Revitalizing the Steel City: Utilizing Community Leadership and Partnership to Transform Vacant and Abandoned Lots into Opportunities

Author: Eve Pytel

About the author: Eve Pytel serves as Director of Strategic Priorities at Delta Institute, a non-profit organization that works throughout the Great Lakes region to build a resilient environment and economy through sustainable, market-driven solutions. As Director of Strategic Priorities, she helps drive organizational strategy and manages programs that focus on sustainability, new markets, and waste material. 

Where there’s a combination of vacant or unused land and high unemployment, there’s potential for transformation and growth. The challenge is achieving transformation in a way that returns values to local residents. The Steel City of Gary, Indiana, like many legacy cities (former industrial powerhouses), has endured outmigration, corporate abandonment, and the foreclosure crisis.  But thanks to strong city leadership, dedicated local partners, and the Obama Administration’s Strong Cities Strong Communities Initiative (SC2) support, Gary, Indiana is now positioned to transform its vacant and abandoned lots into assets, catalyzing a circular economy which continually reinvests in itself.

An infographic from Delta Institute about how much of a home's materials can be reused or recycled.

An infographic from Delta Institute about how much of a home’s materials can be reused or recycled.

In 2013, Gary’s staff met with the Delta Institute to discuss strategies to improve the city’s environmental and economic health. A year later, Delta partnered with Gary and University of Chicago to convene a regional symposium around deconstruction and proactive blight management. EPA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development SC2 staff supported the conversation by participating, as well as presenting and providing technical assistance to community stakeholders on the EPA Residential Demolition Bid Specification Development Tool.

Gary residents were initially concerned that a deconstruction program would benefit Chicago firms and workers and not Gary, so Delta provided training to Gary contractors to enable them to compete against outside contractors. Delta also set up procurement tools to prioritize local bids and the usage of local workers.

Since the regional conversation, I have been working with local partners including the City of Gary to test collaborative and innovative solutions to activate these vacant and under-utilized properties in a way that achieves the goals of economic, environmental, and social benefits envisioned by Gary residents. Some of these innovative solutions include:

  • Revitalizing brownfields by planting trees and vegetation. Through a process called phytoremediation, the natural functions of plants can remediate contaminated soil, sludge, sediment, ground water, surface water, or waste water. With funding from the U.S. Forest Service, we’re working to implement this interim strategy on five acres of brownfields in the Great Calumet River. Through phytoremediation, we’re cleaning up the water and soil, absorbing stormwater, reducing the flow of contamination into Lake Michigan, and improving the aesthetics of the site.

    Workers deconstructing a home.

    A home in Gary, Indiana that will soon be deconstructed.

  • Removing blighted homes and harvesting materials through deconstruction. Currently in Gary, almost 6,000 homes sit vacant, and in those homes, there is great economic value for Gary. While many of these homes will end up being demolished, the City of Gary will incorporate deconstruction as a strategy to harvest building materials for reuse. Compared to the singular benefit of demolition, deconstruction offers many benefits including blight reduction, employment and training for local workers, fuel for local building material markets, and the diversion of materials from our already-taxed landfills. This month, 12 Gary homes will be deconstructed by local workers, and thanks to DIYers, woodworking artisans, and collectors, you can buy them, and thanks to a grant Delta received from the Knight Cities Challenge, the lumber and architectural salvage harvested from the homes will eventually go to a local marketplace where DIYers, woodworking artisans, and collectors can buy them. Delta received from the Knight Cities Challenge, the lumber and architectural salvage harvested from the homes will eventually go to a local marketplace where DIYers, woodworking artisans, and collectors can buy them.

    Workers deconstructing a home in Gary, Indiana.

    Workers deconstructing a home.

  • Aggregating newly vacant land for conservation purposes. Demolition and deconstruction leaves land vacant and idle. We’re working with the City of Gary to bring together local government agencies and conservation groups to create a strategy to utilize the publicly owned properties that are currently or will be vacant in the next year for green space that can provide environmental and recreational benefits for Gary.

While we are testing these various vacant land management solutions in Gary, the strategies are applicable to all cities – especially Legacy Cities. I hope our work in Gary can change the narrative around vacant and abandoned land, so that cities like Gary across the country recognize the potential economic, environmental and social value that these properties can offer back into local communities.

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