Public Works: Filling Vacant Lots With Neighbourhood Projects
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Public Works: Filling Vacant Lots With Neighbourhood Projects

What Toronto can learn from the Detroit community's makeover of abandoned properties.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

The winners of Detroit Future City’s mini-grants pose for a photo before heading out to better their communities. Courtesy Detroit Future City.

Given the high value of real estate in Toronto these days, it might seem ludicrous to abandon property. But, within the city and beyond its borders, it can be a common occurrence.

This phenomenon has been especially visible in Detroit. In fact, we’ve written in this space before about the city’s plague of abandoned property.

There, it was enough of a problem that the White House commissioned a special Detroit Blight Removal Task Force in 2013 to help the Motor City deal with its disused land.

Obama’s people partnered with local property tracker Loveland Technologies, and in the winter of 2013-14, they ran a survey of Detroit that found 50,000 properties—about 13 per cent of all Detroit’s properties— were abandoned. Another 10,000 were deemed likely unoccupied.

Loveland’s interactive, crowdsourced map of properties around the city shows the abandonment numbers have stayed fairly stagnant in the intervening years.

But now the Detroit Future City Implementation Office (DFC) is writing cheques to people with plans to fill some of Motown’s vacant lots.

The non-profit is working closely with the City of Detroit to execute an overhaul of local economy, land use, neighbourhood building, and more. Basically, it’s a “make Detroit better” organization.

As a means to that end, DFC has issued “mini grants” of $3,500 to 15 groups or individuals who will use the money to put an empty Detroit lot to use. Another $12,500 is earmarked to help the projects down the road.

Winners include a local community group, the North Rosedale Civic Association, who are planning to build a butterfly meadow; a collective of female filmmakers who are going to build an amphitheatre-style venue for monthly movie screenings; and a resident who has designed a public garden to act as a veterans’ memorial.

And while it is hard to imagine vacant lots in Toronto—at least, in the downtown core where land is even more expensive than cauliflower—some properties do get left behind. They’re not necessarily vacant, but they are certainly unused.

The phenomenon became something of a hot topic last summer, when both CBC and Global News ran investigations into Toronto’s abandoned homes.

There’s even a website dedicated to compiling a list of abandoned properties and demolished buildings around Toronto and other Ontario locales, because the Internet really does have something for everyone.

We do not, thank goodness, have the same runaway number of vacant lots as Detroit. But we do have spaces that need to be put to use. And while the DFC-funded plans may not be flashy or big or complex, they are a step in the right direction—a step by residents to make their communities a little better and, by extension, make their city better, too.