Vacant lots are a problem for cities across the country. They’re costly for city budgets, as the lots have to be mowed and cleared of trash. For neighborhood residents, they can affect quality of life, and decrease property values.
There are thousands of vacant lots in Kansas City, Mo., including at least 3,000 parcels in the city’s Land Bank, and most of them are located east of Troost Avenue. A team of University of Missouri-Kansas City students spent the semester investigating vacancy and mapping out creative solutions.
Jacob Wagner, associate professor in the Architecture, Urban Planning & Design department at UMKC, says he asked his students to reframe vacancy, and take a look at vacant lots as an asset or opportunity.
"The students are young, they’re creative, so put them on the hardest problem out there, which is what do you do with all this vacant land," says Wagner, who also serves on the Environment Management Commission's vacant lot task force.
This semester, about a dozen seniors in Wagner's urban planning and design studio class, co-taught by Daniel Dermitzel, were given a task: to focus on the thousands of parcels of vacant land, predominantly in Kansas City’s urban core.
"Most of the vacancies that we’ve found have been east of Troost and north of Brush Creek and basically from about 18th Street south, running east to the Blue River," says Wagner.
Rather than looking at one lot or one neighborhood at a time, the students took what’s called a systems approach. They collected data and mapped it to come up with ideas for creative re-use.
Making a new design
The senior studio is in a large room in Katz Hall on the UMKC campus. It looks like you might expect in the final weeks of a semester: water bottles and coffee mugs, papers and maps, all strewn across tables.
Kerri Kneller stands next to a colorful map, pinned to a cork board. Blocks of red trace major roads, and large swaths of green show new infrastructure.
"This is the Blue River, Country Fingers district," Kneller says. "The idea behind it is these green spaces connect through the urban spaces and form fingers, country fingers, that go through the urban space."
There’s a food forest and an urban orchard, and a focus on restoring natural systems, such as the city’s streams, through the use of vacant land. The students focused on two major ideas: re-building density and urbanism, and enhancing ecosystems.
Sean Partain, also a senior, says there’s a clear connection between urban planning and ecology.
"We often use terms that are derived from ecology or botany – like blight, it’s a disease that infests plants, but we use it to define the urban realm," says Partain. "Because the patterns are similar in many instances."
From ideas to implementation
The students' maps lined the walls in April at Front/Space, a small gallery with a bank of windows along 18th Street in the Crossroads Arts District. This spring and summer, the space is hosting monthly exhibitions, including two more about vacancy from artists' perspectives, leading up to a publication called The Civilian.
"It’s supposed to be a unified term for civically engaged people, community organizers, and artists that are choosing to, or have been interested in filling in the gaps," says co-director Kent Szlauderbach.
Filling in the gaps, such as vacant lots. Jacob Wagner says his class is hopefully providing the foundational ingredients to do just that. The goal is that others also will see the potential, choose some projects, and see them implemented.