Josh Newell

Turning Vacant Urban Land into Productive Green Spaces

Back alleys, vacant lots and underutilized urban spaces hold great potential for fostering more sustainable cities, if they can be reimagined and transformed into multidimensional green infrastructure that simultaneously delivers environmental, social and economic benefits, says Joshua Newell, assistant professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

“Traditionally, city planning around green urban redevelopment has been driven by one agency with a single agenda, so there’s been little focus on trying to achieve multiple objectives,” he says. “We can be more strategic in these redevelopment efforts. There’s much greater potential to achieve simultaneous benefits by repurposing neglected urban spaces with more than just one pillar of sustainability in mind.”

Much of Newell’s urban sustainability research focuses on developing new models for what he describes as coupling multiple ecosystem services within a single redeveloped urban space. For example, an empty lot in a park-poor neighborhood can be repurposed as green parkland that serves as open space for residents, a playground for children and a means for abating stormwater runoff.

In 2010, Newell completed a study of the distribution, physical features and residential perceptions of 930 linear miles of back alleys within the city of Los Angeles. “My research on L.A.’s alleyways illustrates how we can create more sustainable cities by making them more walkable and permeable, and by repurposing underutilized spaces as neighborhood connectors and micro play areas for kids,” says Newell, who worked on the project with an interdisciplinary research collaborative at the University of Southern California.

Recently, he has turned his research focus on Detroit, where he is collaborating with SNRE faculty member Ming Xu and research scientist Jarod Kelly on a project that examines how vacant land parcels in urban settings may be repurposed to improve mobility, reduce stormwater overflow events and enhance local air quality. Project funding was provided by the U-M Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute.

A second research endeavor involves mapping the crisscrossing urban footpaths created by residents who walk through Detroit’s abandoned, unpaved lots. Three Michigan students associated with Newell’s Urban Sustainability Research Group are leading the mapping project, which is intended to provide policymakers with critical information about the current uses of the vacant parcels before decisions on land redevelopment are made. Newell is also the co-recipient of a 2013 MCubed Award for his research proposal to develop a framework for assessing the appropriate deployment of emerging water technologies in urban areas.

“Detroit has a great opportunity to become more sustainable because it has tremendous land resources — much of which are underutilized,” Newell says. “The city is trying to think creatively about how to reinvent itself by repurposing this land for agriculture and green infrastructure. That infrastructure could be used for parks and open space, as well as the abatement of stormwater, which is a source of pollution for rivers and nearby aquatic ecosystems.”

Repurposing neglected urban parcels as productive green spaces can yield multiple benefits if the transformation is done in a socially just and economically viable manner, according to Newell. From an environmental perspective, there is an opportunity to improve ecosystem services by capturing stormwater and promoting better air quality. On a social level, the benefits can include enhanced walkability, increased property values, greater food production and more healthful surroundings. From a business point of view, economic gains are possible when vacant land is creatively redeveloped adjacent to commercial areas that stand to benefit from increased foot traffic and more attractive cityscapes.

“More than half the world’s population lives in cities, and in the U.S. that number is closer to 80 percent,” Newell says. “Therefore, the urban sustainability decisions we make in our cities — including the type of houses we build, the way we move, how we use our land and the kind of goods we buy and consume — have ripple effects on natural, social and economic ecosystems around the planet.”

Read more on the topics of built environment in the Erb Institute summary report Innovating for a Sustainable Built Environment (pdf)