Solving Cities

Can parks revive decaying U.S. cities?

Posting in Cities

Cleveland and Miami are littered with unproductive vacant lots, but one group thinks that turning them into parks could rejuvenate the cities.

Every city is littered with vacant lots, some cities more than others. Either way, they're a bane to any city. But what should cities do with these toxic properties? One group believes parks are the answer.

The Redfields to Greenfields project -- redfield meaning a property that is in the red -- studies the impact of turning unproductive properties into green space, like parks, in 12 U.S. cities. They have already studied the benefits in Atlanta, Cleveland, Miami, Denver, Philadelphia, and Wilmington, Del. And the results are overwhelmingly positive.

Take Cleveland, for example. Since 1950 the population has declined by 50 percent. This population loss along with the real estate bust has contributed to the 20,000 vacant lots which are scattered throughout the city. Redfields to Greenfields estimates that a $2 billion investment by the city would remove 1,850 acres of vacant real estate and produce 120 miles of interconnected greenways. It's the kind of development that would revitalize communities and attract young professionals.

In the Washington Post, Michael G. Messner, Wall Street investment fund manager and a funder of Redfields to Greenfields, explains the goal of the project:

Under this plan, some of the abandoned or underutilized property would be acquired by a parks agency or by public-private partnerships, which would then begin demolition, park design and construction, putting people to work immediately. More jobs would come as the improved areas attracted development.

In Miami, for example, the group estimates that 14,375 jobs would be created each year for five years, while Denver would add 30,000 new jobs by 2020.

But it's not all about jobs and parks. Urban development projects like these do a lot of things all at once. They would demolish eye sores and create welcoming environments where people want to spend time.

And they could also take toxic assets off the books of small and mid-sized banks. Because if these kinds of projects are going to move from theory into practice they'll need a little help from the Fed. Messner explains:

Rather than backstop bad real estate paper, the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Treasury Department could help finance the acquisition of excess commercial real estate through a land bank fund. Instead of buying mortgage-backed securities, why couldn't the Fed buy excess developed real estate to be held as green space through "land-backed securities"? Why couldn't the FDIC give some of the useless properties it obtains through bank closures to land banks or nonprofit organizations? With the right financing structure, philanthropic entrepreneurs could use leverage to remake America just as some of our bad developers used easy bank financing to help create the excesses.

For my money, it sounds like a brilliant plan to revive, not only the human spirit, but also the city.

Photo: Bob Jagendorf/Flickr

[Via The Infrastructurist]

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure