Can these cities turn 'red fields' into 'green fields'?

Thanks to the severe downturn in the U.S. residential and commercial construction market, some U.S. cities find themselves stuck with abandoned properties and excess vacant space, much of it in the wrong location. Now they're trying to turn these "red fields" into "green fields." 

In Denver, the city, private donors, and the Trust for Public Land have started acquiring red fields along the South Platte River Corridor.
December 21, 2011

Eleven cities-Atlanta, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Hilton Head Island, S.C., Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Wilmington, Del.-are participating in the Red Fields to Green Fields initiative (, which has been organized by the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI).

The basic concept is for these cities somehow to acquire their underutilized properties and turn them into green space, useful infrastructure, or other uses that could attract economic development at some later (i.e., post-recession) date.

Consider the situation in Detroit. The population of the Motor City declined 25% between 2000 and 2010. More than 125,000 residential parcels in the city lie vacant; counting commercial and industrial properties, more than 100,000 parcels representing nearly 11,000 acres-almost one-eighth (12.3%) of the city's land area-have been turned into wasteland.

If you're Mayor Dave Bing, having so much vacant land poses numerous problems. First, the land is essentially nonproductive, so the city is not generating property taxes from it. Second, you have to service a much larger land area than is needed to serve the remaining population with police and fire protection, utilities, and so on-and you're doing that on reduced tax revenue.

Further, having all that vacant land contributes to social problems-food deserts, for example. If you don't have enough concentrated population to support the sales volume that the typical  supermarket chain is looking for, you're not going to have high-quality food stores in neighborhoods with so many vacant properties. So you wind up with low-end convenience stores and the consequent health issues-obesity, diabetes, etc.

What's the plan? For Detroit, the idea is to transform these waste properties into "high-density gateway crossings at the intersection of greenways and arterial roads," according to an ambitious scheme put forth by the city, environmental and social justice groups, and GTRI.

They propose to invest $4 billion from conservation easements, New Market Tax Credits, and tax increment reinvestment zones-to purchase more than 6,000 acres, demolish buildings on the properties, design and construct greenways, and provide for operations and maintenance.

I don't know how realistic it is to think that Mayor Bing-or any mayor, short of billionaire Michael Bloomberg - could come up with those kinds of dollars, or what kind of reception there would be to essentially shuttering whole sections of Detroit neighborhoods to accomplish the plan.

But don't write the idea off completely. In Miami, the city is working to convert more than 300 acres of vacant land to encourage transit-oriented development. There's also an effort to create 1,625 acres of new parkland linking Everglades National Park and Biscayne Bay National Park.

In Denver, the city, private donors, and the Trust for Public Land have started acquiring red fields along the South Platte River Corridor.

The vacant acres in these and other U.S. cities are probably at their lowest price point in decades. Now's a good time to gobble them up, put them into a kind of fallow state, and wait for more productive use in the future, when and if this dreadful recession ever ends. BD+C


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