Lots of Opportunity

In Great Lakes cities, derelict parcels sponge up stormwater.

By Lisa Owens Viani

The former vacant lot on Lawrence Place in Buffalo is now a rain garden with a picnic area and handball court. Image courtesy Sandra Albro, Holden Forests & Gardens.

Eight years ago, Sandra Albro, a research associate in applied urban ecology at the Cleveland Botanical Garden (now Holden Forests & Gardens) began to think about opportunities lurking in the city’s vacant lots—in particular how to help cities with their water quality problems. During heavy rains, raw sewage from old, leaky, combined sewer-stormwater systems is often flushed into the Great Lakes, resulting in beach closures not fun for tourists. At the same time, in Cleveland, Ohio; Buffalo, New York; and Gary, Indiana—where populations have declined by as much as 40 to 50 percent since the 1950s—derelict houses and vacant lots have increased: 30,000 in Cleveland, 7,000 in Gary, and more than 6,000 in Buffalo.

Cleveland, Buffalo, and Gary are among 158 communities with permits from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to discharge treated wastewater into the Great Lakes. The agency has also charged them with implementing Long Term Control Plans under the Clean Water Act to eliminate discharges of untreated sewage from their combined system overflows. “It’s a funny thing,” says David Rankin, the executive director of the Great Lakes Protection Fund, a private nonprofit corporation that funds projects to build the health of the lakes. “Most of the time these systems do a great job of managing stormwater—they actually treat it. It was state-of-the-art Victorian engineering that dates back to the Industrial Revolution. But in heavy rains, some waste gets flushed out, too—and when you’re looking at more than 100 dischargers, it starts to add up.” According to the EPA, in 2014 the toll was an estimated 22 billion gallons of untreated wastewater discharged into the lakes.

Rankin says Great Lakes cities need to think differently about the problem—many are trying to find funding to build massive pipes. But with their populations declining, he suggests these cities should think about solutions that don’t involve tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. So when Albro came to him with her idea for using vacant lots to capture stormwater, the fund awarded her a small grant to develop a plan. She contacted 11 Great Lakes cities, ultimately working with Gary, Cleveland, and Buffalo given their capacity and interest.

Albro discussed her ideas for using the vacant lots to infiltrate stormwater with Sean Burkholder, then an assistant professor of landscape and urban design at the University at Buffalo/State University of New York (now at the University of Pennsylvania). Two years later, she went back to Rankin with a strategy for identifying the best stormwater capture locations based on the hydrological networks in the three cities and also with a plan to create and monitor three pilot rain gardens on vacant lots in each city.

A vacant lot on Massachusetts Avenue in Buffalo, New York; the conceptual design shows the multiple uses for the revamped lot. Image courtesy Sandra Albro, Holden Forests & Gardens.

“That kind of strategic thinking is not often seen in green infrastructure efforts,” Rankin says. “They had identified where there was congestion in the system and identified various properties with high value opportunities to solve some of these hydrology problems. They also had a strategy for outreach in each of the communities.” The fund awarded the botanical garden $862,000 for building the rain gardens. They called the project Vacant to Vibrant.

Albro worked with Burkholder and Jason Kentner, ASLA, a design principal with Implement, a landscape architecture firm in Columbus, Ohio, to design the rain gardens, with three control sites in each city to monitor the projects. Albro and Burkholder saw another benefit in working with vacant lots. “We noticed that a lot of the green infrastructure stormwater projects in Chicago and Milwaukee were being done in neighborhoods that were already stable and wealthy,” Albro says. “But we saw social equity potential in focusing on neighborhoods in decline. We zeroed in on these residential parcels.”

Albro says the group set out with intentions of scaling up solutions to change whole systems. “How would you approach it?” she asks. The team looked at census data and evaluated neighborhood attributes, topography, and land ownership; they identified nearby impervious surfaces from which stormwater could be diverted into the rain gardens. They also looked for willing parcel owners and neighborhoods that were “on the brink” yet were still at least 60 percent occupied. But, says Albro, their designs are not a cookie cutter approach. “We make our designs available to the public, but we don’t expect people to take those and stamp them onto new vacant parcels. The parts that will transfer are the processes we used.”

Vacant lots become a play area that infiltrates stormwater, left, and a rain garden, right. Images courtesy Sandra Albro, Holden Forests & Gardens.

In Buffalo, Burkholder, Albro, and Kentner sought out a well-established community group, PUSH Buffalo, to partner with. PUSH, or People United for Sustainable Housing, had been active on Buffalo’s west side, hiring locals to build affordable housing and community gardens. In 2013, they launched PUSH Blue, working with Burkholder to design their first rain garden.

Image courtesy Implement/Jason Kentner, ASLA, with Sean Burkholder.

“We really wanted to address vacant lots and turn them back into neighborhood assets,” says Jenifer Kaminsky, PUSH Buffalo’s director of planning and community development. “We had explored community gardens and pollinator gardens, but then we also realized that Buffalo had a combined sewer overflow problem. While there are larger interventions, a smaller neighborhood-based approach can be part of the solution.”

Since then, PUSH has installed approximately 22 acres of rain gardens—or 221 vacant lots—in partnership with the Buffalo Sewer Authority and built a native plant nursery on another vacant lot. It has also installed rain barrels and green roofs on housing it built or on structures in community gardens. PUSH Buffalo has 40 employees with a full-time project manager for the rain gardens and a seasonal crew of three.

Burkholder says PUSH Buffalo’s existing relationships with the city and the sewer authority were key. “They want to make sure they’re investing back into the community and city. That relationship between the nonprofit and the city is a really strong one.”

Image courtesy Implement/Jason Kentner, ASLA, with Sean Burkholder.

In Gary, Kentner is helping the city build five more projects in addition to the three initial Vacant to Vibrant rain gardens. When he started working with the city, it was just beginning to create a sustainability office. “Things in Gary were more of a start-up, but the city’s outreach efforts have definitely grown up,” Kentner says. Because community members viewed the initial projects favorably and have adopted and maintained their lots, other communities are buying into the idea. A vocational school is donating labor and materials and demonstrating how to install permeable concrete. One of the issues in Gary, says Kentner, is its sandy soils, in contrast to the clay soils of Cleveland and Buffalo, which stay saturated for a long time.

“The chief challenge in Gary was to keep water from draining off-site. We put down gravel and heavy sand. The gardens also dry out quickly, so we used plants adapted to extremes,” Kentner says. He is now working on a kit of parts he can give to the city, something it can take on as a process. “There’s momentum in Gary,” he says.

Image courtesy Implement/Jason Kentner, ASLA, with Sean Burkholder.

Cleveland has been more difficult, Albro says. “Cleveland is a bigger city and more fractured, which has been an impediment to all types of urban greening practices.” She says the lots don’t look quite as good and that some of the projects are struggling. “In Cleveland our problems are that we are working with so many different entities—there’s a separate sewer authority, a separate land bank, separate community organizations that do urban greening. Connecting the dots was a lot more complicated.”

In each city, Albro, Kentner, and Burkholder looked for opportunities to tie the projects to adjacent impervious surfaces and identified the recreational uses communities wanted to see. In Buffalo people knew they wanted a handball court to be built on one of the vacant lots so the site could include both recreation opportunities and stormwater treatment. In Cleveland and Gary, the team members first had to explain why they were interested in vacant lots, and they encountered more fear and uncertainty on the part of neighbors. “They didn’t understand why we were interested in these vacant parcels,” Albro says. “Sometimes it was the first time there was any investment in their neighborhoods, so there was a lot of pressure on these little tiny projects.”

These practical, low-cost stormwater detention projects are not flashy, Albro says, which disappointed some neighbors. Yet the average cost of $18,000—for converting a parcel approximately 35 to 50 feet wide and 100 to 120 feet long into a stormwater infiltration system—is what makes it possible to do a lot of them. (While some lots were already vacant, when a derelict house remained, the cost of demolition was borne by the cities.) “By keeping these projects low cost and practical, you avoid some of the negative aspects of gentrification, too,” Albro says. And there are other community benefits, including passive and active recreation opportunities—mini-nature reserves with birdhouses and benches or small walking parks, play areas, and handball courts.

Could these pilot projects be a model for other Great Lakes cities with abandoned lots and stormwater management problems? All of the sites were monitored continuously over a six-month period using the same methods in the three cities. A weather station in each neighborhood measured precipitation. “We also measured soil moisture within each rain garden, an indirect way of looking at infiltration,” Albro says. Seven months of monitoring showed good infiltration results, and the rain gardens did not come close to being filled to capacity, she says. “This supports other research showing that rain gardens are likely to overperform due to conservative estimates about how much runoff they can contain.”

Albro says that although the actual impact of the nine pilot rain gardens in capturing runoff may be small, they prove that vacant lots can be used to capture runoff to reduce combined system overflows and improve water quality. She estimates that the amount of stormwater captured during the six-month monitoring period was approximately 864,000 gallons. “It’s a drop in the bucket overall, but it’s proof of concept,” she says.

Joseph Koonce and Sandra Albro test soil. Image courtesy Sandra Albro, Holden Forests & Gardens.

But maybe it is more than that. Albro calculates that it would take 120,000 vacant lot rain gardens to fix the combined overflow problem in the Great Lakes. “That sounds like a lot,” she says, “but at only $18,000 each, the total cost would be $2.16 billion. And that, she points out, is less than what Cleveland’s sewer district is paying to fix its combined sewer overflow problem—$3 billion over 25 years. “And that’s just looking at the stormwater benefit, not taking into consideration improvements to property values, human health, neighborhoods, etc.,” Albro says.

The unique opportunity Albro sees in these postindustrial cities is the potential to create from the ground up on a vacant lot. “In Chicago and New York, they’re retrofitting every little space. Here we’ve got these blank slates.” Albro, who is working on a book about Vacant to Vibrant, says she’s giving a lot of thought to what it would take to get such a program incorporated into long-term city processes. “I see that the tree people don’t tend to talk to the vacant lot people, who don’t talk to the urban farms. How could we all come together to make systematic choices for vacant lots, to preserve them as cities rebuild?”

Lisa Owens Viani is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and LAM contributing editor who specializes in ecology, science, and water-related topics.

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