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Reclaiming Vacant Land: Strategies for New Orleans (and Others)

Written by Amanda Maher

Well before the recession, many post-industrial cities were reeling from population losses. The vacant and abandoned properties left behind weren’t just an eyesore – they were a drain on local economies. The recession only exacerbated the problem, creating a new influx of dilapidated properties.

Shrinking cities, with their shrinking budgets, are often left to spot-treat blighted areas. Selective demolition, rehabilitation and reuse strategies have all proven effective on a case-by-case basis. But there’s often not enough funding to address the problem at scale. Many cities have realized that more innovative approaches are needed to stabilize inner city neighborhoods and revitalize communities.

The Van Alen Institute recently launched a design competition, called “Future Ground,” to help the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) rethink its approach to reclaiming vacant land. Specifically, the Institute wanted to highlight how cities can move beyond a single-lot redevelopment strategy to one that is more comprehensive and leads to larger city-wide benefits.

Three teams were chosen to participate as finalist in a six-month research and design phase. Collectively, they were tasked with identifying creative, unconventional – and perhaps even outlandish – reuse strategies that activate the land, add vibrancy to the community, and grow the city’s economy in a way that is both equitable and sustainable over the long-term.

To tackle the issue, design teams recruited the expertise of economists, lawyers, community development professionals and brownfield experts.

One team, Team Stoss, put forward an approach for NORA that includes rezoning vacant and abandoned residential lots to allow for business activity. “Vacant land is intertwined with unemployment, income inequality, and other economic problems; it can also be the foundation for economic growth,” the Institute’s final report notes.

A related strategy includes site assembly. Municipalities are usually quick to dispose of properties, often for as little as one dollar, as an incentive to lure the redevelopment by others. If purchased by a private entity, the property is then restored to the tax rolls and the city can start generating revenue.

In some cases, single-lot auctions make sense. Consider a land-locked parcel in an otherwise occupied residential area – this could be a great one-off infill project. But selling single parcel in an otherwise blighted area can hinder a city’s ability to assemble multiple sites for a larger redevelopment project that would have a greater social and economic impact on the community. “We need a new sense of scale – not only thinking beyond the single lot but also beyond the short-term gains, to 5, 10, or 25 year horizons, and the kind of strategic planning this longer timeframe allows,” wrote Team Stoss.

Team NO/LEX (The “New Orleans Land Exchange”) instead offered an entirely different proposition: don’t focus on land reuse, at all. Instead, focus on potential users of the land.

Designers suggest NORA begin by reaching out to unlikely stakeholders (such as bike advocates) to understand their priorities. Then, based upon a lot’s soil quality, elevation or other conditions, determine whether specific lots can be used to serve these stakeholders’ needs, and where these groups’ needs overlap. Finally, show these groups how to leverage city-owned lots to address those interests. This helps to build demand for vacant land where there previously was none.

But what if that demand just isn’t enough?

“To open up new possibilities for vacant land, cities need to look beyond their borders,” writes the third and final team.

Team PaD (“Policy as Design”) reminds us that too often, we think of vacant land as a city’s problem. Instead, we should be thinking about land within a regional context.

The design team examined the ways that the Lower Ninth Ward (one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina) could serve as a regionally significant storm water management zone, and how cross-parish, cross-agency collaboration could promote ecological restoration efforts and eco-tourism across the region. Team PaD also developed a long-range vision for the Lower Ninth Ward centered on a low-density future. Policymakers typically strive for dense, urban environments – but in some cases, homes scattered among a network of open space, community gardens, local farms and unpaved trails offer an equally vibrant urban habitat that people would gladly call home.

In reality, it will take some combination of these strategies (and others) to make significant headway in struggling post-industrial cities. The design competition, though, has provided a new set of ideas to help move the needle forward.

Read the full “Future Ground” report here.


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