Vacant Lots Are Hazardous to Your Health
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Vacant lots aren’t just eyesores — they contribute to overall poor health in low-income neighborhoods. Could a Zillow for vacant lots be the key to community transformation?
By Melissa Pandika
With the closest park more than 10 miles away, 70-year-old Esther Glaze stays fit with daily walks through her rough South Central Los Angeles neighborhood. Along the way, her head swims from the odors wafting from auto body shops and recycling facilities. She traverses multiple car lots. “Just to do a five-mile walk in the neighborhood, it’s not healthy,” she says.
Meanwhile, the kids on her block play in the streets; she knows of two who were killed by oncoming cars. In the summer, parents take their children on walks after they come home from work, usually late at night.
What South Central lacks in park space, it makes up for in vacant lots, strewn with furniture and trash…
But what South Central lacks in park space, it makes up for in vacant lots. Glaze lives near seven, all strewn with furniture and trash, the surrounding buildings scrawled with gang graffiti. Sometimes kids play among the debris, while other residents hold impromptu swap meets. Ideally, she would transform these spaces into the parks her community desperately needs.
But the city hasn’t made it easy. “I didn’t realize the extent of all these forms,” she says. Not only are they issued by multiple city departments, they’re also written in dense policy jargon — doubly hard to decipher for the many Angelenos who don’t speak English.
So community members have taken matters into their own hands. As early as next month, the LA Community Health Council (CHC) will launch LA Open Acres , an interactive online map that will allow anyone to locate vacant lots and look up easy-to-understand information on how to transform them into parks, green job training centers or other community spaces. The site will also offer information on how to apply for grants and other funding opportunities.
South LA has less than a half-acre of park space for every 1,000 residents, compared to the city average of 5.39 acres.
The movement to make vacant lot information easily accessible began in 2011 with 596 Acres in New York City, which has since helped community members transform 22 lots. Community organizations in Philadelphia, New Orleans and even Melbourne, Australia have launched similar websites.
Research has shown that people who live near parks tend be more physically active than those who don’t . But parks are scarce in low-income neighborhoods, worsening their already high rates of diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases. South LA has less than a half-acre of park space for every 1,000 residents — compared to the city average of 5.39 acres per 1,000 residents, according to Mark Glassock, a CHC policy analyst who oversees LA Open Acres.
But South Central also has nearly 300 acres of mostly private vacant lots — just sitting there. And vacant lots aren’t just eyesores; they’re a public health hazard. Not only can the garbage dumped in vacant lots harm residents, but idle spaces tend to invite gang, drug and other illegal activity. Glassock adds that blighted lots discourage residents from investing in improving their communities.
Glaze worries about how weedy, trash-littered lots could affect kids’ self-esteem. “They go to school, and they learn that this is what a neighborhood should look like — the picket fence and two kids and two parents – and they don’t see that in this neighborhood. They wonder, ‘Am I missing out?’ ‘Did I do something to deserve this?’”
Think ”Zillow for vacant lots.”
Glassock hopes that LA Open Acres will make it easier for people to transform their communities. Once the site goes live, an interactive map will enable users to locate vacant lots throughout the city. Clicking on a lot will pull up a profile page listing the location, size, lot number, owner, photos and information on any efforts to transform the lot. Residents will be able to upload and tag photos of vacant lots in their neighborhoods, while owners will be able to advertise their properties for sale or rental. Think ”Zillow for vacant lots.”
LA Open Acres will also include easy-to-understand information on how to rent or purchase each lot, including any necessary documents. And users will be able to contact each other, making it easier to build community partnerships. Although the beta version will be in English, Glassock hopes to release a Spanish version with more funding.
Glassocksays that “there’s been no shortage of ideas” for the vacant lots. South Central residents, plagued with unemployment, have suggested turning them into sites where students can learn about aquaculture and other green job skills. Wilmington residents have proposed absorbing the toxic contaminants in their soil with sunflower beds.
Some residents are skeptical about whether such small spaces will really solve the lack of open space in their city.
LA Open Acres is nearly finished cataloging vacant lots using county GIS and other data. But the team has run into some hiccups. For example, since land use codes aren’t always up-to-date, several parcels labeled as vacant are actually occupied by buildings. Right now, team members are visiting the parcels themselves to verify the accuracy of land use data.
While the city hasn’t shouldered the responsibility of transforming vacant lots, the Department of Transportation (LADOT) has just launched People St. , a program that allows community organizations to file applications to convert underused pieces of city streets — such as parking spots – into plazas, mini-parks or bike racks. Normally, they’d need to seek approval from multiple city departments and hire an architect. But People St. will allow neighborhoods to try projects for a year, avoiding the cost and headache of obtaining permits for permanent projects. If they’re successful, they can work toward building longer lasting structures.
Community organizations can apply up until the end of April, with approved projects being built as early as November. Like LA Open Acres, People St. has uploaded all the required documents to its website. And it’s similarly up to community members to build support, raise funds, buy furnishings and maintain the site. “We want to repurpose our biggest asset — 7,500 miles of city streets,” said Valerie Watson, an assistant pedestrian coordinator at LADOT. But some residents are skeptical about whether such small spaces will really solve the lack of open space in their city.
Sure, the solutions aren’t perfect. But they at least give community members the power to shape an environment that often reinforces disparities, Glassock says. “Any way the community can use information for power is important.”
- Melissa Pandika, Melissa Pandika is a lab rat-turned-journalist with an eye to all things science, medicine and more. Likes distance running, snails, late-night Korean BBQ + R&B slow jams.Contact Melissa Pandika