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Bottom-up temporary development of vacant land could provide community benefits beyond its borders

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March 24, 2023

The Sustainability Institute (SI) Student Grant has been providing funding to facilitate student research success for years, and the spring 2021 cycle provided no exceptions. Sixth-year PhD student Liang Chen utilized his grant in a unique way that eventually led to the publication of his work as an article in the Journal of Urban Affairs. 

Chen’s topic of focus was the relationship between vacant urban land and disorder in neighborhoods, specifically examining how they are associated and what urban planners can do to create solutions. His inspiration for the decision was quite unique. 

“I originally got the idea to pick this topic because of an experience in my own neighborhood. A car crashed into a nearby building, which resulted in the building’s destruction in 2019,” Chen began. “After it was torn down, only an empty lot was left, and I watched out my window over time as plants naturally took over. This made me think about these types of spaces, and it spurred my investigations.” 

The published paper is based on a chapter of his PhD research discussing solutions to the problems caused by vacant urban land. While many may automatically assume that complete redevelopment would be a simple and effective answer, it can lead to a range of issues, including gentrification.  

Chen instead has researched the effectiveness of temporary uses, such as community gardens or other “greening activities.” These types of bottom-up approaches not only benefit the citizens of the area but also the environment, creating a double pronged positive effect of contributing to the community with fewer social concerns.  

While Chen had an original plan for his use of the funding, he ended up selecting an entirely different avenue.

“I was going to use the $2,480 to get access to data from commercial agencies, but I ended up finding free public data from the city governments of Chicago and Columbus,” Chen explained. “After thinking on it, I decided to put it towards editing services for my manuscript, which was especially helpful as an international student.” 

Professor Maria Manta Conroy served as Chen’s faculty advisor and guided him through the multi-year process. Chen led the research with Conroy giving him feedback and industry tips from proposal to publication. Professors Yasuyuki Motoyama, Jennifer Clark and Mattijs Van Maasakkers also provided assistance. 

Going forward, Chen hopes that his work will assist future research. Though his research focus on the cities of Chicago and Columbus, he believes his analysis can provide a base for those looking to examine vacant urban land in other cities, especially those across the Midwest. 

Read the published article 

Story by Aurora Ellis, student communications assistant