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Land Lab Aims To Find New Use for Vacant Lots

If you live in any big city in the Midwest, and St. Louis in particular, you’re probably all too familiar with the site of vacant, empty land where homes and businesses used to be. 

This issue of vacant land in an otherwise urban environment presents tough challenges for cities.  This weekend ground will be broken on several projects which aim to change the way neighborhoods and cities deal with vacant property.

Credit Washington University Land Lab

The Washington University Sustainable Land Lab Competition chose 5 winning designs from 48 design submissions.  Phil Valko is the lab’s director and when you walk into his office the first thing you see is a giant property map tacked to his wall.

“So, we’re looking at a map of the City of St. Louis,” says Valko gesturing to the wall.  “This map is showing vacant land in the city, so much so that it almost seems that the dominant land use in the northern part of the city is vacancy.”

Beyond Cutting Grass

The City of St. Louis spends upwards of $200,000 per year just to mow the grass on the 10,000 properties owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). Another 10,000 vacant parcels are still in private ownership.  The idea behind the land lab is to rethink the possibilities for this land, in lieu of new buildings.

“Are there innovations, are there ideas, using a modest amount of money, that could have a different, or better outcome than simply cutting grass?” says Valko.

When trying to wrap your head around a city like St. Louis, or Detroit, or Youngstown, Ohio, most people are touched by a kind of melancholy sadness, a sense of loss for once-great metropolis that has fallen on hard times. 

Sean Thomas, of St. Louis’ Old North Restoration Group says people need to get past that sadness, because these cities will never look like they did before, and that’s okay.

“I would say 30 years ago people would say this neighborhood [Old North] didn’t have a future at all," Thomas says. "20 years ago people probably would have said that and maybe even some 10 years ago.”

A Testing Ground

In recent years however Old North has become kind of famous in urban planning circles as a testing ground for new ideas in urban redevelopment.

One of those ideas is an empty lot between two brick storefronts. 

“There will be tables with chessboards engraved onto them, and we’ll have chess pieces in our office across the street here for people to check out,” says Thomas.

“The hope is this will become a gathering place for people who care about chess and want to learn how to play chess.”

The “chess pocket park” will become the first outdoor chess park in the city, and will even feature monthly lessons from a chess grand master.

“This project here with the Land Lab is exciting because it’s focusing on a really important community resource and that’s the people,” says Mike Wilmering, of the St. Louis Chess Club, which is co-sponsoring the design. It’s going to provide a space for people to come together, to learn, to share the love of a game that’s 1,500 years old.”

Through the competition, the hope is that the Land Lab with create a toolkit of basic projects that could be easily replicated, and at minimal cost, throughout the city. 

Other winning designs also include a restaurant made out of empty shipping containers, a giant solar calendar, even a field of sunflowers.  Each team will receive seed money totaling $5,000 in addition to whatever money they can raise on their own.

Several blocks away an empty lot will soon be planted in with sunflowers in the spring and summer, and then winter wheat in the fall.

“Imagining this place that we’re standing in six-foot tall sunflowers is a nice thought for me right now,” says Don Koster, one of co-designers of the Sunflower+ Project.

In addition to being pretty to look at, sunflowers are also good at filtering contaminated soils, particularly lead.  It’s a classic low lost, no risk, high upside scenario.

And the worst thing that could happen would be that this lot eventually just goes back to being a vacant lot.

Well…hopefully it goes back to being a vacant lot with better soil quality,” corrects Koster.

Continuing To Try

And while some of these ideas may seem…what’s the word?  Pollyannaish?  Cities need new options for vacant land, and we won’t know what works until we try.

“You’re not going to put a wind farm in every neighborhood, or whatever it might be,” says City of St. Louis Sustainability Director Catherine Werner.

Werner says she hopes the four projects create enough interest and enthusiasm that the city can quickly replicate and expand the experiment to other parts of St. Louis.

“You know, we have 20,000 or so vacant properties, 10,000 of which are owned by the city, 8,000 of those are vacant land.  I don’t think we have any choice but to think that’s what our future will be.”

Werner says projects like the Land Lab are a perfect way to see what works, what doesn’t and then share that information with other cities. If that can happen, cities like St. Louis help create a new kind of urban landscape, unlike anything our rustbelt forebears ever imagined.

Follow Adam Allington on Twitter:  @aallington