Is Blotting the Best Solution for Shrinking Cities?

In places like Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago, homeowners are being encouraged to expand the footprint of their properties

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Courtesy Interboro

Going from blight to blots, that's the latest DIY solution for shrinking cities.

Across a handful of troubled Midwestern cities, homeowners in failing neighborhoods are snapping up adjacent vacant lots for their own use, creating block-lots, or blots. The term was coined by the Brooklyn-based urban planning and design firm Interboro as part of a winning entry into Archplus "Shrinking Cities" 2006 International Ideas Competition.

Blotting, previously known as sideyard expansion, is an opportunistic response to urban decline that has been around for decades. The city of Chicago launched its adjacent land purchasing program in 1981; Cleveland did the same a few years later. But it has gained traction in recent years as cities have been depopulated and residents, planners and policymakers have sought redevelopment solutions.

Today, Cleveland and Chicago both have thousands of abandoned buildings and tens of thousands of vacant lots. Large swaths of New Orleans were emptied by Katrina. Yet no place is more ideal for blotting than Detroit, where the basic building block is the single-home lot. The city's population has fallen 60 percent since 1950 and nearly a third of its 139 square miles are vacant.

Residents like Jean and Michael Anderanin refused to wait for the city to launch a redevelopment plan. From 1992 to 2002, the mother and son purchased five lots adjoining their home, creating a six-lot garden blot that is enclosed by a fence and furnished with a gazebo, basketball court and several bird houses, according to Interboro's study, Improve Your Lot! [PDF]

The result, according to University of Michigan urban planning professor Margaret Dewar, is a better, safer neighborhood. Vacant lots are breeding grounds for crime and illegal dumping. They place a strain on city police and fire resources and reduce surrounding property values and public safety.

"When people take over another lot they put in a patio, a garage, play equipment, a swimming pool—this improves quality of life because the lot is cared for," says Dewar, who published the first academic study on adjacent lot purchase in 2006. "It's become more and more common."

Blotting dovetails with a plan Detroit Mayor Dave Bing outlined to reduce population density in neighborhoods that have failed. Detroit planning director Rob Anderson recently told Changing Gears reporter Kate Davidson that the city's program to sell lots, for $200, has sold more than a thousand adjacent vacant lots.

In Chicago the price is $1,000, while in Cleveland lots go for as little as $1. A spokeswoman for Cleveland's Community Development Department had no readily available data on blotting, but said the practice had been increasing.

That would be a good thing, says Dewar, though she cautions against visions of urban paradise. In reality, blotting is one-part redevelopment and two parts de-urbanization, remaking the city as more green and less dense: a neo-suburb (or "new suburbanism," according to Interboro). Blotting won't create idyllic New Urbanist neighborhoods or return shrinking cities to their former glory, but it will reduce crime, add green spaces and improve safety. It's smart shrinkage for the recession-era Rust Belt, among the best of a handful of poor options.

Next June, New Orleans will host the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference, following Louisville, Pittsburgh and Cleveland as previous host cities. Among speakers and attendees, blotting is likely to be a hot topic. "This is a good way to approach the re-use of vacant land," says Dewar. "I think officials in cities where there's been a lot of this loss should think 'How can we encourage this and celebrate it?'"

About the Author

  • David Lepeska is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.