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Restoring Vacant Lots for Healthier Neighborhoods

By Jill Erickson

Carl Stafford, founder MY REGION WINS! (pictured far left) hosts a Conservation Work Group meeting at Boon Area #1, a vacant lot he is re-purposing. Photo by Natasha Karsk.

According to data from Mid-America Regional Council, there are 38,456 vacant lots In Jackson County, Mo., representing 26% of the county’s footprint. Since 2014, Heartland Conservation Alliance has been working with a broad group of partners to make the Blue River healthier by cleaning up and restoring some of this unused land in the middle and lower areas of the watershed. This work has been supported by the Environmental Protection Agency Urban Waters program and the Health Forward Foundation Healthy Communities Grant Program.

Restoring Vacant Lots is a four-phased program developed to apply strategic analysis of land in the Blue River Watershed in order to identify unused properties that can be re-purposed by surrounding communities for improved community and environmental health. Criteria for selecting the properties was developed with ongoing input from neighborhoods, urban planners, city staff and conservation experts. Properties score higher when they meet the criteria including: floodplain location, ecological value, farmland soils, KC Land Bank ownership, food desert location, located in an area of high poverty, park desert location, areas with significant slope and close proximity to a stream.

Last summer, with funding from Health Forward Foundation, Heartland Conservation Alliance awarded contracts to three new partners to engage neighborhoods in restoring more land: MY REGION WINS!, Clement Waters and Heart of the City Neighborhood.

Carl Stafford, founder of MY REGION WINS!, led workshops and events for community members to learn about his project on the west side of Kansas City, Mo. Fifth Council District. He worked with team members to create maps and analyze vacant land near Boon Area #1 located at 3400 East 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO. He is working closely with the KC Land Bank to acquire a second property.

Kathy Persley (pictured far right) leads a discussion with her team at a workshop hosted by the Center for Neighborhoods where community leaders learned about the Vacant Lot Mapping Tool.

Kathy Persley, President of Heart of the City Neighborhood, led a neighborhood team to design a community garden, Dunbar Farms, located at 5601 East 36th Terrace, Kansas City, MO. They held community-led design meetings, training workshops, and workdays. When COVID shut down the city, Persley pivoted to work with KC Acts and provided food for neighborhood residents and created a compost program that employed area youth and provided resources for the farm.

Joy Ellsworth, Director of Clement Waters, led a series of meetings and outreach events to engage a wider circle of neighborhoods and individuals looking for positive ways to revitalize places where they live.

Joy Ellsworth (pictured far right) assists with a neighborhood clean up of a vacant lot in Lykins Neighborhood.

Through this program 136 community members have been introduced to the Restoring Vacant Lots Tool Kit and 180 community members have participated in meetings and conversations about the vacant lots affecting their community. There have been 19 partnering organizations working with the program, including seven elected officials.

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