Rehabilitating Vacant Urban Lots

Improves Stormwater Management

Rehabilitating vacant parcels in three Great Lakes cities improve storm water management and revitalize urban communities.


Many Rust Belt cities in the Great Lakes region have seen significant population declines in the past few decades, leaving behind a large quantity of vacant parcels. Vacant lots can often present an image of neglect in neighborhoods, resulting in dumping, vandalism, increased crime, and harming the community’s perception of itself. Vacant lots are also typically bad at handling stormwater and often have issues with standing water or soil runoff into storm drains. The absence of established urban ecosystems and native plant communities on vacant lots can also facilitate the spread of invasive plant species.

Thanks to a grant from the Great Lakes Protection Fund, the Cleveland Botanical Gardens started the Vacant to Vibrant program, aiming to develop natural stormwater infrastructure on vacant lots that also helped revitalize surrounding communities. Neighborhoods in three Great Lakes cities (Cleveland, Buffalo, and Gary, Ind.) were selected for the initial phase of this program. The selected neighborhoods tended to be older, predominantly African-American, and have experienced high levels of vacancy. They also had strong community organizations that could serve as on-the-ground partners. Some parcels were outfitted with above-ground infiltration areas, such as rain gardens or bioswales, while others had subsurface infiltration structures allowing residents to walk unimpeded above them. A variety of public amenities were installed based on how residents wanted the parcels to be used, including playground equipment, walking paths, park benches, and in one case a handball court. Several lots had solar lighting installed to increase safety at night. Workers also installed habitat features, such as bird or bat houses, and planted a good mixture of native plants to enhance habitat for urban wildlife and provide food sources for pollinating insects.

Resource Challenges Addressed

  • Excessive stormwater
  • Erosion
  • Polluted soil runoff
  • Invasive species
  • Lack of urban wildlife habitat



Children play at a renovated playground

After restoration formerly vacant lots like this one in Cleveland, Ohio are now community gathering places that can also help filter and slow runoff before it enters city drains and nearby lakes. Credit: Cleveland Botanical Garden.

Results and Accomplishments

Workers installed structures to slow the flow of rain water and increase absorption, including rain gardens, bioswales, and infiltration beds. While results from soil monitoring equipment are still preliminary, they indicate that the rehabilitated parcels are more efficient at absorbing stormwater than the control parcels are. Visually, the sites appear to be working as designed, with no standing water on any of the parcels and no visible erosion or sediment runoff. Residents report that the parcels are frequently used and enjoyed by community members.