Essential Properties: Experts from around the country trade notes on Reclaiming Vacant Properties

With 40,000 vacant lots within its boundaries, Philadelphia knows a lot about the problems and the potential of vacant properties. In September, the city played host to the Center for Community Progress’s (CCP) fifth Reclaiming Vacant Properties (RVP) conference, three days of interactive panel sessions, walking tours of Philadelphia neighborhoods and plenty of networking and skill-sharing. The conference attracted more than 800 attendees — public housing authorities, city government officials, community development organizations, consultants and more, including more than 200 leaders from the public and private sectors from across Pennsylvania.

“We thought [Philadelphia] had a lot to learn from people around the country about how other folks are using and reusing vacant land,” says John Carpenter, deputy executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and co-chairman of the local planning committee for the conference. “We also thought Philadelphia had a lot of great examples of successful projects, and we’d be a great place to help other people learn.”

Those projects were highlighted in the conference’s mobile sessions — short excursions to successful community development projects in Philadelphia neighborhoods, such as Kensington’s Big Green Block, a once-blighted 20-acre lot that has been transformed into a multi-component sustainability project and green stormwater showpiece by a partnership of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, among others.

With Philadelphia in the midst of a debate about how to create a land bank, CCP wanted to bring the conference to the city in order to draw upon national expertise from such cities as Atlanta, where land bank initiatives have already been implemented. During the course of the conference, attendees and speakers analyzed the nationwide problem of blighted communities and vacant properties from every angle, sharing best practices, policy triumphs and fiscal failures. During the “In Your Hands” training seminar on Monday morning, run by the founders of Civic Insight and LocalData — two digital place-based data collection programs — attendees investigated how to harness the power of technology to effectively engage communities in making development decisions. A highlight of the conference was when Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter joined the mayors of Cincinnati, Ohio, South Bend, Indiana, and Allentown for a plenary discussion of their cities’ experiences battling blight and land vacancy.

The closing speaker was Bill Strickland, a Mac­Arthur Genius and creator of the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild, an award-winning arts and trade training center in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Strickland urged the attendees to focus less on blight and negativity in their communities, and more on the “possibilities of beauty.”

“We know that beautiful environments create beautiful kids... even in the middle of the inner city,” Strickland says. “You've just got to want to do it bad enough.”

Story by Danielle Wayda, image by Tieshka Smith for Community Progress.