Greening Vacant Lots

In a 2016 book, Local Code – 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design and the Nature of Cities,1 the author, Nicholas de Monchaux, discusses how vacant lots can be a valuable resource for helping cities boost their climate resilience.  Monchaux, an architecture professor at the University of California- Berkeley, analyzed vacant lots in four cities (New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Venice). He highlighted the potential to use vacant lots for projects to mitigate urban heat islands and manage stormwater; he also discusses the equity aspects of adaptively reusing vacant properties. He suggests that cities invest more in greening unused spaces in underserved communities as a way to achieve greater environmental and social impact.  The book looks at  potential transformation of different types of lands and public spaces including abandoned public streets, lots, rights-of-way, and alleyways. 

Understand a methodology for making vacant lots part of a strategy to mitigate against heat islands and manage stormwater.  

In New York City, the researchers studied over 1,500 lots for their potential ecological contribution. For example, researchers demonstrated how a vacant lot in Queens could be planted with trees, urban gardens, and flood-friendly bioswales. These improvements would save 990 kilowatt hours in local energy usage through moderating the urban heat island and reduce local storm water flooding by half. According to the book, the 1,500 proposed interventions in New York City would together reduce energy costs by 11.5 gigawatt hours and reduce flooding in neighborhoods there by up to 47 percent.

The book notes that abandoned spaces often tend to be in “downhill, downstream, or down-at-heel” locations where ecological interventions can have the most impact for making a city more resilient to extreme weather (floods and heatwaves). However, current programs tend to invest resources in already well-off neighborhoods. The author proposes that infrastructure dollars could be distributed more effectively and equitably to underserved communities, while also maximizing the environmental benefits provided by the investments. 

The book recommends a multi-faceted approach where projects are designed to manage stormwater, mitigate heat islands, create shared public spaces, provide job training opportunities, improve local health and welfare, and provide other environmental and socio-economic benefits. Projects could include planting trees, community gardens, and bioswales in abandoned spaces to reduce flooding and heat.

The authors used existing surveys of vacant lots, crowdsourcing, and collaborations with experts to conduct this analysis. In developing the book, the authors also wrote new software that connects urban mapping databases, such as Google Earth, to current, data-driven design software to allow for the digital mapping of thousands of individual lots and visualization of different factors, including urban heat island pockets, health problems, carbon output, crime, and poverty rates. 

This study provides a methodology for cities on how to tap into the potential to convert vacant properties to adaptive uses by using data, design, and an equitable approach. Vacant and underutilized properties tend naturally to be located in downstream, underserved areas. Therefore, by targeting investment into these areas, cities can develop projects that will provide environmental, economic, and social resilience benefits for underserved communities.  


Publication Date: October 11, 2016

Author or Affiliated User:

  • Nicholas de Monchaux

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  • Best practice
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