Apr 20, 2022
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April 20, 2022

Vacant lots are a Great Opportunity to Improve the Environment

Earth Day is a reminder that we all have a role to take care of and repair our planet. It’s the only one we have. In honor of Earth Day, we are sharing 7 things people can do to honor Earth Day now and everyday.

1. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle: We can reduce the quantity of resources we consume and reduce waste by reusing and recycling: carry reusable bags for shopping, use reusable water bottles instead of single use plastics, and pack food in reusable containers.

2. Repurpose: buildings consume a huge quantity of resources, so repurposing buildings can cut down on consumption of building materials and the flow of materials into the waste stream. Where retrofitting and repurposing is not feasible, build efficiently concerning the use of land, materials, and energy.

3. Conserve Water: Water is a precious resource we can conserve by fixing leaks, taking shorter baths and showers, and turning off the tap when brushing our teeth. We can also reuse “grey” water and disconnect downspouts to let water naturally absorb into the ground instead of into our sewers.

4. Plant Trees: Trees are essential. They absorb carbon dioxide, release oxygen, provide cooling shade, and beautify neighborhoods. Tree planting – in our own backyards or by supporting community efforts to plant trees on a vacant lot, is a great way to celebrate Earth Day.

5. Reduce Energy Consumption: We can reduce our energy consumption by installing or purchasing energy from solar and wind power suppliers, using energy-efficient appliances, and reducing energy consumption overall.

6. Community Clean Ups: We can organize clean-up activities in our communities to pick up and recycle litter and debris in parks, along beaches and rivers, or in the shared spaces or vacant lots right in our own neighborhoods.

7. Appreciate Nature: Take a walk! We can appreciate nature by unplugging from our devices and spending time outdoors. You don’t need a national park to take a hike; walk in your own neighborhood and take in the trees and wildlife all around us.

Earth Day is one day, but to make real progress in repairing the damage caused by human activity, we need 365 Earth Days a year! Get involved in environmental campaigns and support your local organizations that help to beautify and revitalize your community spaces with projects that also help our environment.

(Japanese Cherry Trees like this one decorate many a front yard and the National Mall in Washington, DC)

Revitalization Ideas for Vacant Lots: Plant an Urban Forest

A tree’s contented solitude is one of the things we find appealing about planting trees as a strategy for reusing or improving vacant lots and land.

“Reuse” in this context means taking land once used for one purpose and repurposing it for something new and different. Imagine, for example, a parcel that had a house. The house became dilapidated and had to be condemned and torn down, leaving a vacant lot in its wake. Given the cost of construction, sales prices, and market demand, it may be unlikely for someone to build a new house on the lot. Many cities and towns have vacant lots like this and it’s a major challenge. So how can trees help?

Trees are a passive form of reuse, as compared to a lawn that needs to be cut every couple of weeks, a labor-intensive community garden, or building permanent infrastructure such as a new pocket park. Certainly, the returns you can get from a garden or park are different from a stand of trees, but for cities with tighter budget constraints they can be the perfect option.

Consider community gardens, which are often promoted for reuse of vacant lots. A garden is labor-intensive, requires extensive planning and in some cases, security and monitoring to get it going and keep it going. Those are the negatives. The upside is that a garden is often a great vehicle for community revitalization and empowerment. They become sources of community pride and serve as neighborhood anchors. If programmed, they offer a place to teach and learn about plants and planting, food nutrition, and much more. These positive returns are well worth the investment on the front end.

The Benefits of Trees

A formerly vacant lot planted with trees offers a similar type of positive return as community gardens. Whether because trees grow more slowly or require less human interaction, we don’t hear nearly as often about planting an urban forest. But a lot planted with a tree or several strategically placed trees offers wonderful benefits.

Their shade offers a place to hold small community meetings and gatherings. If they are smaller trees, kids can climb in them and play around them. Several lots in a neighborhood planted with trees can be used for community education or walks, hosting place-making opportunities, or other community-building activities. Trees also clean the air of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, help clean and anchor the soil, absorb water that might otherwise flood nearby properties, and supply shade that keeps homes cooler in the summer.

Lastly, compare a lot with a tree to a vacant lot with grass. Someone needs to cut the grass every couple of weeks or it can become overgrown. If a lot is not fenced, people might park or abandon cars on it. Vacant lots often attract trash and debris, as a magnet attracts iron shavings. A vacant lot is cheap on the front end, but not without real costs.

Time to Get Planting!

People working in a community garden.

Planting trees can be a fun community revitalization activity or spring cleaning event, and earth-friendly holidays like Earth Day and Arbor Day are also great opportunities to find people looking to volunteer for this kind of work. Plan an event, connect with interested community members, and start planting!

Your efforts to revitalize neighborhoods will be appreciated. So let’s hear it for the humble tree!