“What’s in a fence? More than you’d think. In neighborhoods where as little as about $1,000 was spent transforming a vacant lot with some grass, a few trees, and a short wooden fence, people felt less depressed and less worthless.”
~ Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan
In contrast to the suburbs or ex-burbs, urban areas are often relatively sad-seeming and devoid of greenery. Concrete and asphalt can be the dominant physical features — along with cars and traffic. Unused lots can exacerbate the depressing spectacle with trash, debris and sickly-looking weeds. In Philadelphia, a non-profit organization has taken on the task of adopting vacant lots and transforming them into what are essentially pocket parks.
Adding vegetation into urban areas has been proven to reduce air and water pollution, and improve health and aesthetics. The beauty of a pocket park is that major investment is not required.
Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan reported on a new study documenting another benefit of the projects in Philadelphia: “a cause and effect between access to “greened” vacant lots and improved mental health … Their research paints a vivid picture of how our neighborhoods impact our well-being and provides new evidence for why cities should be investing in low-cost but high-impact design interventions like lot greening in blighted neighborhoods.” Essentially, the small green spaces contributed to reduced neighborhood violence and stress.
The Philadelphia group “clears away trash, razes the ground, plants some grass and maybe a couple trees, and then adds a low wooden fence, which seems to visually symbolize that the space as cared-for and invested-in.” They don’t add benches or swing sets, but just the presence of the green space seems to have a stabilizing effect in the neighborhood. Direct use of the site is not required to achieve the calming benefit.
Other cities are addressing vacant lot problems, as well. Campbell-Dollaghan notes that, “Chicago has a program that lets residents buy vacant lots near their homes for $1. The program has seen more than 1,200 lots sold since 2014, many to residents who say they were already caring for the vacant lots before they bought them and many of which serve as ad hoc parklands, gardens, or event spaces.” Groups in Detroit are working to establish urban gardens where fresh fruits and vegetables can be provided to the community.
Across the country, people are using tactical urbanism to address neighborhood problems, like vacant lots, crumbling infrastructure and crime. Basically, people just try to work with others to solve their neighborhood problems or find ways to improve things. A creekside trail where I often walk has intermittent plantings of daffodils, not sanctioned, but just the excess from someone’s flower garden.
Our neighborhood once worked with the city to donate trees to be planted in an adjacent empty lot. The owner agreed to the efforts and a local earth moving contractor voluntarily smoothed out the terrain. Residents purchased trees through a city program or transplanted trees from their properties. Several dozen trees were planted and later, volunteers built paths. A few years after that, the city purchased the property and made it into an official park.
Neighborhoods are made up of neighbors. The amenities make neighborhoods work better, but they can only contribute so much to making a neighborhood. “Good fences make good neighbors”; but not if they become walls. People support the neighborhood concept by their daily actions. They say hello or stop and chat; maybe just get to know their neighbors a little. They care for their property, and often help others care for theirs. Common areas are tended, or whatever government officials are involved are contacted and pressured to do so.
In other words, people are involved in their neighborhoods; they don’t just exist there. That’s part of the complication of neighborhoods with lots of short term residents — like near college campuses, or areas with primarily business and commercial activities. People aren’t there enough to create commonality, so the space seems empty.
Good neighborhoods are made up of good neighbors. Give it a try; maybe we could all use less violence and stress.
Eillie Anzilotti, Cities Should Think About Trees as Public Health Infrastructure, October 2, 2017, Fast Company
Jake Bullinger, Land Conservancies Enter Unfamiliar Territory: The City, March 21, 2018, City Lab
Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, The Case for Building $1,500 Parks, 07.25.18, Fast Company
Devita Davison, How Urban Agriculture is Transforming Detroit, April 2017, TEDTalks
Steve Tarlton, Writes of Nature:
Anna’s Friends, 9/28/17
The Plot Thickens, 4/05/18
Blue Space, Green Space, 8/02/18
Guerilla Tactics. 9/06/18