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Some ideas for converting urban "red fields" into "green fields"

Ryan Delaney

Declining populations and shuttered factories have left rustbelt cities - like Buffalo or Rochester - with numerous vacant and abandoned properties. They can be old homes, former warehouses, or out-of-favor shopping centers.

Municipalities face the challenge of how to get those properties back into productive use.

Kevin Caravati is an urban green space expert with the Georgia Tech Research Institute. He calls those empty sites "red fields" - a play on the term for environmentally contaminated sites known as "brownfields." He has worked in cities across the country, including Atlanta and Cleveland, to turn vacant properties into parks, gardens or nature sites.

Caravati was the keynote speaker at the recent ReLeaf New York conference held in Utica. The Innovation Trail caught up with him after his lecture.

Note: This interview has been edited for both clarity and length.

Innovation Trail: Explain the potential short term benefits of turning abandoned properties into urban green space.

Kevin Caravati:  First thing it does is stabilize the property values. So if you’ve got a deteriorating strip mall, or closed down drugstore, whatever it may be that’s not being taken care of, once that’s gone, at the very minimum you stabilize the land values and the surrounding properties don’t continue to decline.

IT: It seems the cities that have the problem of vacant properties are also the cities with financial problems. So where does the funding for these projects come from in cash-strapped cities?

KC: It varies. In some cases there are funds available at the federal level. In some cases it’s people taxing themselves for these improvements. And in some cases it’s negotiating with the current landowners or financial institutions that have the properties and getting them to pony up. Because they’re looking for solutions that may not exist, so it takes some creative financing to make these happen.

IT: Cities that have long struggled with population loss are now dotted with quarter- or half-acre vacant plots. What can cities do with those? It seems they may be too numerous or too small to turn into parks.

KC: You see in some cases people are putting in community gardens, but what you try to do is connect those. If you can make a corridor where those properties can connect, that seems to make a lot of sense. So maybe you couldn’t do a whole lot with that property, but gosh if it connected to a street corridor that lead you to a larger park or lake, that may make a lot of sense. Maybe it’s just a bike trail and somebody is able to set up coffee shop.

When you can connect it with something broader and bigger I think that’s where the value can come in.

IT: Do former industrial sites, known as brownfields, pose unique challenges?

KC: It depends on type of contamination in the soil and groundwater. But for most of the environmental problems – asbestos, underground storage tanks – we know how to handle that.

So environmental issues, they can be hurdles, but maybe they’re opportunities because the owners may be eligible for federal or state funding to help them clean up. A lot of municipalities like brownfield sites because they know how to handle them. Financing is a big part, but it’s also changing people’s perceptions.

IT: Do rustbelt cities face unique challenges with their aging and shrinking populations and more stagnate economies than more boomtown places like Atlanta?

KC: Cleveland is a parallel example [to upstate New York cities] where they’ve lost population, have a lot of aging infrastructure. And they’re really working to take down aging infrastructures, refurbish their downtown with some very innovative, green-oriented designs.

Cleveland’s revitalization is very strongly based on water because of connection with the lake. They’ve received a lot of federal infrastructure funding to make that happen that's being matched by private dollars.

WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail
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