Written by Emily Torres and Laney Rupp, MPH.
As MI-YVPC’s core project enters its final year in this grant cycle, our partners gathered in Michigan to share, learn, and discuss next steps.
The three-day Learning Exchange included time in Flint, Ann Arbor, and Detroit for presentations, tours, brainstorming sessions, and networking. The overall goals of the Learning Exchange were to share research highlights and best practices, build organizational capacity and inform future products to support organizations across the U.S to scale up their vacant property work.
Partners from the University of Michigan, Rutgers University, Genesee County Land Bank, Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, and the Center for Community Progress attended the Learning Exchange. This provided a unique occasion for practitioners and researchers to come together to discuss next steps. Woven through the three days were opportunities to reflect and expand on new research findings, including preliminary results from our National Survey on Greening. Common themes that emerged throughout the exchange were the necessity of resident-engaged greening, proactive dumping prevention, sustainable funding, and political will.
Supporting Resident Care of Vacant Lots in Flint
Our first stop was Flint, Michigan where we witnessed some of the impressive work that is possible when resident care for their neighborhoods is supported. The Genesee County Land Bank’s Clean and Green Program funds community groups to care for vacant lots through a competitive application. Program organizers work to ensure their groups operate with a great deal of trust and autonomy. The groups are the decision-makers who choose what lots to mow and to what extent, within established parameters. On our tour, we spoke with community leaders of two Clean and Green groups.
Power of One – Fight Against Blight
We caught up with Clarence Campbell mid-mow as his team, Power of One was clearing one of the 160 lots they mow every three weeks. In addition to mowing these lots, Power of One boards windows on vacant homes and helped to create a pocket park in the neighborhood. Nearby residents recognize and appreciate their group. While not all neighbors have formally joined the group, Campbell noted that neighbors feel a greater sense of ownership and are more likely to respond when they witness negative behaviors like illegal dumping. Campbell strives to engage youth in Power of One through summer jobs. He says it’s hard work, but it’s a good first job and most of the youth enjoy having a little money in their pockets. Ultimately though, it is about more than the money for Power of One. Campbell says, “[You must have] a real desire to clean up and have your heart in it.”
Northern High School Class of 1977
At Flint’s Hardenbrook Park, we met up with three community leaders from Northern High School Class of 1977, who have been caring for the park for years. The classmates adopted the park because they remembered how important it was to them growing up and wanted to continue that tradition. With the support of a stipend from Clean and Green, they maintain the park and about 100 properties directly surrounding it. People in the neighborhood have come to depend on them and know they can call them if something is wrong. The classmates shared that this work is a big commitment, “We drive by this park every day.” But the commitment is paying off. The group recently received a grant to install a new baseball diamond and pavilion. Now, there is a youth baseball league that plays in the city for the first time in many years. The residents, especially youth, feel a sense of ownership over the park and have come to understand that this is their neighborhood and they can do their part to take care of it.
Brainstorming a Shared Challenge: Illegal Dumping
The learning exchange also afforded opportunities to discuss shared challenges, including the issue of illegal dumping. The Center for Community Progress led our partners in a collective brainstorm about the type of waste, location, and sources of dumping. Partners in all three cities face the perception that dumping is acceptable and the challenge of enforcing illegal dumping penalties when opportunities to dump abound but offenders face few consequences. Partners shared their current approaches to dumping prevention and response including reporting apps, cameras, signage, and barriers to prevent access to repeat dumping sites. Camden partners also detailed plans for a new project funded by the Bloomberg Foundation to address illegal dumping through 6 public art installations. They don’t expect the issues of illegal dumping to go away overnight, but the goal of this new grant is to communicate positive ownership and investment to change perceptions and ultimately change behaviors. While partners see the value of these approaches, they also highlighted the need for concerted enforcement campaigns that target repeat offenders, including commercial businesses.
Envisioning the Possibilities
We wrapped up the learning exchange with a guided tour of vacant land reuse options in Detroit. We hopped on locally-owned Detroit Bus Company for a whirlwind tour of vacant lot re-use across the city, guided by the Center for Community Progress. The tour highlighted a range of creative approaches to repurposing vacant spaces across the city, from outdoor exercise pods constructed on neighborhood running loops to green stormwater infrastructure and decorative lawn posts to prevent dumping.
Throughout the Learning Exchange, our partners at Genesee County Land Bank, Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, and Cooper’s Ferry Partnership helped re-frame and remind our research team of the larger narrative of vacant lot care. It’s critical to support the work of residents who care for vacant property and to find ways to respond to illegal dumping at the programmatic level. At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the need for more political will and funding to invest in and sustain resident engagement and enforcement at scale.
We want to extend a big thank you to all our partners who hosted and attended the Learning Exchange. We learned a great deal about vacant lot care practices and how we, as researchers can meaningfully contribute to this work. Stay tuned in the year ahead as we continue these conversations and develop resources that document best practices for vacant property care across the U.S and support others to scale up this important work.
Find out more about our partners who participated in the Learning Exchange: