Restoring Vacant Lots
Individuals in underserved, urban communities face physical, psychological, and financial barriers to connecting with nature and are therefore prevented from reaping the benefits a healthy environment can provide them. Physical barriers include lack of sidewalks, transportation, and lack of access to green spaces. Psychological barriers include concerns for safety and comfort and negative attitudes and stigmas towards the outdoors. Financial barriers include lack of investment for programming utilizing their green spaces and maintenance of these green spaces, leading to an accumulation of litter and illegal dumping. Meanwhile, there are an estimated 5,000 vacant lots, with 13,000 more vacant single-family homes, in Kansas City, Mo. that contribute to blight, concerns for health and physical safety, and lead to diminished quality of life for residents. The loss in revenue from vacant property is projected to be $33.6 million annually, which increases as police respond to the increased crime which develops around vacant properties. The majority of these vacant lots are located in low-income urban areas of Kansas City, Mo.
Vacant lots drive down property value and are eyesores in underserved communities, but if restored, they have the potential to connect people to nature and provide benefits to the community. Research has shown that exposure to nature can have exceedingly positive effects on individuals. Biodiversity has been seen to improve immune system function (Rook, 2013) and provide other physical and mental health benefits, as well as increase quality of life and provide economic stability. Exposure to nature, even through a window, has been seen to relieve stress, reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, increase speed of recovery after surgery, and increase satisfaction with one’s job, home, and life (Maller et al., 2006; Rook, 2013). Proximity to green spaces has been seen to reduce negative health inequalities imposed by poverty, lead to increased physical activity, and improve physiological and psychological health more than other places where you might do physical activity (Mitchell and Popham, 2008; Rook, 2013). Natural areas can also foster social interactions that lead to community development and are a free, easily equitable resource that can be used as a preventative or restorative asset to improve mental and physical health. Additionally, when individuals are connected to nature, they are invested in protecting it. When the environment is protected, the community benefits from improved ecosystem services that provide clean air and water, and provide habitat for wildlife.
Urban residents are disconnected from nature compared to rural residents and with the population expected to be 65% urban by 2030, the problem will only grow (Charles and Louv, 2008). Meanwhile, mental illness, especially depression, is expected to keep rising and account for 15% of global disease by 2020 (Maller et al., 2006). Additionally, 42% of the US population is expected to experience obesity by 2030. Obesity is inversely related to the prevalence of natural amenities in a community (Slack et al., 2014). Furthermore, the food deserts throughout Kansas City and the affordable nature of unhealthy foods likely contributes to the rise in obesity and diabetes by 22% and 25%, respectively, between 2004 and 2011 (Margolies, 2015). One cost-effective strategy to improving community mental and physical health is thusly an investment in the protection and connection to nature.
Grant Purpose Statement
This grant will fund the Vacant Lot Restoration Project in the Blue River watershed, restoring vacant lots in low-income communities as green spaces or green infrastructure installations through direct conservation and stewardship training of community residents. The Green Guard Stewardship Program fosters individual local identity and teaches participants why and how to care for their environment. Conservation will aid the environment by improving air and water quality, providing wildlife habitat and plant biodiversity, and preventing flooding. This will in turn indirectly aid communities by helping reduce the number of crimes, blight, property damage by flooding, and by directly providing a healthy environment to increase physical activity, healthy eating habits, and mental refuge. Furthermore, the Green Guard Stewardship Program will ensure restored vacant lots are maintained to be loved and utilized by all. This program needs to be implemented over two years to create a database and ensure that there is a lasting impact on the four communities that we identify. Furthermore, we need to ensure that other communities not identified in this first year have the opportunity and access to the resources we develop.
In the first year of the Vacant Lot Restoration Project we will identify vacant lots in the watershed in Kansas City, Mo. that if restored and managed will meet criteria based on community need and interest, including safety, beautification, revitalization and health. We will create a map of those lots. Based on site visits, GIS mapping, demographic analysis, and community outreach, we will determine the three most critical lots to restore and conserve. This is incorporated into our Blue River Action Plan that strategically focuses our work on high conservation priorities in the Blue River watershed. This project connects community needs to restoring natural areas through outreach and engagement. The Green Guard Stewardship Program serves low-income urban neighborhoods that have limited resources, such as access to quality parks, libraries, large grocery stores, health clinics and accredited schools. We will prioritize lots in neighborhoods that have a high percentage of households living below the poverty level, high unemployment rates, and low high school graduation rates. Lot restoration projects will be visible on an online, public database. The Vacant Lot Restoration Coordinator will maintain this database as the projects progress and new neighborhoods are identified as critical areas for investment. The on-the-ground site assessment of vacant lots, the creation of this database, and a long-term plan for each site will be undertaken by a full-time Vacant Lot Project Manager in year one using the Guidebook for Infill Lot Improvement Strategies created by our partners at Vireo, DRAW Architecture + Urban Design LLC, and the City of Kansas City, Mo. We will develop a tool kit that describes how we conducted our analysis and provides step-by-step guidance for prioritizing parcels. By actively sharing the tool kit and lessons learned with others in the community, we will discover and remove barriers to protecting more urban land in our city. Each project will come with an investment of conservation and our Green Guard Stewardship Program for three consecutive years.
Working in parallel with the Vacant Lot Project Manager will be the Education and Outreach Coordinator who will train up to 20 community members in four different communities each year. This full-time staff member will be skilled in community engagement and building relationships with stakeholder. In the first year, the Education and Outreach Coordinator will work with the Vacant Lot Project Manager to conduct initial community outreach, but will otherwise maintain the Green Guard Stewardship Program in four neighborhoods where HCA has established a partnership this past year. The Coordinator works with identified community leaders to tailor training to address community needs. Thus far we have utilized existing projects to implement our Green Guard Stewardship Program. This grant will allow us to identify and connect communities to nature that are not yet addressing health. In year two, the Education and Outreach Coordinator will be immersed into the three new communities identified through analysis described above by the Vacant Lot Project Manager and hold three community workshops to address the needs, wants, and resources of each community. At these workshops, we will educate at least 10 community members and our partners on watershed, health and stewardship so we can work together to develop a site-specific plan for long-term stewardship of the site beyond HCA’s involvement. An important part of the training includes capacity building, for example teaching how to organize a community workday. In the vacant lots chosen we will employ green infrastructure or Low-Impact Development as well as train a group of community members to be stewards of their newly accessible, safe, healthy asset. These community members will have attended the three community workshops and will come from diverse backgrounds and age groups. We will coordinate and hold community restoration workdays in addition to the Green Guard Stewardship classes to reach more of the community. We will actively explore opportunities to hire members from the community to assist with all of this work.
By taking the first step to convert vacant lands into protected natural areas and usable community spaces, this project supports at least ten community priorities including: reducing neighborhood blight (Neighborhoods and Housing Services Consolidated Action Plan, 2013) and illegal dumping (Long-Term Solid Waste Strategic Management Plan, 2007); moving properties from the City ownership to productive use (Land Bank, 2012); reducing stormwater runoff (Combined Sewer Overflow Plan, 2011); reduce flooding (Water Services Department and US Army Corps of Engineers); building economic opportunities in underserved neighborhoods (FOCUS 1997 Comprehensive Plan); creating greenways and connectivity (MetroGreen, 2005); improving neighborhood health (Building a Healthier Jackson County, 2012); managing public land (Kansas City Parks & Recreation); and improving and increasing access to healthy food (Food Policy Coalition of Greater Kansas City). We will work to connect these lands and build a network of greenways providing urban open space, recreational areas, improving community health and attracting economic development for our region. We will partner with HUD, Land Bank, UNI, and healthy agencies such as Truman Medical Center, to create holistically healthy communities.
Furthermore, Heartland Conservation Alliance has established a Policy Work Group that is developing strategies and policy recommendations to protect nature in urban areas, and establish a financial structure through incentives and taxes to restore vacant lots long-term. This strategy will be replicable over hundreds of parcels, providing long-term protection of urban water quality and restoring natural resources for community benefit, while strengthening community connections with natural areas.
Amount of Funding
We are requesting $200,000 from the Health Care Foundation, with additional support of $50,000 being sought from the Shumaker Family Foundation and $25,000 in funding provided by our current Environmental Protection Agency grant. We will use this grant to hire two full-time project managers, implement four Green Guard Stewardship Programs each year in four different neighborhoods and implement three community workshops in each neighborhood the second year. The Vacant Lot Project Manager will conduct vacant lot assessment in the first year, the creation and maintenance of a vacant lot database and be the lead on all conservation work over both years. The Education and Outreach Coordinator will lead the Green Guard Stewardship Program, plan and implement community workdays, and provide extensive community engagement. The Education and Outreach Coordinator will also incur expenses for marketing and promoting the Green Guard classes, community workshops, and community work days. This grant will fund Green Guard Stewardship Program expenses including refreshments for classes, stipends for stewards that complete their training, stipends for teachers that work at nonprofits, transportation to the site that they will be restoring, and program materials. Expenses within the community workshops include refreshments, a trip to a successful example of the amenity they want in their neighborhood, educational materials, and a facilitator for each workshop.
In order for this program to have a lasting impact we need to equip each community with the resources to continue stewardship on their restored lot. These funds will also provide communities with their own tool shed for future maintenance.