Banking on Borrowed Land

Balancing rural and urban needs, climate change, and chronic underfunding, the land trust industry is in a moment of reckoning.

By Erin Kelly, ASLA

An abandoned pocket park, prior to WRLC’s improvements. Image courtesy Tim Dehm/WRLC.

Land banks and land trusts have overlapping missions—stewarding land—but different frameworks and financing. Land banks and similar programs were originally put in place to maintain vacant, publicly owned land but not to invest in it. They start with the benefits of their highly people-adjacent land holdings and work outward—with more consideration for land as an economic development tool than as an ecological resource.

Land trusts, on the other hand, have traditionally managed larger, often rural tracts of land for conservation purposes. Today, most communities with vacant and underused land are communities of color. As new funding from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 unleashes unprecedented resources to address blight through capital improvements, landscape architects can support the messy prospect of delivering the benefits of land stewardship more directly to people. Is there a way for these worlds to intersect?

A land bank is a public entity, either a nonprofit or a public authority, created to stabilize and revitalize property within a community. Land banks have the power to acquire property, transform and maintain it, and transfer it to others. Land banks are often owners of last resort: They take ownership of distressed, vacant, and abandoned properties that come into public ownership through foreclosure. Land banks generally seek temporary ownership, but they are legally able to hold and maintain property for the longer term.

Land banks can also be a tool for realizing equitable development. As legal instruments that can facilitate the cleanup of legally compromised properties, manage physical blight remediation, and serve as land managers, land banks enable communities to chart their own destiny instead of relying on private development. They often operate in communities that have experienced a significant amount of disinvestment, particularly places shaped by long histories of racist land use and lending policies. “Some of the best of land banking is taking vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated property and partnering with communities to bring forth results,” says Brian Larkin, the director of the National Land Bank Network at the Center for Community Progress based in Flint, Michigan.

Nationally, land banks rely on myriad funding sources and strategies to cover expenses, including real estate revenue and nonrecurring government support. Very few land banks receive recurring government funding.

Pittsburgh’s Landforce program brings workforce development and stewardship together to manage vacant land. Photo by Grounded Strategies.

One unique thing about land banks is their ability to hold property without accumulating further property tax debt. They are also able to clean and clear titles related to liens and tax foreclosures. Most of these powers arise through state enabling legislation tied to the work of property assessment. Because of this capability, land banks can support strategies to create more affordable housing options, limiting the damage done by speculative real estate investors and partnering to enable community land access and local cultural expression.

At present, more than 250 land banks operate nationally across 28 states. The total property held by land banks nationally is unknown, but research by the Center for Community Progress suggests that on average, 87 percent of land bank inventory is vacant land. “Any strategies that focus exclusively on structures leave the vast majority of land bank property untouched,” Larkin says.

In Michigan, land banks were established in 2004 as part of a suite of public acts seeking to quickly address property redevelopment. The Genesee County Land Bank in Flint was the first local land bank established under this legislation.

“We were formed early in the new wave of land banks, and we accepted a large inventory of tax foreclosed properties,” says Christina Kelly, the director of planning and neighborhood revitalization at the Genesee County Land Bank. “We were on the ground trying to figure out what to do with very few resources, allowing other land banks to learn from our mistakes.” Kelly says the land bank formed partnerships with community groups early on, which allowed them to build programs incrementally. “We didn’t plan to have the solution from the get-go—it’s more, ‘Let’s work with what we have,’ in kind of a scrappy way. It’s hard to be an owner of problem properties that you don’t have the money to resolve entirely.”

Although land banks can create significant positive change in communities, the properties are not without cost. “As a cohort nationally, land banks have a growing portfolio of properties. At the same time, land maintenance is the smallest line item in the budget,” says Evaine K. Sing, ASLA, a landscape architect and community consultant based in Pittsburgh.

“There is more demand for maintenance than what we have funding for—however much money we can raise is how much we can spend,” Kelly says. At the time of this writing, the Genesee County Land Bank Authority is responsible for 13,357 properties in Flint. Its maintenance budget of $2 million pays for boarding up and cleaning out vacant structures, mowing, and clearing debris and illegal dumping from structures and lots. In 2021, one third of its maintenance budget was grant-supported.

The Genesee County Land Bank has turned maintenance needs into employment opportunities with the Clean & Green Program, which pays volunteer groups stipends to care for vacant lots. Volunteers are paid $20 per mow, with up to seven cycles of mowing through the growing season. Last year, more than 65 community groups partnered with the land bank to maintain 5,000 lots across Flint. The stipend offsets fuel costs, with benefits that extend beyond mowing to include community-building and increased eyes on the street. In tandem, the land bank runs a property maintenance crew. “Our property maintenance crews mow all vacant lots; they don’t just mow land bank–owned lots,” Kelly says.

Apart from maintenance, most land banks do not have a long-term plan for land reuse. Vacant land is seen as being in an interim phase before architectural reconstruction. The interim solutions are leasing and adopt-a-lot programs. But land ownership is a form of power. These temporary arrangements make it difficult for incremental and community-led efforts to grow in their infrastructural capacity. “If we are always borrowing the land, you can’t get credit for stormwater management. Solutions need to be grounded in a realistic appraisal of how long it takes to develop a landscape and the resources required to maintain over the long term,” Sing says.

A preliminary design for the Garden of 11 Angels in Cleveland, a project that replaced vacant lots with a memorial park. Image courtesy Kevin C. Robinette Architect, LLC.

In cities like Flint, assembling contiguous properties can create opportunity. “The majority of our inventory is residential vacant land,” Kelly says. “With more contiguous property, it is easier to imagine a reuse that is agricultural or natural, or even for the purposes of traditional development.” Over the arc of her 16 years in Genesee County, Kelly has observed that many land reuse projects struggle to sustain themselves over an extended period. The successful initiatives, she says, “have high-commitment groups, and the land supports their mission—for example, around mental health, youth training, and jobs training. The land itself is not their mission.”

One example of a city that has been able to use land banking for green infrastructure is Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Land Bank links its programs to stormwater management–focused neighborhood plans. “Each plan articulates an infrastructure for stormwater management. We are at the onset of this, but it makes for a much more cohesive way of engaging,” says Diamonte Walker, the Pittsburgh Land Bank’s former executive director who left recently for a private-sector job. “Pittsburgh is a city with varying topography and, because of this, [is] prone to events from climate change. We can’t prevent some of these things, but we can be prepared for them.”

Land banks are governed by a board and operate as quasi-governmental agencies. In urban areas like Pittsburgh, land banks act in concert with, and at the direction of, local planning efforts and elected leadership.

Janell O’Keefe, a senior program officer with the Center for Community Progress, explains, “Climate change is here. It’s not coming—it’s here. The climate is changing, and we have this asset, so why not put it to good use?” Unlike a private developer, the disposition decisions of a land bank are flexible and can be driven by the best outcome for the community rather than the bottom line, which makes them a powerful tool in planning for an equitable, sustainable future for communities.

 Land trusts (or conservancies) have worked in concert with landscape architecture from the beginning. Charles Eliot established the first conservation land trust in 1891 as part of his work on the Trustees of Reservations in Massachusetts. Unlike a land bank, a land trust seeks to permanently hold land for the good of environmental conservation goals, public access, or a mix of the two. But there are many varieties.

“If you know one land trust…you know one land trust,” says Kelly Watkinson, the land and climate program manager with the Land Trust Alliance, which works to advance federal policies and secure resources that support land conservation. “Land trusts come in varied shapes and sizes. They are all individual nonprofit organizations. One way that the general public interacts with land trusts is by visiting preserves that land trusts own and manage for public access and use.”

More than 1,200 land trusts stewarding 61 million acres of land are represented in the United States by the Land Trust Alliance. Empowered by changes to the IRS tax codes and state-level adoption of the Uniform Conservation Easement Act of 1981, land trusts hold land through easements and direct ownership for the purposes of environmental conservation and to preserve cultural heritage, including by protecting a specific site or by assembling and owning land on behalf of an existing network of open spaces. In cities and suburban areas, land trusts also hold and acquire land on behalf of community groups.

NeighborSpace, an accredited land trust in Baltimore County, Maryland, which operates in an area rife with impaired tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay, stewards more than 100 acres spread across 21 sites. “Urban land trust work is a mix of acquiring and protecting land in perpetuity. Design becomes especially important to serve the triple bottom line. You want to improve land in a way that…lifts the real estate values around it,” says Barbara Hopkins, ASLA, a lawyer and the executive director of NeighborSpace. “On all property we acquire, we do some kind of stormwater remediation—anything we can do to treat stormwater before it runs into a tributary.

“Funding governs and ties the work of land trusts—it has not been as rich for urban land trusts as for those focusing on agriculture or habitat. The large federal resources haven’t looked closely at urban opportunities,” Hopkins says. She says NeighborSpace’s commitment to stormwater management is not the result of funding availability, but rather because she knows it is the right thing to do.

Hopkins’s work, all located around the edge of Baltimore’s Interstate 695 beltway, benefits from Baltimore County’s Open Space Waiver Fee Policy. Developers of new residential units that cannot meet required open space ratios pay into a fund, and NeighborSpace collects 20 percent of the fees.

Hopkins says her background in public policy and law supported NeighborSpace’s efforts to advocate for and receive this modest slice of funding. As a first-tier suburb, Baltimore County has “not developed thinking about connectivity, stormwater management, or habitat,” she says. “Everyone acknowledges that there is room for a land trust to play a supporting role in creating this, including our County Department of Recreation and Parks.”

A plan shows improvements through WRLC’s Ground Work program to East 139th Street, a previously abandoned pocket park. Image courtesy Tim Dehm/WRLC.

Kimberly Gleffe served the River Revitalization Foundation (RRF), an accredited land trust in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as executive director for 20 years before transitioning to a role in philanthropy last year. “I remember my first Land Trust Alliance conference many years ago. I [was] working on urban conservation in cities, and I remember thinking, this is all cow poop and agricultural easements,” Gleffe says. “A lot has changed.”

The RRF has worked with the Milwaukee County Parks Department for 15 years to realize the Milwaukee River Greenway—a project encompassing 800 acres of river valley within the City of Milwaukee and nearby suburbs. Existing county parks make up 70 percent of the greenway’s route; the RRF holds properties and easements that allow for connectivity. Today, the greenway links 12 public parks through existing and proposed easements on private land, including three Frederick Law Olmsted–designed parks.

The partnership between the RRF and the county illustrates the role land trusts can play as conveners and nimble actors, with the ability to work across jurisdictional boundaries. “RRF became our partners in not only planning and doing maintenance work but looking at the larger vision for how [to] make the connections and enhance the connectivity, a quarter mile at a time,” says Kevin Haley, who admits to spending a “large part” of his 27-year career at Milwaukee County Parks on its 150 miles of trails and greenways in quarter-mile increments.

Like many actors in the conservation space, the Land Trust Alliance is working to build partnerships with those who have not traditionally identified as conservation organizations. “The alliance is trying to raise awareness of community-centered conservation,” Watkinson says. New goals described in its strategic plan seek to increase the rate of land conservation in urban communities, which have not been a traditional focus of the land trust community.

The Land Trust Alliance has a standard in place that allows conservancies to do a stewardship calculation on a piece of property to determine the additional funds required to ensure that the donated property can be monitored and maintained. Because of its structure as a long-term landholder, a land trust is on the hook for land ownership and stewardship in perpetuity. “It’s in our bylaws that we will exist forever. We can’t stretch ourselves so thin that we can’t make good on our obligations,” says Ted Lind, the director of community conservation at the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy (SBLC). The SBLC conserves 5,884 acres of land within the Saginaw Bay watershed, home to more than 1.4 million residents and one of America’s largest contiguous freshwater coastal wetland systems.

In 2016, when the SBLC team began a listening tour to understand how they could deliver on their mission in Saginaw, Michigan (population 48,407), where 14 percent of the city’s property is land bank–owned, no local funding or staffing was allocated to land maintenance. By combining existing resources and opportunities, the SBLC has been able to debrush, clear, and plant pollinator seed mixes on 1,500 vacant lots, plant 1,070 trees, and introduce maintenance to the land bank’s 3,147 lots. The work relies on a small, locally hired, resourceful maintenance crew. Support for this untraditional program comes from a mosaic of funding sources, including the Summer Youth Employment Program organized by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

In Cleveland, partnerships are emerging as one way to better use vacant land resulting from years of neglect. “It’s not just land conservation, but stewardship. The long-term care of spaces within the city has been a challenge for generations. Communities are struggling to redefine how to occupy the spaces that outmigration, redlining, and divestment have created,” says David Wilson, ASLA, a landscape designer and project manager at LAND Studio, a Cleveland-based nonprofit that facilitates public art and civic space design projects.

Land banks in Ohio benefit from the state’s best-in-class land bank enabling act, which allocates a small annual budget to local land banks for property maintenance. In part, this was an innovation of necessity. Ohio was hit hard by the mortgage foreclosure crisis that began in 2007. Local advocates acknowledge that land revitalization efforts following the tsunami of foreclosures were high-impact—and very high-maintenance. Many were solutions that did not scale.

In northeast Ohio, the Western Reserve Land Conservancy (WRLC) functions as a land bank and a land conservancy. Formed by a merger of eight land trusts in 2006, the WRLC serves rural, more traditional land trust conservation goals and, through its Thriving Communities Institute, works toward urban conservation goals, too.

Adapting to an urban setting as a conservancy has required some translation. “Even within our organization, the rural–urban cultural shift is taking some time,” says Isaac Robb, the vice president of planning, research, and urban projects at Thriving Communities. One example of the challenge: As a general policy, the WRLC doesn’t hold conservation easements under 25 acres.

“Rather than transforming vacant land into something, our focus is on the step prior to redevelopment,” says Tim Dehm, a landscape designer and urban revitalization fellow at Thriving Communities. Dehm, who grew up in Geneseo, New York, admits there have been challenging moments. “It is difficult for everyone involved to embrace doing something very constrained. The development mindset is a lot of the rhetoric around vacant lots. It doesn’t need to be different; it just needs to be a little bit better.”

In Cleveland right now, many efforts converge around trees. The WRLC chairs the Cleveland Tree Coalition, a collaborative effort to rebuild Cleveland’s urban forest. The initial plan was released in 2015, and the goal is to increase the citywide canopy cover in Cleveland from 18 percent to 30 percent by 2040. Since its inception, the coalition has grown from five to more than 40 members.

Wilson is on the coalition’s executive committee, which he came to through his role as a co-facilitator of the Ohio-based Black Environmental Leaders Association. He acknowledges that the plan’s ambition requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. “Outreach and engagement around trees in these communities need to be authentic. People—especially African Americans—have been negatively impacted by unintentional and intentional decisions in cities like Cleveland for decades.”

In Cleveland, 30,000 trees would need to be planted per year to achieve the plan’s goals. In the St. Luke’s area (Buckeye–Woodhill, Buckeye–Shaker, and Mount Pleasant), where the WRLC and LAND Studio are working in partnership with community members, Dehm says the conservancy plants around 300 trees annually, “So the intention is less about being the organization that ‘solves the canopy problem’ at the start and more about building a culture around tree care, and ultimately sustainable landscape management.” He says that this is where the rural and urban cultures can meet. “The conservancy uses land as a medium to build community, and this is a message that translates easily from the rural conservation work to the urban tree planting.”

Land banks and land trusts can benefit from the creation of policy and the identification of resources that support urban land conservation. Both operate through extensive partnerships, and both find the greatest success when land is a part of the solution to a particular challenge. When that challenge is climate adaptation, the need is particularly urgent.

“We have such a diverse political spectrum in our constituency, which becomes an asset nationally, because we have everyone under our tent,” says Watkinson. But, she adds, “Not all alliance members use climate adaptation language to communicate their work to all constituents.”

Land banks are responsible for a significant amount of vacant land in cities, where land trust holdings are scarce. Fundraising is in the DNA of the land conservancy movement, but it’s a commonly cited barrier by land banks that must contend with costs from property management.

At the same time, land trusts are at the forefront of decoding the mechanics of financing ongoing maintenance and urban tree planting through carbon registries. City Forest Credits, a carbon registry founded in 2015 with a focus on urban settings, is one such resource working to address the gap. “It is early, and still hard to say if it will find traction at the scale required,” says Watkinson, who works with conservancies across the country on climate adaptation planning.

In Baltimore County, Hopkins is already navigating climate adaptation. “We had a whole park wiped out three years ago by a series of storms, including a 100-year storm,” she says. “The volume of water is growing. It’s impacting us enormously. That one mistake cost us $150,000. Having thoughtful landscape architects on the job, versus engineers, is really important.”

A pocket park after WRLC’s improvements. Image courtesy Tim Dehm/WRLC.

For Wilson, whose first experience with landscape architecture was at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in Pittsburgh, the potential of partnerships between landscape architects, urban communities, and land trusts is “an opportunity to reach new audiences that haven’t been brought together. A thoughtful design process can create that, but a truly intergenerational approach is required to diversify future leadership and stewardship, which will sustain success in the end.”

Erin Kelly, ASLA, is a landscape architect based in Detroit.

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