The Chicago Mayor’s Office, in conjunction with the Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD), launched a vacant lot greening pilot program in July 2019 to beautify approximately 50 city-owned residential vacant lots. The pilot is a partnership between the City of Chicago, Urban Growers Collective, and Heartland Alliance, with an initial budget of $250,000, which will pay for landscaping supplies and training provided by Urban Growers Collective. The 2019 pilot will beautify vacant properties in three communities—North Lawndale, Woodlawn and Englewood.
Improving the appearance of vacant lots through “greening”, i.e. landscaping, planting an urban garden or farm, etc. reduces violent crime and has a positive impact on residents’ perceptions of safety. Recently, research has also found an impact on a wide range of other outcomes, including mental health and community wellness. The proposed pilot would engage approximately 50 men who are at acute risk of gun-violence involvement and who are participants in Heartland’s READI program. Urban Growers collective will provide training and skill development to the participants, while also helping them positively re-engage in their communities.
Inspired by successful programs in other cities with urban gun violence and large concentrations of vacant property, the pilot program is intended to engage community members in reclaiming spaces that have contributed to violence. The Mayor’s Office designed this pilot as part of a comprehensive approach to reducing violence in communities that is responsive to environmental and design factors that influence safety. The Mayor’s Office is partnering with DPD and the University of Chicago to identify the highest impact city-owned vacant lots using crime data, and with DFSS to administer the program.
Benefits of Community Engagement and Employment Opportunity for At-Risk Adults
Creating positive spaces in communities affected by gun violence will have multiple benefits: not only will it result in space for residents to have access to green space, but the work itself presents a significant opportunity to re-engage individuals who have barriers to employment and are trying to extricate themselves from violence. This pilot program provides these at-risk individuals an opportunity to take ownership of making their community safer while also providing concrete skills.
An effective way to provide a skill-oriented job training experience for this at-risk population is through a pre-existing transitional jobs program that serves an acutely at-risk population—READI (Rapid Employment and Development Initiative). Started in 2017 and operated by Heartland Alliance, this transitional job program recruits the most at-risk individuals in four communities (North Lawndale, Greater Englewood, Austin, West Garfield Park) in Chicago and provides them with cognitive behavioral therapy, a case manager who connects them to wraparound services, and a transitional job.
The City has partnered with Urban Growers Collective to provide substantive landscape training, supervision, and expertise on urban land interventions. Engaging a partner with expertise in this area is fundamental to the success of the pilot. This pilot represents a new approach for the City to participate in community-focused vacant land development.