Genesee County, MI – Low Maintenance Greening

Project Overview:

Not only can neglected urban lots be eyesores that depress neighboring property values and hinder economic development initiatives, they can also cost municipalities money. When vacant and blighted properties revert to public ownership, the maintenance responsibilities—including providing fences, boarding windows, mowing grass, and even pest control—and their costs become the city’s responsibility. These costs can be staggering; in 2010, maintenance of vacant public lots cost the City of Philadelphia $20 million.

In 2013, the Genesee County (MI) Land Bank received a $15,000 grant to pilot a cost-effective solution to both the beautification and maintenance concerns surrounding publicly owned vacant lots in the City of Flint. Like many other Rust Belt cities, Flint has seen its economy and population collapse since World War II. Among a host of other issues, these declines have severely depressed Flint’s real estate market, precluding many of the nation’s contemporary best practices in vacant land reuse. While many larger cities aim to transition vacant lots to productive uses like urban agriculture, green infrastructure, or recreational green space, Flint’s demographic challenges require different kinds of interventions.

With foreclosures mounting and the municipal budget dwindling in the shrinking city, the Land Bank, who owns more than 5,000 vacant lots, is opting to replace the sprawling, quick-growing, and labor intensive plant species that cover vacant lots with less demanding varieties like clover. At 10-12 inches tall, native white clover grows less aggressively than do more common grasses and weeds, resulting in cheaper, less frequent maintenance for the Land Bank and city. The Land Bank anticipates that clover lots will only have to be mown semi-annually. While white clover’s roots are persistent enough to suppress weed growth, they are shallow enough to be easily removed when lots are ready for redevelopment. Finally, in addition to providing forage for wildlife, clover’s nitrogen fixing capabilities mean that the crop can actually improve soil conditions on vacant properties where structural demolition has introduced contaminants into the ground.

Still in its initial pilot phase, the sheer amount of vacant properties in Flint mean that wider application remains a challenge. Indeed, officials acknowledge that a more universal implementation “would require a significant amount of funds over a number of years.” However, the Land Bank is optimistic that, should the clover approach to vacant lot management prove successful, the long-term savings will justify the upfront costs of adopting the practice citywide.

Project Highlights:

Environment:

Clover is an excellent nitrogen fixer, improving conditions in soil compromised by demolition and years of neglect.

Community:

The manicured, low-growing profile of clover lots mitigates negative visual impact of blight. Improved soil can make vacant lots more attractive and functional for future community uses such as agriculture.

Economic Advantage:

Low-cost intervention frees up precious public resources for spending in other areas. Improved appearance of urban fabric helps maintain property values and facilitates economic investment.

Implementation and Funding:

The Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network, a regional economic development community organization that supports a variety of projects related to agriculture, wildlife stewardship, water resources, and land use,  provided $15,000 to support an initial pilot program.

Lessons Learned:

While there are countless examples of innovative adaptive reuses for vacant urban land, not all approaches are appropriate in every community. In some places, vacancy is an opportunity for interactive reuse like urban agriculture and environmental education. In others, like Flint, the economic, demographic, or even physical climate might not be appropriate for these kinds of high-maintenance uses. This kind of intervention is successful in Michigan, where plant growth is curtailed by long, cold winters that naturally keep overgrowth under control and maintenance costs low. However, Flint’s clover strategy would be more difficult (and potentially impossible) in a more tropical climate like New Orleans’, where warm, humid conditions facilitate more aggressive vegetative growth. Ultimately, the takeaway from this project is that strategies for targeting blight on vacant publicly owned parcels need to be sensitive and responsive to the community context.

Resources:

Vacant Land Management in Philadelphia: The Cost of the Current System and the Benefits of Reform
Genesee County Land Bank gets $15k grant to plant low-maintenance clover at vacant lots in Flint
Center For Community Progress

Research supported by a grant from the Kresge Foundation