Transferring Vacant Lots to Private Ownership Improves Care and Empowers Residents: Evidence From Chicago

Alessandro Rigolon, Debolina Banerjee, Paul Gobster, Sara Hadavi, William Stewart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Problem, research strategy, and findings: Several U.S. cities have implemented vacant lot greening programs as planning strategies to address decreased tax base, crime, and other issues associated with high land vacancy in marginalized neighborhoods, yet little is known about the benefits of programs that transfer city-owned lots to private owners. Using a mixed methods approach, we studied whether and how private ownership matters for vacant lot condition-care in Chicago’s (IL) Large Lot Program, which allows property owners to purchase vacant city lots on their block for $1. We compared visual changes in vacant lot condition-care between the purchased “treatment” lots and matched “control” lots through a difference-in-differences technique. Our findings demonstrate a causal effect of private ownership: Whereas condition-care of the control lots decreased between 2014 and 2018, it significantly increased for treatment lots in the year after sale (2015) and continued to rise through 2018. Also, increases in Large Lot condition-care did not vary based on whether owners lived on the block. Focus groups with Large Lot owners showed that ownership empowers residents by reducing illicit and dangerous behaviors, expressing an ethic of care through vacant lot improvement, and continuing a legacy of land tenure tied to family and neighborhood. Further research is needed to strengthen our understanding of spatial contagion effects from treatment to nearby control lots. Takeaway for practice: Our findings show that ownership-based vacant land greening initiatives like the Large Lot Program effectively improve condition-care regardless of whether lot owners live on the same block. Focus group findings suggest that such initiatives could be integrated into community-based safety programs and could be boosted by funding to create community amenities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)570-584
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of the American Planning Association
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2021


  • land ownership
  • urban greening
  • urban vacancy
  • visual assessment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Urban Studies


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