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Knowlton team works to put vacant land to use

Students from Ohio State’s Knowlton School of Architecture used a tablet app to survey vacant land in Lima, Ohio. Credit: Courtesy of Mattijs Van Maasakkers

Students from Ohio State’s Knowlton School of Architecture used a tablet app to survey vacant land in Lima, Ohio. Credit: Courtesy of Mattijs Van Maasakkers

Vacant land can be found in cities across the U.S. for a multitude of reasons, such as population loss and natural disasters. The Ohio Land Exchange is the project of a team of professors and students from Ohio State’s Knowlton School of Architecture that works to put this vacant land to use.

The project began in 2014 when the team was awarded a grant to examine vacant-land use in New Orleans, said Kristi Cheramie, a professor in landscape architecture and the principal investigator for the project.

Cheramie said the team quickly learned that its findings in New Orleans could be applied to any city — including those in Ohio. In 2015, the team decided to focus its efforts in Lima, Ohio, where the vacant land they examined was primarily tax-delinquent.

“We wanted to bring the work back to where we live — to come back to the Rust Belt area,” she said. “We were interested at looking at high vacancy with a different set of drivers (than in New Orleans). We were also interested in going to a smaller city than New Orleans. Lima fit all of these (criteria).”

Cheramie said the team will soon expand its definition of vacant land to include places that might be owned but unmaintained. Cheramie said vacant land is a problem for many cities, and most cities handle each plot independently of the next.

“When you get to a place like New Orleans with 30,000 vacant parcels, or a smaller city like Lima with the 700 vacant parcels that we have mapped, one lot at a time is not a feasible strategy for cities,” she said. “So a more efficient strategy looks at bundling multiple plots of land at a time.”

The OSU team decided to pursue the more efficient strategy. Cheramie said “bundling” does not mean combining multiple parcels into one lot, but bringing together various stakeholders and getting them to look at them as something that can align with their organizational interests.

Currently, the team works with nonprofit entities, because they are often interested in land acquisition projects. The team also worked with local hospitals and other organizations in the city that have public and private interests. In a few weeks, Cheramie said the team will meet with the members of a young professionals organization in Lima to add private interests to the list of stakeholders.

The process of putting the vacant land to use began by working with city officials, as well as those at OSU Lima, Cheramie said. The first step was to determine a definition of “vacant land” and then find which parcels in Lima fit this definition. In October, a group that included students from Knowlton, as well as the Lima campus, visited the sites and used a tablet app to survey the land parcels.

“In addition to the tax-delinquent information, we also have observational information that we have been able to record — photographs of the sites, information about the surrounding context,” she said. “Basically we were building up a pretty rich database about those parcels that goes beyond tax delinquency.”

The team built a series of maps of the parcels to better understand the sites and present the sites to stakeholders. The condition of vacant land can vary — some have a concrete lot while others might have a dilapidated building, she said.

“Not a lot of the parcels are in drastic states of disrepair, like you would see in New Orleans,” she said.

Cheramie and Mattijs van Maasakkers, a professor in landscape architecture, arranged interviews with nonprofit groups in Lima, including Habitat for Humanity, to learn more about how the organizations work and how they could use land around the city. The organizations were then showed maps of the vacant land that could meet their specific needs. Van Maasakkers said they have been in discussions with organizations that might not typically be engaged in land reuse, such as hospitals.

“There’s a genuine interest in trying to make the city more attractive in some way,” he said.

Van Maasakkers said by working with organizations that do not typically engage in land reuse, such as the hospitals, they can demonstrate how land can provide a whole range of services to the community.

He added that resources are not typically available for organizations when it comes to land reuse, so one challenge of the project will be connecting the stakeholders with volunteers and those who can help on the ground. Another challenge of the project is showing organizations not typically engaged in land reuse the benefits of owning and using the vacant land.

“So I think that’s the challenge — to show that vacant land reuse can benefit a broad range of stakeholders in the city, not just city governments or the gardening club but a much broader range of stakeholders,” he said.

In March, the team will stage a pilot for a negotiation workshop. At the workshop, various stakeholders will simulate a multi parcel negotiation.

“Each stakeholder will set aside their own organization and their own interests and they will inhabit the character of someone else,” Cheramie said. “This does a couple things. It helps them understand what these negotiations are like and it helps them with strategies for access and ownership.”

Cheramie said the event will also help stakeholders network with each other and find areas of overlap.

Van Maasakkers said so far the project has been met with a positive reaction in Lima. He added that he had presented their findings to members of the city council, as well as social clubs in the city.

“Interestingly, all these presentations are picked up by local TV and newspapers, which have produced a broader outreach and reputation for the project,” he said. “And we have had some wonderful responses as well.”

He added that landowners in Lima, as well as OSU alumni, have reached out to ask how they can help with the project.

Cheramie said that in addition to benefiting the community, the project also helps the students as well. Those who work with the team in Knowlton get an opportunity to put what they learn into practice.

“They get to deal with stakeholders, attend community meetings and explain to people who are confused why there are students driving around taking pictures of lots,” she said. “That’s a pretty remarkable experience.”


The Engaged Scholars logo accompanies stories that feature and examine research and teaching partnerships formed between the Ohio State University and the community (local, state, national and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources. These stories spring from a partnership with OSU’s Office of Outreach and Engagement. The Lantern retains sole editorial control over the selection, writing and editing of these stories.

One comment

  1. I’ve been an urban planner for over 30 years (OSU MCRP 1978) and this program is a great asset for the local cities. Such a data base is a great tool in reaching eventual solutions for these land parcels. One item is bothersome, however, where it states that …having “700 vacant parcels prevents a city from looking at one lot at a time…”. Although I agree that looking at the macro level is a great start, and hopefully local organizations may look at multiple parcels for their programs; however, eventually a planning department can and should look at each and every parcel for individual attention. Today, many times we ignore the micro level in the hopes that a technological tool may present an easy solution for the entire data base. There is no substitute for an individual look. Many cities, for example, offer adjacent homeowners a chance to take over ownership (free) of a vacant lot to add to their lot, for a garden, a home addition, or just to prevent an eyesore. Congrats to the students and OSU for a timely program.

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