Filling In: Anjulie Rao on “vacant” urban lands

July 27, 2023

Anjulie Rao explores the cultural and historical value, agency, and stewardship of Chicago’s vacant land in this personal essay.

The Bentway’s Beyond Concrete summer season explores the urban ecosystem beneath the Gardiner Expressway, where human-made infrastructure intertwines with flora and fauna. The relationship between concrete and nature is complex and interconnected. In this story series, we’re hearing from experts who engage with these themes in their daily work and have unique perspectives.

Here, Chicago-based journalist and critic Anjulie Rao considers how community members stewarding vacant city parcels demonstrate a “third way” of valuing land when it comes to urban development.

Listen to Anjulie Rao read this story:

Like many post-industrial cities, Chicago is a place of contradictions. Rich histories of skyscraper development contrast with disinvestment and demolition; massive infrastructure investments are made in some areas while others are neglected. These incongruities fall across racial and geographic lines, where “the tale of two cities” manifests as an abundantly resourced white downtown and North Side and poorer, Black and Brown South and West sides that struggle for investment. One way such disparities are experienced is vacancy. In Chicago, there are more than ten thousand city-owned vacant lots (totaling an acreage greater than the downtown business district). This land once hosted houses and businesses, expressions of life and livelihood demolished under “urban renewal.” This is to say, not so long ago, someone, somewhere made a swift political calculation that these spaces were not valuable. 

This summer, I reported for City Bureau’s Documenters Newswire newsletter about three of those vacant lots. Located along busy Chicago Avenue on the city’s West Side, these city-owned lots became vacant in 2013 after a large building was demolished. A nearby nonprofit called Blocks Together decided that the land could be used to further its programming, which focuses on youth empowerment, jobs training, business development, and political knowledge-sharing. The organization received City permission to use these lots and began hosting flea markets, youth summer programs, and clothing-donation drives. Its team carefully maintained the landscape. In recent months, that land came under threat: without notice, the city partnered with another neighborhood nonprofit to construct a “POP”—a temporary landscaped parklet that would be designed by an architect and programmed by the city’s nonprofit partner. Blocks Together would effectively lose agency over these lots. Betrayed and enraged, they blocked construction equipment from entering the site for several days, until construction was halted.

This local-interest story speaks to the larger issue of agency over vacant land in cities where such land is plentiful. Many organizations and individuals “take over” vacant spaces—where I live, on Chicago’s West Side, people frequently use this abundant land to plant flowers and food gardens. These plots provide beauty, nourishment, respite from intense summer heat, and spaces to play or socialize. Yet, they are not “owned” by any one person or entity; they don’t generate profits. They sit squarely in between vacancy and speculative development—purchasing land and allowing its value to increase before selling or developing it. This land represents a “third way”; it is neither fallow nor is it productive in the usual capitalist real-estate framing. These acts are what many might consider stewardship. But, as Blocks Together discovered, stewardship, as a means to build agency and repair histories of racialized dispossession, is precarious. 

Stewardship initiatives are often valorized through news stories or community awards. Rarely does such recognition come with material support.

Land stewardship is traditionally defined in terms of relationships; one becomes a steward by taking a vested interest in a piece of land, regardless of ownership, and tending to its ecological conditions. In an urban environment, this could mean pulling weeds, picking up garbage, or grander tasks like creating a community garden. One builds a relationship with a place through care work—labor that is often unrecognized or devalued when performed by racialized residents.

The anthropologist Catherine Fennell has spent decades performing ethnographic research in my neighborhood, Garfield Park, to better understand how these stewardship relations exist within histories of disinvestment. In a 2022 journal article titled “Rethinking Vacancy, or Thinking with the Going Home,” she writes about how the cultural value of stewardship doesn’t always align with its outputs: “In more than a few cities pivotal to the political and economic rise of African Americans during the twentieth century, once-devalued spaces are increasingly revalued through dynamics that celebrate, aestheticize, and brand the history, practices, labors, and struggles of their longest-term residents. These valorizations may well benefit, please, inspire, or move outsiders to visit or settle these spaces. They do not, however, add up to substantial commitments to the durable presence of long-term Black residents.”

Stewardship initiatives are often valorized through news stories or community awards from nonprofits. Rarely does such recognition come with the means to make these spaces permanent, or even the capital to continue that stewardship. Fennell goes on to describe the backbreaking labor of Black women who steward these places but cannot profit from it or pass on the land to future generations.

Illustration by Tristan Marantos. Photo: Apple Maps

As Blocks Together discovered, relations between people and land can easily be undermined by forces that seek to make that land conventionally productive. POP spaces, as they’re called here, are piloted by the City’s Department of Planning and Development and are framed as a way to promote safety and “revitalization” in neighborhoods plagued by vacancy—a term that implies, in some minds, the presence of drugs and violence. Yet as myriad community members, including leaders at Blocks Together, noted, POP spaces operate for only three years, which reads to them as a means of “readying” vacant land for private development. By securing the site’s safety and effectively beautifying once-“devalued” land, these projects signal to developers that the area is ripe for new investment—without also guaranteeing long-term affordability for existing residents. Tensions between residents and government actors ensue, affirming the historic mistrust established through decades of disinvestment and demolition.

The problem, according to urban planner Paola Aguirre, is not one of “bad actors” in development or city government, but rather one of scale: the number of vacant lots presents an enormous problem, yet stewardship often happens quietly, one lot at a time. NeighborSpace, a nonprofit urban land trust, has been working  to legitimize local stewardship, making informal arrangements permanent as “Neighbor Spaces” and helping residents access utilities like water or power. Nearly three hundred Neighbor Spaces across Chicago are listed on its website.

Yet, as NeighborSpace executive director Ben Helphand told me in an interview earlier this year, the tools to secure resident land-steward relationships are fraught and slow: he frequently weighs the benefits of leasing city-owned land over purchasing it outright. Both are time-intensive but a purchase requires greater risk. His organization uses legal tools designed for conventional “placemaking” that require less due diligence around, for example, environmental testing. But even obtaining a lease requires legal counsel and hefty paperwork; for stewards, who might be working alone or within small community groups, this can make the process cumbersome or lift it out of reach.

What’s needed now is a powerful infrastructure to provide people agency over their neighborhoods’ futures.

NeighborSpace can only be so effective within these meager bureaucratic frameworks. What is needed, Aguirre contends, is a broader network of land stewards connected through a municipal body she calls The Office for Land Stewardship. Aguirre helped envision this new “office” alongside several volunteers at City Open Workshop, a now-shuttered informal group of city-minded volunteers. Through an Office for Land Stewardship, existing stewards would have connections to each other—for shared labor and resources, such as crops and seeds—and be formally recognized as invested parties if such land became of interest to City- or private-development initiatives. The Office would assist with acquiring funding or rights to land for new stewards, even if on a temporary basis. As she put it, the scale of the problem must be met with a solution that operates at a similar scale.

The Office for Land Stewardship is intriguing not only because it could ease burdens for residents or formalize relationships between people and land, but also because it might acknowledge the messier qualities of stewardship that don’t map straightforwardly onto bureaucracy. Like all other relationships, a steward’s association with land is bound to change: perhaps they grow old and require a new steward, or maybe the neighborhood organization eventually wants to build affordable housing. With formal recognition, they obtain power and agency over what happens in their neighborhoods, as well as the capacity to build coalitions. Land can be poised for change, but on local terms—not the terms of capital-driven development.

Equipping residents with tools and agency over land that has previously been devalued holds the potential to build solidarity networks between stewards; provide locals agency and control over land deemed invaluable; and, importantly, legitimize the “third way” of developing fallow land into “productive” spaces outside of conventional real-estate capital. This would represent a fundamental shift in our collective understanding of value ownership. When Blocks Together had the rug pulled out from under them, it revealed the current understanding of land and value, but also, importantly, how powerful the steward relationships are between people and land. What’s needed now is an equally powerful infrastructure to meaningfully and flexibly support those relationships and subsequently provide people agency over their neighborhoods’ futures. No longer should “someone else” say what is or is not valuable. That decision should be made by people whose connections and relationships to those places are honored not only by neighbors, but also by the city itself.