Planning Magazine

Chicago Is Eliminating Urban Vacancies by Empowering Residents

Chicago's Large Lots Program has been selling vacant public land to local homeowners since 2015. A new study looks at how and why it's working.

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Chicago’s Large Lots Program fulfills both personal and community goals on the city’s South and West sides, areas with high vacancy and decades of disinvestment. Photo by USDA Forest Service.

The residential landscape of neatly maintained homes on tree-lined streets figures highly in the American imagination. Such neighborhoods command high property values and have strong quality-of-life indicators.

But in many postindustrial U.S. cities, neighborhoods like this are a distant memory. Decades of systemic disinvestment and racism have led to depopulation, blight, and high land vacancy. For cities, this creates significant maintenance costs and decreased tax revenues, while residents face a dissolving social fabric, higher crime rates, and declining health outcomes.

Planners have responded to these issues with programs to green or repurpose publicly owned vacant land. In Philadelphia and Baltimore, vacant lots are "cleaned and greened" through lease agreements with the city or nonprofits retaining ownership. While these efforts have provided a range of municipal and resident benefits, they require constant investment and oversight.

Our recent article, "Transferring Vacant Lots to Private Ownership Improves Care and Empowers Residents: Evidence from Chicago," in the Journal of the American Planning Association, examines a different approach to greening vacant lots: returning vacant public land to resident ownership.

Programs that transfer vacant public land to private ownership have several advantages for cities. In addition to greening lots, they put property back on the tax rolls and shift maintenance to new owners. While critics argue that such initiatives can spur land speculation, checks and balances can ensure benefits favor long-time neighborhood residents. For example, a program can restrict vacant-land sales to nearby property owners or require residents to maintain their prospective lot for two years before purchasing it.

Our research focused on Chicago's Large Lots Program, which transfers city-owned vacant lots to property owners on the city's South and West sides, areas characterized by high vacancy, large shares of low-income Black residents, and decades of disinvestment.

Managed by Chicago's Department of Planning and Development, the program began transferring lots in early 2015, with successive annual rounds of sales through 2019. Property owners can purchase one or two city-owned vacant residential lots on their block or an adjacent block for $1 each.

New owners must maintain the lot, pay property taxes, fence the lot if not directly side-adjacent to their property, and hold onto the property for five years to limit speculation. Building on Large Lots parcels is allowed, but most owners have maintained them as private or shared space with gardens, trees, and use areas.

A formerly grass-covered lot has been converted to a private garden with a surrounding fence. Photos by USDA Forest Service.

A formerly grass-covered lot has been converted to a private garden with a surrounding fence. Photos by USDA Forest Service.

Vacant lots purchased for $1 have mostly been maintained as private or shared spaces rather than used for development.

Vacant lots purchased for $1 have mostly been maintained as private or shared spaces rather than used for development.

The data behind Chicago's Large Lots program offers five important insights for planners and policy makers grappling with urban vacancy:

1. Ownership improves vacant-lot condition and care, and sustains it over time

Large Lots exhibited a significant increase in condition-care in the first year after purchase. Improvements continued over the next four years. During this same time, unsold city-owned lots saw a slight decline in condition-care. The continued improvement shows promise that the program will be sustainable over the years. The findings support the inclusion of side-yard programs in medium-term planning efforts seeking to revitalize marginalized communities.

2. Owners needn't live on the block for the program to be effective

The Large Lots Program sells vacant land to property owners who do and don't live on the block. Condition-care was similar for both. Planners working on vacant land in other jurisdictions could evaluate residents' needs when defining eligibility criteria for ownership-based vacant-lot programs.

3. Ownership empowers local communities to encourage desirable and limit undesirable behaviors

Participants in focus groups stated that owning Large Lots gave them control over vacant land to deter illicit and dangerous behaviors like fly dumping, driving cars through vacant lots, and selling drugs. Conversely, ownership promoted positive behaviors through neighborhood gatherings, play spaces for children, and vegetable gardens.

4. Ownership fosters an ethic of care

Residents also mentioned that, through ownership, they were able to express an ethic of care for their lots to beautify and create tranquil places. This ethic of care extended beyond their lots, with visible change and outdoor activities communicating broader positive neighborhood transformation. This suggests side-yard programs empower lot owners to become catalysts for broader community changes. Cities can enhance these positive intentions by providing financial incentives and educational resources for resident-owners to create community-oriented spaces on their vacant lots.

5. Ownership promotes family legacy

Residents reported that vacant-lot ownership through the Large Lots Program enabled them to continue a tradition of land tenure in their communities. Although other families abandoned the neighborhood, those who stayed behind were purposeful about their attachment to their neighborhood and were committed to their local family history. To enhance family legacy in majority-Black neighborhoods, planners working on side-yard programs where lots receive multiple applications could consider prioritizing sales to property owners who have lived in the neighborhood for several years.

Vacant-lot greening programs that transfer public land to private ownership can be part of the urban vacancy solution. These programs might be particularly appealing for planners because they require few resources to implement and can be self-sustaining. Initiatives like the Large Lots Program also hold potential to empower people to see themselves at the center of neighborhood transformation.

Alessandro Rigolon is an assistant professor and Debolina Banerjee is a PhD candidate, both in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah. Paul Gobster is a senior research landscape architect in the Northern Research Station of the USDA Forest Service. Sara Hadavi is an assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional & Community Planning at Kansas State University. William Stewart is a professor in the Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.