfront property allowed Detroit to develop into a major port for trading, shipping and
immigration between the United States and Canada. In 1805 a fire destroyed a major
section of Detroit's developed landscape. At the time, the catholic priest, Father Gabriel
Figure 3.2 Detroit Ribbon Farms
"The extent of white settlement during Detroit's first 100 years. The French
ribbon farms, in narrow strips that ran from the river back one or two miles,
gave every family a bit of waterfront." (Gavrilovich and McGraw 2000, 32)
Richard wrote Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus" which means "We hope for better
days; it shall rise from its ashes," a motto the city still uses today (Gavrilovvich and McGraw,
In 1820 a plan for the development of Detroit was established by Judge Augstus Woodward
who modeled the city after Washington D.C. and Paris, both planned by Charles L'Enfant
(Baulch 1999). The main street running from the center of the city north to Pontiac was
named Woodward12. This road became the first paved road in the country when a mile of
concrete was laid down on Woodward between Six Mile and Seven Mile in 1908 (Baulch
1999; Daskalakis, Waldheim and Young 2001).
The paving of this road coincided with the release of Henry Ford's Model T. Between 1900
and 1920, 245 automobile companies started up in Michigan. 125 of these companies were
located in Detroit (Gavrilovich and McGraw 2000). In 1914, the Ford Motor Company began
paying workers five dollars a day, doubling the salary of factory workers and attracting
thousands of people to Detroit looking for jobs (Gavrilovich and McGraw 2000). In the
1920s, automobile production boomed and Detroit became America's "showcase city" for
industry and modernization (Gavrilovich and McGraw 2000).
12 When asked, Judge Woodward claimed that the road was not named after himself but it was
called "Woodward" because it lead north into the woods. (Baulch 1999) (Gavrilovich and McGraw
The Great Depression lowered workers' wages and then, during World War II, the need
for Detroit's industrial capabilities and skill reinvigorated manufacturing in Detroit. On
February 9, 1942 automobile assembly lines were switched to total production for the war
effort. 610,000 people were employed in Detroit factories to produce war-related products
(Gavrilovich and McGraw 2000). By the end of World War II, Detroit had produced over 90%
of the vehicles used in the war, almost 90% of the bombs and helmets and approximately
50% of the engines, tanks and machine guns (Poremba 2001).
While people flocked to the city for factory jobs, race relations between the black and
white populations of the city grew worse while groups from both races competed for wages
(Gavrilovich and McGraw 2000). Additionally, during the 1930s and 1940s the city refused
to integrate public housing and sections of the city were relegated to minorities (Gavrilovich
and McGraw 2000). In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that racial covenants for housing
were unconstitutional and blacks could no longer be barred from white neighborhoods
(Gavrilovich and McGraw 2000). The integration of neighborhoods and the negative
attitudes between races in the city remained a problem through the 1990s (Thomas 1997).
During the 1940s, Detroit had the highest percentage of home-owners in the country
(Gallagher 2010). The federal government subsidized surburban growth in the 1950s and
helped to develop infrastructural systems that led in and out of Detroit, allowing metro-area
residents to work in the city and live in the suburbs (Gallagher 2010). The concentration of
wealthy Detroit residents declined during this time, as living in the suburbs became evidence
for showcasing success. The migration pattern of wealthy residents from the city to the
suburbs happened in Detroit faster than it has happened at any other time in the major
cities of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago (Herron 2001).
De-Industrialization: The Single Industry Town
"No boomtown ever boomed so long or so hugely as Detroit, and the city never got over it."
-John Gallagher, Reimaging Detroit (2010)
During the 1950s and 1960s Detroit manufacturing companies also moved outside the
city, not only to the suburbs but to foreign countries, where taxes and production were
cheaper (Jackie and Wilson 1992; Berger 2006). During 1970s the US auto industry declined
significantly when foreign manufacturers began developing more fuel-efficient products.
The decline in the market for American cars led to salary reductions and layoffs for Detroit
workers (Gallagher 2010; Gavrilovich and McGraw 2000). Once these workers found
themselves without a job in the auto industry, there were little other options for their skills
in Detroit; the city was singularly devoted to the manufacturing of cars and auto-related
products (Daskalakis 2004).
People who could afford to move, began leaving their homes in Detroit to find work
elsewhere. In the 1970s the federal Housing and Urban Development agency razed large
sections of Detroit in a failed urban renewal effort that resulted in thousands of government-
owned vacant and abandoned properties (Daskalakis, Waldheim and Young 2001). In
the 1980s, Detroit residents began abandoning their homes, commercial properties and
associated taxes to escape the city (Erickson 2007).
Those who stayed in Detroit have unfortunately suffered the mismanagement and
corruption of Detroit municipal systems (Gallagher 2010). During the 1990s, Detroit was
cut off from HOME (a home repair program) by the Department of Housing and Urban
Development because of government corruption and the mismanagement of funds
(Gallagher 2010). In 2003, a federal judge placed Detroit's police department under federal
watch because the city's police had killed too many people and arrested witnesses without
probable cause (Gallagher 2010). These kinds of public reprimands for corruption along with
the city's inability to maintain basic levels of municipal functions such as road maintenance
and garbage collection have fostered a general mistrust of municipal efforts in recent years.
While the relationship between city government and city residents is unfortunate, it has
sparked many grass roots efforts throughout the city to maintain properties and develop
self-sustaining infrastructural systems. Residents are self-organizing and have established
several urban agricultural organizations that take advantage of Detroit's vacant land to
produce food, create economies, foster social relationships and perpetuate healthy lifestyles
(Colasanti et al. 2010). The city has also become a new center for the American arts scene.
Artists have been coming from other parts of the country and abroad to participate in a new
wave of art production happening in Detroit (Aguilar 2011). These efforts have reinvigorated
the spirit of Detroit. Small businesses and interests in Detroit housing are beginning to re-
emerge as the city continues to recover from the fall of the auto industry.
3.5 Descriptive Analysis of Vacant Land in Detroit
To guide designers, city stakeholders and other interested parties in making decisions
about changing and designing urban vacant landscapes, this thesis recommends employing
Carl Steinitz's six-level framework for landscape design problems as a guiding method for
modeling and making decisions about the future of vacant land in cities. This framework
was developed by Steinitz in 1990 as a method for teaching landscape architectural theory
as well as integrating applicable information into effective and efficient design work in the
professional field (Steinitz 1990). Steinitz's framework has been altered in this thesis to
address the elements of vacant land in cities and incorporate essential information into
the decision making process for responsible design of these landscapes (See Figure 3.3)13.
The first step in this method is to describe vacant land. Descriptions are divided into three
categories: content, the biotic and abiotic physical materials present on the site; space, the
structure and organization of the site; and time, the fluctuating and temporal qualities of
13 To see Steinitz's original diagram, please refer to Appendix F
Method for Analysis and Design of Vacant Land
1. This is vacant land. Description of:
CONTENT SPACE TIME
Biotic Material Size Temporality
Abiotic Material Shape Change
II. This is how vacant land operates.
FUNCTIONAL RELATIONSHIPS STRUCTURAL RELATIONSHIPS
Exchange Values Single lot
Use Values System of lots
III. Does vacant land work well?
Interaction with community.
Interaction with economy.
Interaction with ecologies.
IV. Vacant land is not
IV. How might vacant land be
V. What will happen if
NO CHANGE takes place?
V. What differences will a
VI. Should vacant land be
VI. Should vacant land be
Figure 3.3 Method for Analysis and Design of Vacant Land
This thesis recommends employing Carl Steinitz's six-level framework for landscape design problems as a
guiding method for modeling and making decisions about the future of vacant land in cities. See Appendix F
for Steinitz's orginal diagram.
the site. Collecting and assembling this information will lead the designer or stakeholder
to develop models of representation. This section gives a general description of these
representational elements for vacant land in Detroit.
In Detroit, the city currently includes city, county or state owned properties that do not
contain any structures as "vacant land" (Colasanti et al. 2010). For the purpose of this
study, residential and commercial properties that fell under one or more categories of
the Temporary Obsolete Abandoned or Derelict Sites (TOADS) classification system were
considered "vacant." These sites include: (1) Formerly productive and valued sites that have
been abandoned by owners (2) Formerly productive but unwanted sites that house less
desirable activities (3) Unused parcels of overgrown land that for various reasons have not
been developed. (Greenberg et al. 1990) While the original intent of the first two varieties
of the TOADS was to address former industrial sites (Bowman and Pagano 2004), these
descriptions take on new meaning in Detroit.
Many former residential and commercial land parcels in Detroit are abandoned, derelict and
in some cases are temporarily obsolete to the productive activities of communities and the
city. While their former productivity was not in manufacturing, refining or other industrial
processes, these sites contributed to the productive function of the city by providing homes
for city residents, hosting gardens, schools and playgrounds and serving as sites to conduct
business and interact socially. Most of these sites were valued by owners and community
members but over time have deteriorated into sites that societies see as undesirable and
Large swaths of vacant land in Detroit have been referred to as "urban prairies" (Gallagher
2010). Many of these sites are overgrown, unmaintained and have succumbed to ecological
succession. In an urban setting, this can be disturbing to the mind of a city dweller. People
require predictability in their surroundings in order to feel secure in their immediate space
(Lawson 2001). Tall grass, overgrown vegetation, abandoned structures and debris scattered
throughout sites takes away the predictability of what a residential area looks like and how
it behaves. In 2010, the Lower Eastside Action Program (LEAP) performed and analyzed a
"perception survey" to determine how Detroit residents on the lower east side perceive
their neighborhood. The biggest concern among residents was safety and neighborhood
cleanliness (Tijan and Ruth 2010). Instead of the noises of traffic, people walking and talking,
lawnmowers running, and kids playing in streets, these sites are generally very quiet with
the sounds of birds and other wildlife in addition to the occasional car passing by. Altering
the sensory experience of these landscapes can disorient and confuse someone expecting or
hoping to experience a more typical urban neighborhood (Lawson 2001).
These "urban prairies" in the city can consist of one larger piece of property, such as a
former Detroit Public School space or can be an assemblage of smaller residential lots and/
or commercial properties. On the level of an individual lot, the vacant land may or may not
contain a built structure. This structure could be re-usable, but in most cases studied for
this project, the structures had suffered fire damage, wood rot due to the humidity and high
water table of Detroit (Gallagher 2010), were dangerous or unstable, or had collapsed all
together (Figure 3.4). Sometimes, despite the fact that the property is owned by the city or
another entity not on the premises these structures are used as shelter for squatters, or act
as sites for illegal activity (Bowman and Pagano 2004; Hackney and Tanner 2012).
On some lots, sidewalks and lawns are maintained (Figure 3.5). Maintenance is performed
by owners of the property not residing on the property, the city, lot neighbors, or other
interested parties (Figure 3.6). Other lots show no sign of maintenance and sidewalks
deteriorate while plant life and successional processes take over the lawnscape (Figure 3.7).
In addition to the overgrown vegetation, debris is commonly present on these sites. Types of
debris range from small garbage such as bottles, paper, clothing and food wrappers to very
large items like furniture and discarded motor vehicles (Figure 3.8).
The size and shape of individual parcels can vary, however, the most common residential
lot size in Detroit is a 30' x 100' (Gallagher 2010) rectangle. While multi-unit housing does
have a presence in Detroit residential areas and former multi-unit housing sites that are now
vacant occupy Detroit's vacant land, most residential land parcels are single-family units.
These lots have a highly variable temporal existence. Property ownership changes quickly in
Detroit when properties are foreclosed or abandoned and taken over by the city or banks.
Sometimes properties are put up for auction and the cycle of ownership continues to change
hands. In general, to determine if a site qualifies as "vacant," the Safety & Code Department
in the city of Detroit performs a 90-day survey to monitor maintenance of the property and
the conditions of a structure if one is present. However, as of 2011, Wayne County holds
the property deeds and the city of Detroit has to purchase information from the County to
determine ownership. Many properties and ownership information get lost in the shuffle of
paperwork14. Other temporal qualities these properties take on are the random maintenance
that can place, changing aesthetic qualities as well as wildlife habitat areas; the fluctuating
debris that comes and goes from a lot or group of lots; and the demolition and removal of
abandoned structures and material. Additionally, qualities of these sites can change daily,
seasonally and annually based on human use, ecological succession and decline, and value.
The typical life cycle of vacant lots studied in Detroit can be described in terms of
successional patterns that take over after the intended use of a residential or commercial
lot has ended. Consider the residential lot a functioning ecosystem. In terms of landscape
ecology, the abandonment of the home acts as a disturbance15 to this ecosystem changing
the physical environment of the lot. Without maintenance, the former home deteriorates,
the lawn and emergent vegetation on the site proliferate, and debris collects from litter
and dumping. With the lack of human occupation, wildlife find opportunity in these sites
for habitat and forage. As time passes, these processes continue, resulting in sites across
Detroit where former residential lots are in various stages of succession (Turner et al. 2001;
14 Interview with legal resource worker, July 27, 2011.
15 Disturbance is any event in time that disrupts the ecosystem and changes the physical environ-
ment (Turner et al. 2001)
Figure 3.4 Unstable Vacant Structures
Figure 3.5 Maintained Vacant Lot and Sidewalk Figure 3.6 Vacant Lot Maintenance Taken on by
Figure 3.7 Un-maintained Sidewalk Figure 3.8 Debris in Vacant Landscape
This overview of the elements of content, space and time of vacant land in Detroit provides a
basic description of vacant land in cities. For detailed, site-specific descriptions and examples
of representational models, see Chapter Four. The next step in this method will examine the
process of vacant land in Detroit. The following section discusses how vacant land operates
in the city, exploring the functional and structural relationships of urban vacant land.
3.6 The Process of Vacant Land in Detroit
Examining the processes of vacant land considers how the land works. In the first step of
this method, representational elements are gathered and assembled to describe the site.
Next, the assemblage of those elements is studied to assess relationships that exist within
and around the site. In line with the Steinitz method, this thesis considers two types of
relationships: functional and structural. Functional relationships refer to the interaction of
elements discovered in step one. Examining interactions between the elements of content,
space and time along with other urban systems can reveal qualities of a site that will allow
the designer or stakeholder to evaluate sites and systems. Structural relationships refer to
the organization and physical connections or disconnections of vacant land. On the structural
level, this project considers urban vacant land of two varieties: the single lot, and the vacant
3.6.1 Functional Relationships of Vacant Land
One of the most common functional relationships of vacant land in cities significantly
contributes to its bad reputation among property owners, land developers and city planners.
This relationship exists in the exchange value of vacant lots and their neighboring residential
and commercial properties. The term exchange value refers to the monetary price for which
a piece of land can be bought, sold, or rented (Logan and Molotch 1987). A study of vacant
land in Philadelphia determined that vacant sites caused an 18% reduction in property
values for surrounding lots (Wachter 2005). Bowman and Pagano refer to this process as
the "contagion effect" (2004). According to their research, "vacant land created through
abandonment threatens the value of nearby property. A contagion effect occurs; that is,
a vacant lot in the middle of the block negatively affects the value of adjacent parcels. An
abandoned structure on a corner is similarly dampening, with the effect extending to other
blocks" (128-129) (See Figure 3.9). In Detroit, the effects of the contagion effect are not only
seen in property values but also in vacancy itself. In many neighborhoods, there is evidence
that vacancy has "spread" from lot to lot leaving entire blocks vacant of occupied homes or
businesses (See Figure 3.10).
While the contagion effect describes the functional relationship between vacant land and
occupied properties to determine exchange values, other functional relationships can be
The "Contagion Effect"
revealed by studying the interaction between vacant land elements of content, space and
time and other urban systems. Instead of exchange values, these relationships determine
use values. Use values refer to the ability of a site to provide or enhance access to other
resources, such as transportation, social places, or commercial destinations (Logan and
Molotch 1987). These relationships play a critical role in the evaluation of existing conditions
and future possibilities of vacant sites. Specific examples of how to describe and develop
models for these functional relationships are demonstrated in Chapter Four.
This thesis examines vacant land of two primary structures: the single vacant lot and the
vacant land system. The single vacant lot consists of one property with boundaries. In
Detroit, an example would be a single 30ft by 100ft rectangular residential property. The
structure is bounded and singular, however the functional relationships of single vacant
lot and its environment are dependant on its location within a block. A vacant corner lot is
structurally different than a vacant lot that is interior to a city block; this determines both
the exchange and use values of that lot. Determining the primary, secondary and tertiary
structural relationships can give clues about the possible functional relationships that exist
between a single vacant lot and its surroundings.
An interior lot surrounded by occupied homes has a primary relationship to its four
neighbors (one to the right, one to the left, one across the street and one behind). These
occupied lots are subjected to the aesthetic deterioration of the lot, overgrown vegetation
and possible attraction of unwelcome wildlife, unwelcome activity, and collection of debris.
Because of adjacent proximity to the vacant lot, these materials, activities and visual irritants
can most easily have negative affects16 on these primary relationships. Secondary structural
relationships to the individual vacant lot are subject to these effects, but to a lesser degree.
Without a direct visual relationship or common property boundaries, occupied land with
a secondary relationship to the vacant lot will sense the effects of that lot on broader but
more moderate scale. Tertiary relationships to an individual lot involve the road, street, or
sidewalk the lot faces and those individuals who travel on this thoroughfare. This structural
relationship has an effect on the traveler's perception of the street and can influence
feelings of safety, regularity of travel, and speed at which the road, street, or sidewalk
is travelled upon17. The structural relationships of a single corner lot are similar but the
primary, secondary and tertiary relationships have increased probabilities of affecting other
properties because of its location. See Figure 3.12 to explore these relationships.
In Detroit, the presence of a singular vacant lot in a neighborhood or on a block is less
common. Approximately 32% of land in the city is vacant18. In some neighborhoods,
like the lower east side, entire blocks are vacant (See Figure 3.11). An assessment of
vacancy in Detroit displays a pattern where connections based on primary, secondary and
tertiary structural relationships between and among vacant lots and blocks of vacant lots
are evident. The pattern that emerges is called the vacant land system. The vacant land
system consists of a series of connected vacant lots who function as one unit. This system
is integrated into the urban network
of the city as much as any other urban
system. An urban system is defined
as "a series of elements that can take
alternative states" (Clark 1982, 132). The
elements of the vacant land system are
vacant lots and vacant spaces that take
on and perform a variety of functions
in the urban setting. This ability to
behave in different ways at different
times throughout the city is what allows
for a complexity of "alternative states."
Figure 3.11 Vacant Blocks on the Lower East Side "Although a number of alternative
16 A vacant lot could also have positive effects on a neighborhood. See Chapter 5 for a discussion of
vacant lots that contribute to neighborhood socialization and health.
17 The effects of vacancy on tertiary structural relationships requires further research.
18 This percentage was derived by dividing the approximate 45 square miles of vacant land (Pitera
2010) by the total number of square miles in Detroit, 139, for a percentage of 32.
states are possible, an important characteristic of urban systems, indeed of any system, is
that one set of states... is likely to dominate." (Clark 1982, 132) Discovering the dominant
characteristics or dominant state of a vacant land system provides a basis for design
considerations. These considerations are based on the functional relationships of content,
space and time that integrate the vacant land system with other urban systems such as
transportation, commerce, recreation, industry, service, employment and socio-economics
(Clark 1982). What integrates these various systems are "the linkages between them. It is
the pattern of functional interdependencies which [all systems] make possible" (Clark 1982,
Figure 3.12 Structural Relationships of Vacant Lots
The primary, secondary, and tertiary relationships of vacant lots influence functional
relationships on site.
3.7 Scaling Vacant Land Systems
The structure and function of vacant land systems occur on a range of scales. In Detroit,
the vacant land system operates on a city-wide scale, meaning all the vacant land in
Detroit is structurally and functionally connected to a degree that it affects the city as a
whole. However, to make vacant land manageable and meaningful to their respective
neighborhoods and interested parties, the scale of the vacant land system must
simultaneously react to the interdependencies of urban systems while being restrained
to certain physical boundaries. These physical boundaries provide limits for the study and
analysis of a vacant land system, but it is essential to recognize that design and intervention
of these spaces will affect broader vacant land and other urban systems.
The complexity of the system structure and associated relationships can be described in
terms of hierarchy theory. "A hierarchy is defined as a system of interconnections wherein
the higher levels constrain and control the lower levels to various degrees (Turner 2001,
34). "Each level is composed of subsystems on the next lower level" (Turner 2001, 34).
Additionally, systems that exist on the lower levels build upon each other to represent
the system at a higher level. (See Figure 3.13) This theory allows landscape architects and
planners to recognize that the design of a lower level system has the potential to affect the
larger system. Conversely, designs and restructuring of the larger system will significantly
affect and constrain the possibilities for design of lower level systems.
In Chapter Four, vacant land systems are studied on a four-block scale. This scale allows
for an in-depth study and analysis of the structural and functional relationships operating
in a relatively small urban environment and a confined context. This model and analysis
provide a base for predicting structural and functional relationships of the vacant land
system in a larger neighborhood context. In turn, a model for the neighborhood scale can
predict structural and functional relationships of the vacant land system on a regional scale
within the city. The four-block scale gives the designer, planner or stakeholder the ability
to understand the physical, performative and systemic aspects of vacant land in the city.
Where a lot-by-lot approach cultivates an isolated and extrinsic understanding of vacant
land in a neighborhood, and the regional planning, city-scale approach ignores the "facts on
the ground" and experiential qualities of vacant landscapes, the four-block scale provides a
restrained environment that fosters an understanding of the relationships between multiple
lots in different patterns of distribution and dispersion that is systemic, qualitative and
The purpose for this type of "bottom-up" analysis is to put vacant land systems at the
forefront of shaping cities. Instead of understanding vacant land as reactive to the failure
of other urban systems, these landscapes provide an opportunity to be proactive in altering
and changing how the urban network functions. If the perception about urban vacant land
itself can be altered, then Detroit has a chance to again become a model for rapidly changing
urbanizations in a global and post-colonial world.
Figure 3.13 Hierarchy of Vacant Land Systems in Detroit, Ml.
The complexity of the vacant land system structure and associated relationships can be described in terms of
hierarchy theory.This theory allows landscape architects and planners to recognize that the design of a lower level
system has the potential to affect the larger system. Conversely, designs and restructuring of the larger system
will significantly affect and constrain the possibilities for design of lower level systems.
Top Right Map Credit: Yun, Michael. "Alternative Uses for Vacant Land in Detroit, Michigan." Master's thesis, University of Michigan, 2008.
CHAPTER 4: VACANT LAND, AN URBAN SYSTEM
After a visit to Detroit in 1995, the architect Ignacia Sola-Morales Rubio argued that vacant
lands in the city are "places that are foreign to the urban system, mentally exterior in the
physical interior of the city." (1995, 121) This thesis argues that vacant land is not only not
foreign to the urban system but has a specific and inherent role in the functioning of this
system. Through the exploration of functional and structural relationships in Detroit's urban
network, this chapter models the vacant land system and extracts the key roles this system
plays in the operation of a city. Determining these key roles provides the designer with a
foundation for site evaluation and design questions that ask whether the vacant land system
is working for or against the success of a community, a region, and the city.
4.2 Modeling a Vacant Land System
In order to begin evaluating vacant land sites, the design process begins with the
representational model describing the content, space and time of the site. Noting the
characteristics of structure, vegetation, wildlife, debris, size, shape, sensory factors and
the temporality of the site begins this process. "The aim in modeling an urban system is
to identify the most likely state of the urban assemblage to give information not about
individual elements and links, but about the macroscopic characteristics of the system as
a whole" (Clark 1982, 136-137). As the individual elements of the vacant land system are
modeled, these macroscopic characteristics should take form in the relationship patterns
that emerge within the site. A study of a four-block site in the Brightmoor neighborhood of
Detroit will demonstrate this process.
Site Context: Brightmoor
Brightmoor is a neighborhood of
approximately four square miles located
on the northwest side of Detroit. The
neighborhood was originally developed in
the 1920s for immigrants from the south who
came to Detroit to work in the auto industry.
The developer of Brightmoor, Burt Eddy
Taylor, originally intended the inexpensive,
modest homes in this neighborhood to act as
Figure 4.1 Brightmoor Neighborhood, Detroit
temporary structures that would be rebuilt once the new residents gained a stable income.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression hit in the 1930s and the wood frame houses (some of
which still exist today) became the permanent structures of the neighborhood (Erickson
2007). As is the common story of Detroit neighborhoods, in the 1960s Detroit factory jobs
moved to the suburbs and the families living in Brightmoor followed the jobs to areas
outside Detroit proper. As residents began leaving Brightmoor and factories left Detroit, the
housing values dropped significantly. New landlords purchased houses in the neighborhood
and rented to predominantly low-income residents. In the 1980s, owners of Brightmoor
homes began to abandon their properties and the associated taxes.
In 2010 the population of the Brightmoor neighborhood was down to 1,038 (from 31,288
in 1980) (Hackney and Tanner 2011; Erickson 2007). The area is known for very high crime
rates and fear of crime in the 1990s and 2000s induced another wave of residents leaving
Brightmoor. Between 2004 and 2010 over thirty murders took place in Brightmoor (Hackney
and Tanner 2011). Drug dealers and prostitutes conduct business in the open during the
day. Illegal dumping is a major problem in the area; unwanted debris is left on vacant lots
in the neighborhood giving the area a negative and neglected image. Despite these bleak
characteristics, there is a lot of hope and community spirit in Brightmoor. Neighbors have
partnered with community organizations, churches, schools, universities and city programs
to make their neighborhood a healthy and safe place to live. The efforts and products of
work done in this neighborhood are inspiring and have given a new spirit and pride to the
The study area in Brightmoor is a four-block
site, 22 acres, and bounded by Keeler Street
to the north, Grayfield Street and Chalfonte
Avenue to the south, Bramell Street to the east
and West Parkway Street to the west. Fenkell
Street (also known as 5 Mile Road) runs through
the middle of the site, dividing the blocks so
two rest north of Fenkell and two rest south.
Fenkell is a commercial street with auto body
shops, restaurants, liquor stores and gas stations
operating in this neighborhood. The study site
sits just north of Eliza Howell Park, the city's
fourth largest park with 250 acres, a wide variety
of plant and wildlife and a section of the Rouge
River running through it.
Figure 4.2 Brightmoor Study Site
Developing a model
In order to evaluate current conditions and possible options for the vacant land system
in this site, data was collected to represent the conditions of content, space, and time.
19 For a further discussion of projects in Brightmoor see Chapter Five.
This study used parcel survey maps created by Data Driven Detroit in 2009 to decipher lot
boundaries and map conditions within the system. Because so many lots are vacant in
Detroit, a survey map like this is extremely valuable for this lot-by-lot type of data collection
To determine the size, shape and structure of the system within this site, lots within the
study area are divided into three categories: 1. Occupied: Occupied lots contain a built
structure, which is used for residential or commercial purposes. Occupied lots also refer
to legal occupancy of a residence. An abandoned home used for shelter by squatters is
not considered an occupied lot.21 2. Vacant lot with structure: Vacant lots with structures
are included in the vacant land system to determine future design and uses for the site,
however, lots containing structure require additional attention and consideration in the
evaluation of the site. 3. Vacant lot without structure.
This study area contains 148 lots. Of these lots, 38 are occupied (25.7%), 13 are vacant
with structure (8.8%) and 97 are vacant without structure (65.5%). Information on lots with
structures will be valuable for redesign and construction purposes. For the identification
of the system and its properties, vacant lots with and without structures now fall into one
category of vacant. All vacant lots within the study area are marked. To visually represent
the connections between lots within the study site, lines are drawn to represent primary
structural relationships among vacant lots. Together these two notations make up the
backbone of the vacant land system.
The transition from studying vacant lots to a vacant land system changes the parameters
of content, space, and time of the site. While individual characteristics of a single lot may
present an interesting or unusual feature, the interest is no longer about how that feature
affects the lot, but how that feature represents a function or process that is taking place in
the broader system of the site. Additionally, in conjunction with the elements of content,
space, and time, city systems such as transportation, commerce, and wildlife corridors are
studied in relation to the vacant land system to determine how these forces are interacting
in the urban space.
Studying the presence of debris in the Brightmoor study site can reveal relationships
between debris within the vacant land system and other systems such as human presence,
the flow of material, and neighborhood maintenance. For example, in this vacant land
system, the most significant dumping areas are on corners. This information leads to a
number of questions and deductions. Do system corners allow for an easier deposit of
materials? Corners in this system have road access on two sides, allowing for travelers on
two different roads access to the same dumping site. Also, corners of a system only have two
primary relationships whereas areas in the interior of the system have a possibility of four
primary relationships, increasing the probability that a neighbor would see the dumping of
20 See Appendix D for an example of the parcel survey notations
21 A further study of this kind of occupation could significantly contribute to this design process but
was outside the scope of this study.
the debris and reprimand the dumper. Additionally, the presence of debris within the system
means that both humans and materials are travelling in the system to perform the dumping.
So while the presence of debris has a negative aesthetic quality on the system, it does mean
that people are coming in and out of the system and that it is not barren of human activity.
There is a larger presence of debris in the northern half of the system than in the southern
half. A possible reason for this may be that residents in the southern half perform more
maintenance and clean-up in their neighborhood than residents in the northern half. As
more elements of the system are revealed, the presence of debris will help to illuminate
other activities within the site. Together with these other elements, an understanding of
the operation of the system as a whole will provide a jumping off point to making design
decisions about the system and the neighborhood.
Elements of time or change can be more difficult to map, but are important to
understanding how the system is working and what kind of changes take place within the
system. One element of time to consider is the change in structure presence. In this study,
structures that were present in the summer of 2011 had fallen, were torn down or had been
abandoned by December of 2011. Demolitioned abandoned structures are generally well
received by Brightmoor residents as the structures sometimes provide shelter for illegal
activity (Hackney and Tanner 2011). The removal of these structures signifies positive change
in the neighborhood. Converse to these processes, some lots that had no structures in the
summer, had a structure or the beginnings of a structure by December. This can be another
positive sign for neighborhood development and increased human activity.
Hourly changes in the system can also describe interesting characteristics of the site. While
vacant lots were not studied during non-daylight hours for this thesis, in his book "Relmaging
Detroit," Detroit Free Press writer, John Gallagher, describes how night cameras captured
beaver, red fox and ring-necked pheasants roaming through Detroit lots (2010). This kind of
information describes how different species and non-human activities engage with a vacant
land system throughout the day and seasons.
Studying the ecological systems that operate on the vacant land system can provide a wealth
of design inspiration and problem-solving requirements to inform and guide the design of
a vacant land system. In this thesis the ecological system explored is termed "ecological
opportunity." Map notations for ecological opportunity indicate spaces where succession
has been allowed to advance and vegetation has grown in a way that could provide habitat
and forage for wildlife22. In the Brightmoor study site, ecological opportunity had a strong
relationship to the system of alleys. The alleys in this neighborhood no longer function
for car travel and there is little evidence of human activity. Concrete that once ran along
the floor of the alleyway is no longer visible and vegetation has grown up and through
this system (See Figure 4.3). This information could greatly affect design decisions should
the site move toward the direction of a natural open space park or wildlife area. There
is also the possibility to create corridors for species between this space and Eliza Howell
22 There is an opportunity for further study, mapping specific plant and animal species throughout
vacant land systems. That work is outside the scope of this thesis.
Park. Additionally, the presence of these
ecological opportunities within the
system also gives an indication about soil
conditions and ability of plants to grow in
the environment of this system.
In many sites throughout Detroit
connections between the urban
transportation system and the vacant land
system is very evident. Human pathways,
or "desire lines,"23 cut diagonally across
many vacant lots. In the Brightmoor
study site, these desire lines create short-
cuts to Fenkell Street where commercial
properties and bus stops are located.
This information could help the future
design of pathways or new sidewalks.
Future design plans could take advantage of these desire lines, altering the traditional grid
of sidewalks into a pattern of pathways that are integrated into other uses of the area, like
retail shops and bus stops. As previously discussed, the alleyway within the Brightmoor site
is no longer used for transportation. These alleys provide significant space and corridors that
have the potential to connect vacant land systems, green spaces and other design projects
throughout the city. In addition to these elements of transportation, the more traditional
spaces such as roads and sidewalks and their condition should also be noted within the
vacant land system. In the Brightmoor site, the roads were used for transportation and
parking by remaining neighborhood occupants. Sidewalks on the other hand, were for the
most part unused but not always unmaintained. The majority of people walking in this
neighborhood, do not use sidewalks and instead choose to walk in the street. If sidewalks
in the vacant system become obsolete, perhaps future design strategies will eliminate this
Figure 4.3 Alley in Succession
The alleys in the Brightmoor study site no longer function
for car travel and there is little evidence of human activity.
Concrete that once ran along the floor of the alleyway is no
longer visible and vegetation has grown up and through this
A third major urban system operating in the Brightmoor study site is the economic
system. The economic system is made up of spaces for exchange of both money and social
interaction. Rather than dividing these sites into different categories (such as auto-related
shop, food center, professional service, etc.) for this study, these sites were simply marked
as "destination points" and all destination points exist in the same system. Destination
points are areas of activity, social interaction, and exchange and commerce. In Brightmoor,
destination points ran through the middle of the vacant land system. This system connects
the vacant land system, transportation system and may have connections to certain debris
throughout the neighborhood. Finding the connections and relationships between systems
in sites like this highlights the integration and interdependence of systems within the urban
network. "Cities...happen to be problems in organized complexity...They present situations
in which a half-dozen or even several dozen factors are all varying simultaneously and in
23 State of Illinois. Chicago Area Transportation Study (Springfield, IL: State of Illinois, 1959), 40.
Brightmoor Study Site Analysis
A lot-by-lot survey
Vacant lots with and
without structure make up
the vacant land system.
Vacant land and debris
Vacant land and
Vacant No Structure
Vacant With Structure
Vacant land and desination
Vacant land and ecological
l Auto Route
l Bus Route
Brightmoor Study Site Composite Map
subtly interconnected ways. The same is true of the ...parts or features of cities. Although
the interrelations of their many factors are complex, there is nothing accidental or irrational
about the ways in which these factors affect each other" (Jacobs 1961, 243-4).
Figure 4.4 provides the models for the systems described in this section. Layering these
models in a composite map (Figure 4.5) allows the planner and/or designer to assess and
characterize structural and functional relationships within the system. This process provides
a foundation for site and system evaluation.
4.3 Evaluating Vacant Land Systems
Returning again to Steinitz's framework, evaluation involves questioning the phenomenon:
Does the vacant land system work well? Being able to answer this question determines
whether the designer will make a change within the system. In order to answer "Does
the vacant land system work well?" an evaluation of the relationship patterns among the
relevant urban systems and the vacant land system takes place. This evaluation considers
how the vacant land system interacts with the community, economy and ecology of the
neighborhood. Does the system have positive or negative effects on these aspects of the
It is important to recognize here that "Yes. The vacant land system works." is a viable and
respectable answer to this question. There is a lot vacant land in Detroit that currently
functions as open space, recreation space, community meeting space and garden space.
These systems are "working" for the communities, economies and ecologies of their
neighborhoods but are technically "vacant land." Because of the negative perception of
vacant land systems, these spaces can be easily disregarded or thought to require change,
even when a change to the system is unnecessary. In a city like Detroit, there is a lot of land
and very little money to spend on development. When vacant land systems are positively
affecting their communities, re-development and re-design should be focused in areas
where the systems are negatively
affecting their communities. Vacant
land systems functioning positively
should be allowed to flourish as it
will not only take the burden of bi-
annual maintenance off of the city,
but it actually has the potential to
increase property values, given that
the negative perception of vacant
land in the city also has the potential
to change. In a city like New York or
Chicago, residents will pay extra to
live across the street or near to open
Figure 4.6 Woodbridge Neighborhood, Detroit
space or wildlife areas. Altering how vacant land is seen in Detroit, could allow residents to
also see the benefits of living near these spaces, whether they are technically considered
vacant or not.
Consider a study site in the Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit. This site is comprised
of 22.3 acres, two residential blocks and a large unusually shaped piece of land, which was
formerly the site of a Detroit public school. The site is bound on the north by West Forest
Avenue, on the south by Canfield Street, on the east by Avery Street and on the west by
Grand River Avenue. Rosa Parks Boulevard divides the residential parcels from the former
school site. The models in Figure 4.7 provide an analysis of vacant land and other urban
systems. This analysis makes evident that the relationship between the vacant land system
and ecological opportunities is strong. The vacant land system in this area has allowed for
the beginnings of a wetland to develop in the former school site and wildlife are flourishing
in the successional landscapes of the vacant land system. During a number of visits to this
site, there were sightings of fox, pheasant, a number of bird species and other wildlife more
common to cities such as squirrels and chipmunks roaming throughout the system. Answer
the question "Does the vacant land system work well for the ecology of the area?" The
approximate 16 acres of permeable space will help to filter contaminants of stormwater
and reduce chemical runoff as water makes its way back to the sewers. Wildlife is using this
vacant land system as habitat. Grass, shrubs and other plant species are flourishing in this
vacant land system. For the ecology of the area, the vacant land system is working well.
The Woodbridge neighborhood is just northwest of Downtown Detroit and lies adjacent
to the campus of Wayne State University. The area has an average household income
of $47,186 (compared to an average household income of $17,346 in Brightmoor)
(Data Driven Detroit 2010). Old Victorian homes still exist in the area, having escaped a
number of urban revitalization efforts that took place in adjacent neighborhoods during
the 1960s. A section of Woodbridge (which does not include the study site) was listed on
the National Register of Historic Places in 198024. Within this study site, occupied areas are
well maintained with manicured lawns and very little to no debris is found in the vacant
land system. Ten vacant lots within this system are subjects of side-lot acquisition practices
or what is often referred to as "blotting" (Armborst 2008). This practice involves residents
of occupied lots purchasing or simply maintaining lots adjacent to or across from their own
properties and using these spaces as additional yard space, garden space, or play space. In
the study site this practice has maintained most of the vacant lots on the west face of Avery
There are people not residing in structures who use a section of this system as shelter.
On the former school landscape, burms of approximately 2.5 feet in height exist on the
southeast end of the site. These burms are surrounded by tall and leafy vegetation.
Evidence of sleeping materials, tarp, clothing, shopping carts and suitcases indicated that
this small area within the system was being used as a camping ground for a group of people
without other available shelter.
Woodbridge Study Site Analysis
Blotting practices are common for this
The former DPS site has been divided into a
series of residential parcels all remain vacant.
This site is a central location for many bus
stops, connecting this vacant land system to
a variety of access points and resources.
The transportation systems are woven through the vacant
land system making the site very accessible and visible.
The vacant land system has a significant correlation
to ecological opportunity at the Woodbridge site.
A composite map like this one allows the designer
to visualize system relationships.
"Does this vacant land system work well
for the community?" In the residential
area, it appears that the vacant land
system has allowed for residents to expand
their outdoor spaces and allowed them
to express themselves through gardening
and art work in the their expanded yards
(See Figure 4.8). However, these expanded
spaces require extra maintenance, which
costs time and money they may have
negative effects on the community or
they may not. Regarding the homeless
using the system as shelter, vacant land
shouldn't be the best option for a place to
reside but the circumstances are unknown
Figure 4.8 "Blotting" Practices at the Study Site
A number of Woodbridge residents have taken over
maintenance of adjacent lots, expanding their own
and homelessness is a reality of the city. If the system acts as a safe haven for this small
group, it may provide a temporary option in the face of less safe shelters. If it fosters
harm or illegal activity, the effects on the community as a whole could be negative. There
is also a possibility that residents of this community would be opposed to the presence of
homeless persons squatting on properties adjacent to their own. The dynamics of public
perception of the homeless community are outside the realm of this thesis but these kinds
of topics provide considerations for the evaluation of this site. Considering the benefits
community members receive from the expanded yard, garden and play spaces, along with
the benefits of living near a developing wetland or open space area, a surface evaluation of
the community and the vacant land system would conclude that this system is working well
for the community.
The largest portion of the vacant land system (68%) in this study site is owned by Detroit
Public Schools. The city of Detroit owns the second largest portion (approximately 21%).
Currently these properties generate no profit for the community, the neighborhood, or the
city. The required bi-annual maintenance of the vacant land within this system costs the city
money. "Is the vacant land system working well for the economy?" No, this system is not
working well for the economy. The former DPS property of this system sits directly on Grand
River, a major avenue that is directly connected to downtown. The west side of the property
provides a skyline view of downtown. The Woodbridge neighborhood is located next to
Midtown, a neighborhood gaining recognition in recent years for economic improvements in
multi-purpose development. This large space has the potential to be developed into a form
of commercial or retail development, but would this be the best use?
Evaluating how the vacant land system is working with the ecology, community and the
economy of a place leads to the person working with this system to make a decision about
the future of the site: A change needs to take place or a change is not necessary. Envisioning
possible impacts this change or no change would have on the system will guide not only if a
change should take place, but also what that change might look like.
4.4 Impact of Changing or Not Changing the Vacant Land System
While it is impossible to know the future, it is possible to predict a variety of outcomes that
could result from implementing a change or no change into a system. Some designers and
theorists, James Corner and Alan Berger for example, apply the term "adaptable" to systemic
design ideals (Berger 2009). In terms of this kind of systemic thinking, adapting means
reacting to a change by modifying current operations in order to fit new circumstances.
When considering the impact of altering a system, it is important to recognize and
appreciate the complexity and interconnectedness of these systems. A small change in the
vacant land system will affect not only the vacant land system within a neighborhood but
could potentially affect (either positively, negatively or both) the transportation system, the
ecological system, the system of commerce, the social system, the political system, the food
system and/or the communication system operating in the same area at the same time.
In this project, all systems operate within the urban network. This network connects all
systems through both structural and functional relationships across the city. This means
that a change taking place in one system in one neighborhood on the east side of the city
has the potential to affect and/or contribute to a change across the city on the west side.
The relationships holding the network together transfer information and actions from and to
each system and as a result, the network as a whole "adapts" to the change.
Consider the following example: Since 2004 a piece of vacant land on Cass Avenue just
south of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Detroit was being used as a community garden.
As a community garden, this piece of vacant land interacted with food systems, social
systems, communications systems and ecological systems in a positive manner. While the
garden grew, so did the popularity of Cass Avenue. With the reactivation of the Midtown
neighborhood in recent years, a number of retail stores, small shops and restaurants began
to pop up on the street. Next door to the garden a small business opened its doors. This
business grew successful and by the summer of 2011, found it needed more room to expand
its business. Because the adjacent community garden was operating on a city-owned vacant
lot, after some debate, the city agreed to sell the garden's lot to the business owner. The
operators of the community garden chose to end production that season. In the scope of
the whole city, this small alteration to a single lot could seem insignificant. However, that
change could have serious impacts both positively and negatively throughout the system and
the city-wide urban network.
Groups of people depending on the food from that garden no longer have access to fresh
produce in that location. This information will change the transportation system to acquire
food, the economic system of their new resource for acquiring food, and possibly the health
care and economic system should they require medical attention for lack of nutrition. The
removal of the community garden could alter community and personal relationships and
the system of social interaction will be altered. Birds and other animals who interacted with
the garden space will have to find other sources for food, altering the ecological system.
People who used to visit and work in the garden may have been customers at local shops in
the neighborhood. Taking away the garden would affect the economy of these shops but
would enhance the economy of the new shops these people will visit to acquire their goods.
Conversely, the expansion of the business into the garden site will affect the economy of this
region by providing new tax revenue and allowing for more clientele: new groups of people
developing transportation systems and contributing to the social system of the area. It could
also alter the vacant land system of the area, possibly encouraging more businesses to
develop vacant lots in the city.
The results from this one change in the vacant land system have the potential to impact
a number of systems in the region and the city. Developing and questioning all of these
outcomes can be overwhelming but it is important to explore these relationships before
making a design decision or taking action. The adaptability of city systems means that the
systems will always react to change regardless of which systems suffer or succeed. With so
many possibilities for affecting the urban network, the designer must organize and prioritize
these impacts in order to develop a responsible and successful decision about the vacant
land system and its future.
4.5 Decisions and Decision-Making:
Using the Method to Determine Design Solutions
Considering all the impacts the possibilities for positive and/or negative effects that would
result from changing the vacant land system leads to a decision. This decision will answer
the question: Should a vacant land system be changed? In this thesis, the decision is made
by the landscape architect, urban designer, architect, planner, or stakeholder but this is
not to say that other "form-givers" such as industrial firms, city bureaus, utility companies,
developers and investors will not have an influence on the decision during the real-world
application of this process (Lynch 1981). Once the form-giver determines whether or not
the vacant land system should be changed, a second pass through the method will help to
determine what this change might be, what it might look like and what or whom it might
involve (Steinitz 1990).
Going back through the method, the possible impacts of changes or lack of changes go
under evaluation to determine if a change will work well or have a positive effect on the
community, ecology and/or economy of the site. This leads to questioning process: how
will this change work? What are the functional relationships? What are the structural
relationships? Predicting these relationships narrows down possible options for
representation: what are the elements of content, space, and time of this change?
Going through the steps of this method a first time is about gathering information and
analyzing the vacant land system under consideration. Reversing the method uses
information gathered in the first round to guide possibilities for change responsibly by
weighing a variety of delicate factors that affect city life. Steinitz recommends a third pass
through the method in order to test best possible changes or solutions discovered during
the second pass. Determining the elements of content, space, and time allows the decision-
maker to test how it works: How will this change be used? How will it be perceived? How
long will it operate? Understanding how this change would work allows the decision-maker
to evaluate these processes by testing whether they will work well for the community,
ecology and/or economy of the site. This step requires prioritizing values and allows design
solutions to be tested for their "fit" into a site (Lynch 1981). If the evaluation finds that the
change does not work well, the change may need to be disregarded or altered at a prior level
(Steinitz 1990). If the change does work well for the community, ecology and/or economy,
what will the impacts of this change be? How will these impacts be measured? Who or what
the impact is testing? If the impacts are positive, a final, responsible and best possible design
decision has been reached.
This process is very involved, requires time and resources, and may not produce easy
solutions. What it will produce however, are design decisions about vacant land systems in
cities that consider not only how the system is related to and affects other urban factors,
but also how it will impact spaces at numerous scales and work towards a healthy urban
Alan Berger and the designer and writer, Lars Lerup, argue that the city is a living, breathing
dynamic system. Along these lines, they suggest that the presence of vacant land in the city
is part of a healthy life cycle that takes place as the city evolves (Berger 2006). While thinking
about urban vacant land as a phenomenon and all that that implies can provide endless
theories about the complex dynamics of urban form, the reality of the situation in Detroit is
that vacant land is causing problems for people. If cities are not built for people, for whom
are they built?
The problems that have resulted from vacant land systems in Detroit are part perception and
part poor decision-making by planners, designers, city government and Detroit residents.
These problems are not a result of chance or bad luck. The function of these systems and
the impacts they have on the urban network are based on other city systems adapting to the
constantly evolving conditions of the "breathing" city. The goal of developing and using this
process to study and design vacant land is to make cities better for people. Weighing, testing
and prioritizing the various conditions that affect these people should be done because
people deserve healthy environments, where their community, economy and ecology are
always striving to perform at highest capacity.
The following chapter reviews a number of strategic design approaches and a tactical
systemic design project that were developed to also reach this goal. The strategies studied
for this thesis use a top-down approach to address the issue of urban vacant land on a city-
wide scale. The systemic tactical project described in the thesis uses a bottom-up approach
to tackle vacant land at a neighborhood-level scale. Chapter Five describes how systemic
tactical projects have the greatest potential for positively impacting community, ecology and
economy and allowing urban systems to achieve success at higher levels.
CHAPTER 5: MAKING A CHANGE: STRATEGIES & TACTICS
Detroit is not the only city feeling the effects of vacant land systems. Approximately 15%
of the average large city's landmass is vacant (Bowman and Pagano 2004). Post-industrial
cities along the American "Rust Belt" have been undergoing similar experiences as their
populations continue to decrease and land is abandoned by former residents, business
owners and manufacturing agencies. These cities have recognized that the existence of
vacant land in their borders has been producing negative effects in the urban network.
As a result, a number of city agencies, non-profit groups, community groups, academics
and even federal agencies have taken an interest in finding solutions for this nation-wide
These solutions come in the form of two different kinds of approaches for designing vacant
land in cities: the strategic approach and the tactical approach. In terms of scale, strategic
approaches address vacant land from a top-down, broad-scale perspective (De Certeau
1984). The strategy assumes that planning for the larger system will allow the smaller
systems to follow suit and will therefore have the greatest (positive) impact throughout a
city. Perhaps unrecognized is the reverse condition: that a strategic approach that produces
a negative impact will also produce negative impacts throughout the smaller systems.25 The
top-down characteristics of strategies also refer to the systems of power involved. Strategic
approaches offer designs that affect constituents other than the decision-makers (De
Certeau 1984). Conversely, the tactical approach uses those constituents as the main source
for both decision-making and design implementation (De Certeau 1984). Tactics work from
the bottom-up, developing designs that are implemented at the finer scales. An advantage
of the tactical approach is that because it may only affect smaller urban areas, it can be
experimental, adaptable, temporary or evolutionary. While small tactical changes have the
potential to impact other systems in the urban network (both positively and negatively),
unlike the strategic approach, their impact will not produce the same impact throughout the
This first half of this chapter outlines a few of the strategic efforts and publications put
forth by groups studying and trying to work with vacant landscapes. The second half of this
chapter turns to a grass-roots tactical project in Detroit that has taken on the challenge of
designing vacant land systems.
25 Refer to Section 3.7 for a discussion of scale and hierarchy of vacant land systems.
5.2 Strategic Approaches for Designing Urban Vacant Land
As the topic of vacant lands in post-industrial cities has received increased media attention
over the past decade, the fields of landscape architecture and urban design have attempted
to address potential uses and designs for the future of these spaces. In their book, Terra
Incognita: Vacant Land and Urban Strategies (2004), Bowman and Pagano discuss how
governmental policies and actions are constrained by three imperatives of vacant land: fiscal
(a need to generate revenue and make the city's financial position strong), social (need to
create stable, safe neighborhoods and protect property values) and developmental (need
to strengthen the economic life of the city). Pagano and Bowman have collaborated on a
number of projects since the 1990s studying the origination, processes, and consequences
of vacant land in urban areas. This book serves as a cumulative resource of their work and
addresses how city policies and government actions have the power to make significant
impacts in vacant land use and re-use on a city-wide scale. Concurring with the Brookings
Institute and CEOs for Cities, Bowman and Pagano promote a series of "action steps" for
converting vacant land systems into valuable areas for cities:
Know your territory.
Develop a citywide approach to redevelopment
Implement neighborhood plans in partnership with community stakeholders.
Make government effective.
Create a legal framework for sound redevelopment
Create marketable opportunities
Build on natural and historic assets
Be sensitive to gentrification and relocation issues.
Organize for success.
(Brophy and Vey 2002)
While these action steps are quite obviously "easier said than done," they do provide some guidelines for cities looking to work with vacant land and change its value and productivity.
In response to a report published in 2009 highlighting the discrepancy between city and
county efforts towards vacant land revitalization (Kildee et al. 2009), the city of Youngstown,
Ohio has begun to take significant strides towards completing the action steps laid out by
the Brookings Institute and CEOs for Cities. In 2010, the city worked with Mahoning Valley
Organizing Collaborative, The Center for Urban and Regional Studies and Youngstown State
University to perform a comprehensive vacant land survey (The Mahoning Valley Organizing
Collaborative 2011). The city will use the results of this survey to apply strategic efforts
towards the revitalization of targeted areas in Youngstown. Using community organizations
and grass-roots programs as significant resources in these targeted areas, the strategy
outlined in this report aims to: 1. change or "fix" zoning code enforcements; 2. develop
community engagement and partnership opportunities; 3. establish a county land bank; and
4. create an online database to keep record and register vacant properties (The Mahoning
Valley Organizing Collaborative 2011).
In Detroit, a group called the Community Development Advocates of Detroit developed a
city-wide "strategic framework" that addresses the specific needs of various neighborhood
typologies (2011). The goal of these typologies is to direct the future design and use of
focused areas in the city that meet a set of criteria based on current conditions. This
strategic framework helps to organize neighborhoods and their vacant land without
discounting the low-density areas within the city. While this program provides a set of
ideal future conditions for each typology, it does not address specific design ideas or
Looking at more design-focused strategies, Joseph Schilling and Jonathan Logan promote
the idea of "green infrastructure" to deal with the growing number of vacant lands in cities
(2008). They assert that "the regeneration of vacant properties for new parks, community
gardens, restored habitat, flood mitigation, storm water treatment sites, and urban
agriculture plots" has the potential to promote public heath, increase property values and
create new "green-collar jobs" (2008, 454).
Specifically to Detroit, a group known as the Committee for Urban Thinking: Detroit
published a book called "Stalking Detroit" (2001). This book is composed of essays,
photographs and design programs, which offer critical studies of the histories and potentials
of vacant land in Detroit. Although the design proposals prove to be intriguing and
possibly useful, there were very limited considerations for how these proposals would
affect the other urban systems that operate within the city. For the post-industrial city,
design strategies are needed that not only take advantage of the new "green" technologies
mentioned by Schilling and Logan to improve the ecologies of a city, but also consider the
sites as places that interact with and depend on their surrounding ecologies, economies and
While a number of U.S. cities and city organizations have begun to develop these strategy
programs, there has not been a program encountered during this study that had yet
accomplished the transition from conceptual strategy to actual implemented design program
for either neighborhood-focused or city-wide vacant land systems in the manner laid out in
the various strategy publications. Once these programs are capable of producing results in
the landscapes of their respective cities, a wealth of new information and success or failure
analyses should be produced to better prepare and inform other cities trying to manage and
design vacant land systems with a strategic approach.
5.3 The Brightmoor Farmway:
A Tactical Approach for Designing Vacant Land Systems
In order to understand how a design tactic developed specifically for a vacant land system
(as opposed to an individual lot) operates and what it might look like, this section reviews
one project currently active in Detroit. This project uses the ecological, social and
economic systems operating in its surrounding areas to inform the structural and functional
relationships of the project. In addition to these systems, which have a more traditional
basis in the urban network (Clark 1986), this project has also engaged the internet through
websites, blogs and social networking to enhance visibility, promote projects, garner
volunteers and engage others involved with community and design projects in the city26.
The Brightmoor Farm way
The Brightmoor Farmway addresses vacant land and abandoned structures in a twenty-
block target area in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit27. The project was developed
by Brightmoor residents who formed an organization in 2009 called Neighbors Building
Brightmoor. This organization works with a variety of groups including Brightmoor residents,
church groups, school groups, and a number of volunteer groups who in a relatively short
period of time have transformed a vacant land system into a garden system, a play system, a
food system, a social system and an art system.
The Farmway consists of over 20 transformed vacant lots and additional lots owned by
neighborhood residents. The system includes urban agriculture including fruit trees;
children's and youth gardens; farm space for chickens, bees, rabbits and goats; play spaces
and structures, prayer gardens, contemplation areas, seating, pathways, seasonal flowering
plants, painted murals, playhouses, play structures, rain catchment systems, outdoor
kitchens, outdoor classrooms and open, visible sites. The Farmway is used by neighbors
old and young and organized social groups. Additionally, the Farmway has received a lot of
media attention over the past year, bringing people from other neighborhoods in the city,
people from outside the city and even people from outside Michigan to visit and contribute
to the project.
The Brightmoor Farmway has a number of significant design elements that contribute to its
overall aesthetic and user-friendly quality. A standout element in the design of the Farmway
is the bright color palette used in its various garden and art components. The colors chosen
for these spaces give the neighborhood a vibrant look that attracts the eye (see Figure 5.2).
The Brightmoor study site described in section 4.2 is only two blocks from the Brightmoor
Farmwav and it is shocking to discover how significantly color affects the perception of safety
26 While the study of Internet use and social networking in the realm of vacant land system design is
outside the scope of this thesis, it is acknowledged here to promote future research of this "virtual"
27 Refer to section 4.2 for background information on Brightmoor.
in this area. Another design element used in these spaces is signage. Most spaces along
the Farmway have a painted sign, naming the space and giving ownership to those who
worked on building the site and those who use it (see Figure 5.3). Signage also provides the
neighborhood with a platform to promote community events and Farmway activities. A third
design element includes strategically placed trash and recycling barrels along with signs that
indicate "No Dumping!" (see Figure 5.4). As described in section 4.2, the presence of debris
in this neighborhood is significantly linked to degradation of the neighborhood aesthetic and
negative perceptions of safety. These barrels and signage help to keep the newly designed
spaces free from debris and contribute to the new feelings of pride expressed by Brightmoor
residents (Kalish 1999). Running through the Farmway lies a path made of woodchips. This
path keeps users from walking in the street, which (as described in section 4.2) was the most
common path for pedestrians. The path also links the spaces together creating a unified
feeling amongst the gardens as well as links the Farmway to both the Eliza Howell Park and
an adjacent project called the Lyndon Greenway (see Figure 5.5). These common elements
in all sites along the Farmway help to give an identity to the project, add to perceptions of
safety, unite the sites and increase the aesthetic quality of the neighborhood.
The design process for the Brightmoor Farmway is based on community engagement.
Neighbors Building Brightmoor work with a number of organizations, including Greening
of Detroit to talk about project elements, acquiring plants and materials, and developing
site layout and aesthetic. Youth groups such as the Brightmoor Youth Development
Collaboration at Detroit Community High School engage other community members for
design ideas based on the needs and wants for a specific site. When a site is ready for design
implementation, a group of volunteers performs clean-up of debris and waste material, and
clears overgrown vegetation. Then the planting, building and painting is performed. Usually
these projects involve a large number of volunteers and can be implemented in as quickly as
In addition to the many amenities the Farmway provides for the community, children and
teenagers in the neighborhood have the opportunity to work on Farmway, planting, weeding
and harvesting produce which is then sold at local Farmer's Markets and the Grown in
Detroit farmers' market cooperative stand. This kind of opportunity not only contributes to
the larger economic system of the neighborhood and the city, but gives these kids invaluable
lessons on responsibility, healthy eating, leadership and group work.
As an example of how designing for vacant land systems has a greater impact than designing
single vacant lots, this project demonstrates that not only is it possible, but that it can be
very successful in changing some negative aspects of vacant land into productive, useful
and beautiful places in the city. The Brightmoor Farmway has significantly altered the social,
economic and ecological systems of its target site. Because the Farmway is designed as a
system, it has the potential to continue growing throughout the neighborhood and could
spread these positive impacts across a much larger region.
Figure 5.1 The Brightmoor Farmway
The Farmway consists of over 20 transformed vacant lots and additional lots owned by neighborhood
residents. The system includes urban agriculture including fruit trees; children's and youth gardens;
farm space for chickens, bees, rabbits and goats; play spaces and structures, prayer gardens,
contemplation areas, seating, pathways, seasonal flowering plants, painted murals, playhouses, play
structures, rain catchment systems, outdoor kitchens, outdoor classrooms and open, visible sites.
E____- .... mjii
Figure 5.2 Bright Colors on the Farmway
The colors chosen for these spaces give the
neighborhood a vibrant and cared-for aesthetic.
Figure 5.3 Farmway Signage
Signs along the Farmway give spaces an identity
and communicate neighborhood activities and
Figure 5.4 Keeping the Farmway Clean
Strategically placed trash and recycling barrels
keep the Farm way free from debris and foster
Figure 5.5 Defined Paths
Farmway paths invite community members
to engage with spaces as well as connect lots
within the system.
CHAPTER 6: CONCLUSION
6.1 Closing Discussion
In 2010, John Gallagher of the Detroit Free Press wrote, "nobody trains to deal with the
emptiness other than by filling it with traditional development housing, retail space,
industrial parks but that kind of development is inadequate to deal with the scope of
Detroit's prairies." The intention of this thesis is to give landscape architects, designers,
planners and those working with vacant land in cities a new way of thinking about, studying
and designing urban vacant land that goes beyond traditional development techniques and
takes advantage of current uses, conditions and processes that vacant land systems reveal.
The systemic approach described in this project is suggested for the design of vacant land in
cities like Detroit, not only because it does factor many variables and city conditions into the
design process, but also because it has the potential to affect much larger communities and
regions than the traditional development techniques Gallagher describes.
To work with, design, plan and productively use vacant landscapes this thesis recommends
that decision-makers describe vacant land in terms of its biotic and abiotic materials
(content), its size, shape and structure (space) and its temporality and changing cycles
(time). Consistently using these three elements as key descriptors for site analysis and
design will allow those working with vacant landscapes to speak a common language and
effectively communicate their ideas about these spaces. Additionally, decision-makers need
to shift their perspective about vacant land, moving from ideas about an overwhelming
number of individual vacant lots to a concept of workable, flexible and adaptable systems
that function as a unit in conjunction with other city systems in the urban network. Lastly,
following the altered Steinitz method that uses representation, process, evaluation, impact
and decision as key steps in the analysis and design of vacant land systems has the potential
to create useful, productive design approaches that respond and are responsible to the
communities and cities for which they are designed.
Another goal of this thesis is to change the negative perception of vacant land in cities. For
so long in planning, development and design of cities, vacant land has taken on a position
of "the antispace" (Tranick 1986). It has been considered an undesirable element that has
no function, no possible productivity, and a lack of interaction with human groups. The
study and analysis of vacant land in this project proves that this notion simply isn't true.
Throughout the development of this thesis, I have been resistant to employing the term
"vacant." Vacant means:
1. Not occupied by an incumbent, possessor or officer
2. being without content or occupant
3. free from activity or work
4. devoid of thought, reflection, or expression
5. not lived in
6. not put to use
According to the research and analysis of vacant land performed during this study, none of
these definitions support what is considered "vacant" land in Detroit. While volunteering
during the summer of 2011 at an urban farm in Detroit, I spoke with a woman living in the
same East-side neighborhood as the farm and told her about my project. In the description
of my work, I used the term "vacant land." This woman became very offended and informed
me that she was the "wildlife captain" on her block and it was her job to monitor the kinds
of animal and bird species she saw in her neighborhood. Because these animals live in and
on "vacant" properties, she argued that these spaces weren't vacant at all28. In the same
vein, during an interview with the Program Manager of the same urban farm, when asked to
define vacant land, this program manager made the comment that he found the term vacant
"offensive and anthropocentric."29
I used the word vacant in this thesis because I want the project to be searchable and
relatable to other research in the design fields. However, to advance the thinking about
urban systems and the qualities of these spaces I believe we need a new term. I suggest the
term: malleable landscapes. The term should have the capacity to capture the importance
these spaces hold in the urban network and should be free of negative connotation. The
word malleable means:
1. capable of being extended or shaped
2 a. capable of being altered or controlled by outside forces
b. having a capacity for adaptive change
A malleable landscape is capable of changing shape, it can be altered by outside forces or
systems, and it has the capacity to adapt to changing systems. A malleable landscape can be
shaped and molded into an infinite number of possibilities. This term describes the "vacant"
land systems I studied in Detroit.
28 Interview with urban farm volunteer, July 16, 2011.
29 Interview with urban farm program manager, July 16, 2011.
6.2 Future Research
"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing" Socrates
In the development of this study, it was difficult to choose aspects about vacant (or
malleable) landscapes to focus the research. There is much unknown and undocumented
about how vacant land and vacant land systems operate in cities. While Alan Berger's work
with Drosscapes (2006) begins to map and question these kinds of landscapes and Ann
Bowman and Michael Pagano (2004) have made valiant strides in quantifying and defining
these urban spaces, there is still a lot of work to be done. Fortunately for the field of
landscape architecture, these landscapes will continue to develop as city systems evolve in
United States and abroad.
Throughout the project, footnotes have signaled areas of study regarding vacant land
systems that were beyond the scope of this project but could provide opportunities for
future research. These include but certainly are not limited to:
Successional patterns of vacant land in cities and their associated plant and animal
Potential of vacant land to perform critical infrastructure functions
The perception of vacant land in cities across different cultural groups, sexes and age
The change in perception of vacant land over time
Effects of vacancy on tertiary relationships to passer-bys
What constitutes the "occupied" for abandoned structures
The use of internet and social networking for vacant land system design (the virtual
It is my intention to continue to pursue this area of study in the coming years and
throughout my career. I have a particular interest in how the negative perception of vacant
land has evolved and how it might continue to evolve in the future as I believe a change in
perception is truly the first step to making impactful change in the vacant land of our cities.
APPENDIX A: URBAN VACANT LAND CHARACTERISTICS
This list of characteristics represents a compilation of field notes taken during the
summer of 2011.
no structure present
visible maintenance (grass is mowed, sidewalks are intact)
no visible maintenance (grass is not mowed, sidewalks have disintegrated)
visible succession taking place
presence of wildlife
bird nest/broken bird egg shells
desire line(s)/ human-created paths
presence of debris
functioning commercial property
religious gathering space
non-profit gathering space
day-only shelter, no beds
APPENDIX B: MAP FIELDBOOK
As I moved through the city during the summer of 2011, the Rand McNally Detroit Metro Streetguide
(2008) allowed me to navigate the city and mark significant landscapes. I also used these maps to
make notes, draw in design strategy locations, and mark where I had been.
APPENDIX C : INTERVIEW PROTOCOL
INTERVIEW: NAME INTERVIEW #1 27 JULY 2011
Thank you for meeting with me. Let me start by telling you a little about my
research. I am a graduated student studying Landscape Architecture at the
University of Colorado in Denver. I am in Detroit this summer conducting
research for my Masters thesis. The thesis studies how different design
strategies are and can be used on vacant land in post-industrial cities to alter
social and economic interactions with landscapes.
While Im here I am trying to create a typology of vacant land in Detroit that
considers not only typical factors such as shape, size, and former use but also a
sites adjacencies and any possible interactions that may take place on a site that
is traditionally considered vacant.
The other piece of fieldwork that Im doing while in town is visiting and
documenting formerly vacant sites where design strategies have been already
been implemented and I will try to determine how successfully they are
impacting the surrounding environments (but Im still trying to determine how
to analyze factors of success).
In addition to this, Im meeting with some people in the city who either have
worked with the design of vacant land, have participated in a vacant land design
program (such as Greening of Detroit), work for the city, or have a vested interest
in the success of the future of the city.
I have a series of 12 main questions with follow-ups, I would like to be able to go
over each question but I promise to complete this session within the next hour,
so lets get started!
ORGANIZATION & FUNDING OF THE ORGANIZATION NAME
1. Could you please tell me a little about how ORGANIZATION NAME is
organized? Do you have any interaction with city government organizations?
2. How is your group funded?
3. How many volunteers would you estimate work with your organization?
PROJECTS & COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT
4. Do you work throughout the city or are there certain neighborhoods
where youve been concentrating your efforts? (How did you choose those
5. Could you tell me about the methods or programs that your organization uses
to engage community members into making decisions and taking action about
6. Do you ever encounter resistance from community members regarding your
URBAN VACANT LAND
7. Part of my project is coming up with a comprehensive definition of vacant
land that will allow cities, states and federal agencies to all communicate about
these kinds of properties on the same level.
Since you sometimes work with these types of lands, how would you define
vacant land in Detroit?
For example, the city of Detroit includes city, county or state owned properties
that do not contain any structures as "vacant land."
Do you consider privately owned abandoned properties to be vacant? Why or
8. Are the properties you work with usually owned by the city or private holders?
9. How do you choose sites for development/revitalization? Is there a set of
10. What do you think are the greatest challenges to developing or redeveloping
vacant land? What do you do in cases where ownership of a property is very
difficult to uncover?
11. In your experience, what do you think are the greatest benefits to
redeveloping vacant land?
12. Has the Detroit Vacant Property Registration ordinance been useful?
(Registration ordinance requires owners of UVLs (from individuals to lenders) to
register with the city for $25 per structural annually)
IF THERE IS TIME... just out of curiousity...
12. What is your favorite project that youve worked on for the ORGANIZATION
13. If you could build anything in the city of Detroit, what would you want to
APPENDIX D: DETROIT PARCEL SURVEY NOTATION
Be2rLDr?r: 1 -lted * fcur-block study
Phase of ecological succession these maosaZ,PHmpf Unumamtained and in a ^cond
of lots per block and allowed * ^ *
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r r-1-- i11 s;11; i s :iis! i'li i *, *11; i 9 1 j | 1 | ill,i ijl!s 1! i ;ll i i 1 i'f - T i T : a 1 a a1 si VlV!
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JETROIT PARCEL SURVEY
Map of Census Block 5219002050'
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iTROIT PARCEL SURVEY
Map of Census Block 5205001000
1MSD7lf>68nsus Block 5205001000
APPENDIX E : DETROIT PARCEL SURVEY SPREADSHEET EXAMPLE
This spreadsheet was developed to work in conjunction with the Detroit Parcel Survey maps,
providing space for futher notation on lot-specific characteristics.
APPENDIX F : CARL STEINITZ ORIGNIAL FRAMEWORK (1990)
Carl Steinitz's framework for landscape theory serve as a basis for the method of analysis and design
for vacant land systems described in this thesis.
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