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The Intricate Ecology…of Vacant Lots

The Intricate Ecology…of Vacant Lots | Chicago

They’re vacant, but not empty. We trekked through several vacant lots on Chicago’s south side, and found—amidst the discarded tires and construction debris—birds, bees, butterflies, and some very valuable plants.

Vacant city lots are often dismissed as derelict urban eyesores, but now some environmentalists are viewing these empty spaces as ecological opportunities. Unoccupied parcels of land can provide habitat for plants, animals, and insects in urban environments.

“Vacant lots really can house an astonishing number of species,” said Elsa Anderson, a PhD student in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Anderson has been studying the ecological value of urban vacant lots for the past two years at approximately 40 properties on Chicago’s south and west sides. As part of her research, Anderson is examining what types of plant and animal species the lots are supporting.

At each site, Anderson tests the soil substrate, the vegetation heights, and the number of different plant species in 2-meter transects. For insects, Anderson sets out numerous, multi-colored plastic bowls of water as traps.

Monitoring a vacant lot in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, Anderson observes a diverse combination of tall grasses, shrubs, flowers, and trees growing adjacent to a boarded-up house. She identifies horsetail, foxtail, burdock, Queen Anne’s lace, dandelion, red clover, Canadian thistle, a Siberian elm tree, an ash tree, and a box elder tree growing amongst discarded tires, mattresses, and carpets. Checking her insect traps, Anderson discovers a bevy of bee species.

In Gary, Indiana, Fresh Coast Capital has worked with the city to transform derelict baseball fields into an urban poplar tree forest. / Fresh Coast Capital

In addition to providing habitat, vacant lot vegetation produces oxygen, holds carbon dioxide, absorbs storm water runoff, and helps reduce the urban heat island effect.

On the UIC campus, Anderson is experimenting with inexpensive, low-maintenance native plant species that might improve the ecological value of Chicago’s vacant lots. Anderson has roped off multiple test plots at a campus greenhouse where she grows hardy plants that include western sunflowers, purple coneflowers, and black-eyed Susans. Anderson said that it is important to select native plant species that will be attractive to both wildlife and people.

Across the Illinois border in Gary, Indiana, Fresh Coast Capital and Delta Institute are taking a slightly different approach to improving vacant spaces: they are planting urban forests.

On the abandoned fields of a former Little League ballpark, rows of more than 2,800 hybrid poplar trees line the horizon. Fresh Coast planted the trees in collaboration with the city in 2015.

The poplar trees absorb water in their root system, prevent storm water runoff, and clean toxins and carbon from polluted air and soils. Additionally, the poplar trees can be harvested after 12 to 15 years and used to produce wood products, including doors, paneling, and furniture.

At another location in Gary, Fresh Coast Capital and Delta Institute plan to plant a hybrid poplar tree farm on the former site of a hosiery factory. As restoration crews have cleared away vegetation, concrete, and debris for a spring planting at the property, curious neighbors have started to take notice.

“At the end of the day, just the fact that it looks like you’re doing something with this land attracts interest,” Delta Institute director of strategic priorities Eve Pytel said. “Because it hadn’t occurred to them that the land was good for something.”

Back in Chicago, there are nearly 32,000 vacant lots in the city alone, according to the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University. In the west and south side neighborhoods that Elsa Anderson is studying, there are so many lots that people often overlook the potential of these urban spaces.

“Our status quo mindset is that these pieces of land in the city should be built with houses,” Anderson said. “People fail to realize that in absence of that, there are other really positive things that happen in these lots and they really do bring nature to the city where maybe it’s missing.”

In Chicago and Gary, Indiana, vacant lots are so plentiful that their potential as an urban habitat provider for plants, animals, and insects often goes unnoticed. / Fresh Coast Capital

— Sean Keenehan

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