Whether they’re strewn with overgrown weeds, littered with garbage, or magnets for crime, vacant lots are stark reminders of urban blight and suburban neglect. Now, an innovative project in Phoenix, Arizona, has created art installations, community farming, and education programs on a valuable plot of neglected land downtown—headed up by a foresighted new mayor. “Transform[ing] these lots into new opportunities… is the first step to creating a vibrant urban core for Phoenix,” Mayor Greg Stanton has said of the initiative called Phoenix Renews. “I want this project to serve as a prototype of a living, learning laboratory of how other vacant properties can be transformed into great public spaces.”
Currently, some 43% of all lots in Phoenix are empty, totaling over 500 square miles of land. One particular 15-acre plot at the busy intersection of Central Avenue and Indian School Road used to house a boarding school for Native American children. Now owned by private developer Barron Collier as part of a land swap with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the lot (estimated net worth $8 million) has stood empty since 1990. At the mayor’s request in 2012, the developer loaned the land to the city to make over—at the rate of $1 per year.
Local nonprofit Keep Phoenix Beautiful was asked to lead the project. “We needed to figure out what we could do to make the place more attractive, which would increase area property values and decrease crime, while doing it in an ecologically sound way in a place that has little rain and is a dustbowl in the summer,” said the nonprofit’s executive director Tom Waldeck. No small feat, a plan was put into place with about $150,000 worth of donated design work by SmithGroup JJR and in collaboration with 15 other local nonprofits.
In less than a year, the land already bustles with activity. Two and a half acres have been turned into a community garden in partnership with the International Rescue Committee. Here, 80 refugees from countries such as Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq now tend varied crops that they sell at farmers’ markets for economic subsistence and that they also use to feed their families. Corn, cucumbers, squash, and sunflowers are irrigated by a system of canals left over from agricultural days at the turn of the last century. Another acre, developed by the University of Arizona, will be a therapy garden where autistic children will grow black-eyed peas and cantaloupes.
Elsewhere on the lot, other plans are underway. In one area, food will be grown for homeless veterans by a veteran’s hospital. In another section, city-demonstrated projects will show the benefits of recycling, rainwater harvesting, and solar power to school groups and interested locals. Mulching labs are being set up, there will be a theater for performances, and 160 art panels spray painted by local youth decorate the bordering fences.
Community gardens have been around for a while (harkening back to WWII Victory Gardens, which were often planted in empty lots), and Philadelphia has been a pioneer in this effort, creating verdant green space out of over 9 million square feet of vacant land in the past 30 years. But this new city-led Phoenix effort, which mixes art, education, and gardening, is being touted as the largest such project in the country—and might very well prove to be a model of its kind.