Sustainable Cities™

Chicago: Converting vacant lots to greenery

Traditionally known more for its architecture, gritty industrial roots and gangster history, Chicago, USA has lately been showing a greener side. In addition to its world-famous lakefront system and the green-roof initiative, the city has recently been acquiring additional land to create more green spaces.

Park i Chicago, Foto af Robert S. Donovan, Maj 2008, Flickr, Creative Commons

Chicago's tradition of parks and boulevards has provided the city with a stunning lakefront and its motto "Urbs in Horto" or "City in a Garden." However, the city's growth over time has left new and changing neighbourhoods without sufficient open space. In 1993, analysis concluded that the city failed to provide recreation resources equally to all residents; 63 % of Chicagoans lived in neighbourhoods where parks were either too crowded or too far away. A detailed study of the whole city inventoried open land and found a surprising number of vacant parcels available.

In response to these findings, leaders from the City of Chicago, Chicago Park District and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County came together to undertake the development of a comprehensive plan to expand open green space in the city. Chicago's CitySpace program was designed to methodically gain open land and convert it into parkland. Each of the cooperating entities has its own agenda and methods. But through the CitySpace program, they are able to use the complexity of Chicago's bureaucracy to their advantage instead of being blocked by it.

Riverfront in Chicago, Photo by y2bk, May 2007, Flickr, Creative Commons

CitySpace work with over 100 agencies and groups and administers programs such as NeighborSpace, which builds community gardens and pocket parks on vacant lots; the Campus Park Program through which public schoolyard fields are redeveloped as parkland available for community use after school hours; and the Chicago River Program which revitalizes riverfront areas by acquiring land for fishing stations, canoe launches, nature trails etc. Funding of these measures comes from a variety of sources. A significant one is the requirement on developers to pay a fee or contribute a proportionate share of open space and recreational facilities elsewhere in the same community.

"It's a great way of improving the economic value as well as the social and environmental value of a locality, because it starts to look better, it feels better; confidence rises. And although we didn't really explore this, there is a very strong likelihood that that's going to bring businesses and people back into the area. You start to get a self-fulfilling process." Associate Director Rob Shaw, Faber Maunsell - Consulting Engineers

The City is realizing that greening the city provides multiple benefits beyond aesthetics. Developers hunting for the next up-and-coming neighbourhood keep a close eye on investment in green development. Chicago's administration was initially criticised for spending money on planting trees when some of the poorest neighbourhoods face significant challenges in violence and unemployment. But recognising the multiple benefits which urban greening projects provide, even some of the critics admit that these greening initiatives have proven to be a powerful symbol of change. Urban nature is beginning to be equated with revitalization, care and investment, turning the city into a symbol of progress, innovation, and health.


Since the 1960s, community groups across Chicago have used vacant lots to create open green spaces in their neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, over the years, many have been lost to redevelopment. The CitySpace Plan responded to this by establishing the NeighborSpace program. Since 1996, the non-profit NeighborSpace has been working with community groups to acquire and own land and ensure their continued survival. The organisation liaises between the City (as land owner) and the community gardeners and local residents. Most sites are acquired from the city - usually for $1. Once NeighborSpace comes into ownership of these properties, they will no longer be vulnerable to redevelopment.

Additionally, NeighborSpace provides referrals to a wide range of partner organizations that may be able to supply materials, funding plus technical assistance and training for building and maintaining community managed open spaces. The program also provides opportunities for socialization and educational activities.

In 2007, NeighborSpace owned 57 sites located in 31 wards across the City of Chicago. At the same time, the organisation holds long-term leases for an additional 4 sites and many additional sites were in the review or acquisition process. The community-managed gardens have become important assets providing residents with opportunities to socialize with each other, plant and grow food or simply being outside enjoying nature. Such activities have done much to improve the quality of life in a variety of neighbourhoods.

"We do this not because it's fashionable, but because it makes sense. It improves public health, it beautifies the city, it enhances the quality of life, it saves money, and it leaves a legacy for future generations." Mayor Richard Daley

Chicago Green Alleys project

Chicago is the alley capital of America with its 3000 km network of small service streets. The alleys used to be un-used, dirty and prone to flooding since most of them are not connected to the existing sewer system. With the Green Alley program, introduced by Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), environmental improvements transformed the neglected spaces to resources. The implementation of the program retrofits the alleys with permeable pavement. Rainfall is then able to re-charge the groundwater for the city instead of ending up as polluted runoff in rivers and streams.

The solution will save the city money in the long term because it reduces the need to pump water from elsewhere, limits flooding and is cheaper than connecting all the alleyways to the existing sewer system.

Although the initial motivation was to reduce water run-off, the initiative has resulted in a wide range of environmental benefits; storm water management, heat mitigation, recycled materials, energy efficiency and dark sky preservation. Since the pilot projects began in 2006, the city has resurfaced 15-20 alleys per year. One factor in the success of the Green Alleys Program is the way in which it was explained so clearly to the public. A major component of that public education is the publication titled The Green Alleys Handbook

In 2007, the Green Alleys program won the Chicago Innovation Award

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014