Vacant Lots Cost Philadelphia $90 Million a Year!

This is the fourth of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Ceri-Ellis Kenyon chose Philadelphia …

If you’ve ever found yourself strolling through Lower North Philly (not that I’d recommend it!) you’ll have noticed that there’s not much to see – literally. The abundance of vacant land and boarded up property leaves you feeling thoroughly depressed. It’s a far cry from the booming 1950s when John McWhorter stumbled across and photographed this vacant lot, a rarity in those days but all too commonplace now.

Over the past 20 years, vacancy has spiralled out of control.  A recent study found that Philadelphia has the highest vacancy per capita of any US city.  Combatting the issue of vacant property has been at the forefront of government agendas for decades now. Why? Because these tracts of vacant land dispersed throughout the city cost Philadelphia an estimated $90 million a year in delinquent taxes and policing charges alone!

So, what have the politicians done to improve things? Well, they’ve thrown lots  of money at the problem but, as is often the case, they’ve mostly ignored the needs of the local people. No surprises then that, far from getting better, things have continued to decline.

‘Wastin’ away on the streets of Philadelphia…’

I’m sure Bruce (Springsteen, of course!) had something quite different  on his mind when he wrote this song back in the 1990s but his lyrics seem more relevant than ever in today’s downtown. The Philly streets are literally “wastin’ away” as the population plummets and vacancy and crime rates soar.

Vacant land reflects vacant soul

Philadelphians know which areas of town not to venture into at night, or even by day for that matter, but why? A bunch of empty houses? That surely seems crazy…

…But, empty houses and barren land lead to social issues; crime, poverty, gang warfare and drug use. A recent Forbes survey ranked Philadelphia as the 5th most miserable city in the USA. Any stats based on averages are going to paint a gloomy picture but Philly isn’t all bad. We’d love to argue with the ‘experts’ at Forbes but there is, in actual fact, overwhelming evidence that vacant land and crime go hand in hand. Ken Skinner’s “Clean and Seal” programme is the city’s latest attempt at tackling the social blight associated with vacancy. Skinner, Chief of The Department of Licences and Inspections, has joined forces with the City Redevelopment Authority to employ a 48 strong team to secure the entrances to empty property and deserted land, in an effort to keep out the thugs and keep the neighbourhoods clean.  This temporary measure is an uphill battle as 300+ properties and lots are added to the vacancy inventory each year!

Lower North Ghost town

Lower North is without doubt the most desolate area in Philly. In terms of land use (commercial, residential, recreational etc.)  “vacancy” is the third largest category in the district. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Lower North was home to a thriving community of Black African Americans, attracted to the area by an abundance of brick yards, coal yards, tobacco plants and textiles workshops along Glenwood Avenue. Economic crisis in the 1950s left many Lower Northerners permanently unemployed as manufacturing jobs became few and far between. This triggered an epidemic of vacant land, an increase in crime and a decrease in population, which has continued every year since. In the 1990s, Philadelphia experienced the 3rd largest population decline in the history of urban America.

Lower North is an urban graveyard; 47% of the Lower North population are living in poverty, 13% of property is vacant and the district has 45 so called ‘ghost parks’. The only remaining ‘assets’ in Lower North are Temple University, 19 bus routes, 2 regional rail stations and its proximity to the city centre. The fact that two of the four remaining assets are transport infrastructure says it all…

So far, the problem has only been exacerbated by those in high Philly society. Ex-mayor Ed Rendell promised to rejuvenate Lower North and was voted into office by a majority black vote, desperately hoping for change. But Lower Northerners suffered anguish and humiliation at the hands of Rendell, who focussed solely on the city centre, deeming Lower North a problem unworthy of  attention.

Double duped as Street turns his back too…

Hot on the heels of Rendell; came Street and his ambitious plan to commandeer The Neighbourhood Transformation Initiative. His ingenious idea, to simply demolish 1400 vacant properties in Lower North was supposed to attract private investment. Instead, as most of us  could have predicted, it transformed vacant property into nothing more than vacant land! His typically political heavy handed approach caused nothing but backlash among the surprisingly tight knit community of Strawberry Mansion (which is hardly surprising when you consider Street’s plan to demolish their entire century old neighbourhood!). His  approach meant he ‘succeeded’ in demolishing a mere 800 of the planned properties at a  cost of $81 million and more importantly, he demolished the trust and vote of an entire community.

The Master plan, change may be just around the corner!

A committee of Philadelphian planners, community leaders, business owners, non-profit organisations and elected officials are currently working to piece together a blueprint for the redevelopment of the neglected Lower North. The PlanPhiladelphia2035 scheme hopes to pull together the expertise needed bring about change and rescue Lower North once and for all. David Fecteau, the brains behind the idea, chaired community meetings throughout July and August to gauge public opinion. What did he want to know? “Who’s happy?”… Seems nice!

Fecteau claims that unused industrial land could create up to 200 jobs and that ex residential areas could be re-moulded into community gardens and green space. Maybe! Of course, as a development tycoon he would say that, wouldn’t he Could this be just another example of the all too familiar pattern of planning betrayal in Lower North? If so, it has not weakened the residents of Strawberry Mansion’s burning desire for something to be done…finally. Community leader Judith Robinson announced that ‘redevelopment which avoids gentrification and subsequent displacement is welcomed’. The agenda for PlanPhiladelphia2035 is definitely optimistic and so far so good. The community meetings have established hotspot areas of unhappiness and have fuelled ideas and debates about the future land use. Could this be the answer to Lower North’s prayers? Watch this space…

Sowing the seeds of change

Clearly these large-scale, top-down approaches to redevelopment in Philly have largely failed. The PlanPhiladelphia2035 project is the first integrated approach and therefore the most likely to succeed. Hallelujah!

In typical Philadelphian fashion, small scale initiatives to decrease vacancy abound in many neighbourhoods throughout the city. Urban farms have sprung up on ex industrial sites all over the place, the most popular of which, GreensGrow, is in Kensington. The area reaps the social and economic benefits of urban farming and GreensGrow puts the vacant land to good use. Could the land in Lower North be suitable for an urban farm? Could it reduce the levels of crime and antisocial behaviour experienced there?

We’re constantly bombarded by green action group lobbying about transformation of urban land into green community space, but is this what Lower North needs? Research from The University of Pennsylvania found that over a period of ten years, the area surrounding a fenced public garden experienced a significant reduction in crime. Apparently, fences and neatly mown lawns deter criminals in these areas. Could this work in Lower North?

Is it naïve to assume that the introduction of green space will solve all social and economic issues in Lower North? Green space alone is not enough. Redevelopment needs to take place and must happen now! The work of PlanPhiladelphia2035 is a step in the right direction, but to succeed we need real commitment from those in power and enthusiasm for the project from the communities themselves. Appearances can be deceiving and there is still a strong community spirit beneath the desolate face of the Lower North. The residents deserve better and we must learn from past failures and work together to rejuvenate Lower North and turn it back into the thriving community it once was.

Here are some useful links if you’d like to find out more…

PlanPhiladelphia2035 Lower North plans: http://phila2035.org/home-page/district/lower-north/

An Accessible news bog site for Philadelphia: http://philly.curbed.com/tags/top

An Academic article evaluating Street’s Neighbourhood Transformation Initative:

http://www.seas.upenn.edu/~sys502/arcview/Projects/Phil_Housing/Phil_Nbhd_Initiative.pdf

Lower North District’s Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Philadelphia#Neighborhoods

A news article expressing concern around Fecteau’s ulterior motives: http://philly.curbed.com/archives/2013/08/05/consultant-to-major-developers-advocates-clearcut-strategy-for-city-planning.php

Information about Ken Skinner’s clean and seal programme: http://articles.philly.com/1993-09-30/news/25985242_1_houses-seal-tin

A news article about the reduction of crime in ‘greened’ areas: http://grist.org/list/2011-11-23-turning-vacant-lots-into-parks-reduces-violent-crime/

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