Addressing vacant or abandoned properties

Strategy overview

  • Improving properties: Vacant lots and structures are associated with negative economic, health, and crime outcomes in the areas around them. Solutions include vacant property inventories, land banks, demolition and lot greening, and community gardens.
  • Identifying and tracking: Vacant property inventories list the vacant properties in a community and provide decision makers with relevant data, such as where vacancy is most acute. With information on the extent of the problem, local governments are better equipped to manage and identify solutions.
  • Acquiring and repurposing: Land banks are a popular tool for localities to acquire and then manage, redevelop, or sell properties. Bringing properties under public or non-profit control allows community needs to be prioritized and can facilitate investment in previously underutilized properties.
  • Cleaning and greening: A common approach to addressing vacant lots is to clean up trash or other debris and then “green” the lot with grass, trees, or other plants. This approach can be used on already-vacant lots or in conjunction with the demolition of vacant structures. Cleaned and greened lots are associated with reductions in crime and improved health outcomes in the surrounding area.
  • Repurpose lots for agriculture: Local governments and nonprofit organizations can support residents in repurposing vacant properties for community gardens or larger-scale agriculture. By increasing access to produce and encouraging an active lifestyle, gardens and farms can improve health outcomes for nearby residents.

Rigorous evaluations and research reviews of common practices to address vacant or abandoned properties found that they were associated with safer neighborhoods and improved health.

  • A 2021 systematic review found greening vacant lots was associated with improved mental and physical health.
  • A 2022 research review found that land banks can reduce the number of vacant properties and improve the condition of vacant lots.
  • A 2018 randomized controlled trial found that greening interventions reduced shootings by 6.8 percent and mowing and trash cleanup interventions reduced shootings by 9.2 percent.

  • A 2018 randomized controlled trial found vacant land restoration was associated with reductions in neighborhood crime (13.3 percent); burglary (21.9 percent); and nuisances (30.3 percent).

Before making investments in this strategy, city and county leaders should ensure it addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute has developed an indicator framework to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

Several indicators in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in addressing vacant or abandoned properties. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in these interventions could help, examine the following:

  • Engage community members: Interventions that rely on residents to participate, like community gardens, benefit from early and consistent community engagement. For other strategies, clearly communicating with and involving nearby residents in plans for their neighborhood (e.g., demolitions or property redevelopments) builds public support and ensures efforts align with community goals.
  • Develop cross-sector partnerships: Addressing vacant properties requires resources and expertise rarely present within a single organization. Partnering with community members, local nonprofits, developers, and other relevant stakeholders ensures a program builds buy-in and the capacity to work at scale.
  • Identify a consistent funding source: In weaker markets, addressing vacant properties is a long-term project, and identifying consistent funding sources will ensure efforts like land banks and property inventories can operate predictably and at-scale. Certain interventions, like community gardens and greened lots, also require ongoing maintenance, making a consistent funding source necessary for their longevity.
  • Find appropriate data sources: Interventions like vacant property inventories and land banks require data to identify vacant properties, manage property inventories, and demonstrate their impact. Localities should strike a careful balance between leveraging fine-grained and accurate data and identifying sustainable data collection processes.

Evidence-based examples

Plots of land owned by local governments, non-profits, or other groups that are dedicated as a gardening space for public use on a membership basis
Supportive neighborhoods Stable and healthy families
Community-owned or public entities that acquire troubled properties and transform them into community assets
Supportive neighborhoods