As I wander around my central Washington, DC neighborhoods, I pass by empty lots on nearly every other block. Sometimes, these are where houses once fell victim to fires, uncompleted construction projects, or general disrepair, and sometimes where property owners have held onto them in the hopes that they can eventually turn a profit on a sale or development. Whatever the reason, my city is full of empty lots.
Aside from often being eyesores and open to unsafe activities, these are simply unproductive lands. While DC is a small place, it has a huge number of vacant properties and lots. (There’s even at least one blog dedicated to identifying the city’s vacant properties.) And that huge number adds up to a significant land area. I’ll do some research and report back some calculations, but if there are two empty lots within each square block in DC, and the average lot is 13 by 40 feet, that means that there is about 7,165,600 square feet, or 164.5 acres, of unused land throughout the District. if this were a single piece of land, that would mean that the District could sustain a farm larger than half of the farms in the U.S.! Again, I’ll do some research and come up with some firmer estimates.
What am I getting at? For starters, why can’t residents put this unused land to use? We’re still in the middle of a nasty economic situation, and people everywhere are cutting their budgets and living more frugally. Home and community gardens are just one form of this belt-tightening. Seed suppliers everywhere report that their seed stocks have sold out early for the past two years. It’s now just as common for people to plant basil and tomatoes in the front yard or window box as it is to plant a daisy or shrub. Community gardens have record demand. And, DC is right in the middle of this gardening wave.
Here’s the proposition: Let individuals, community organizations, schools, or other non-profit groups use empty lots to grow food. The garden tenants will receive the rights to use the lot to grow food, but not make profit, for so long as the lot is unused. The property owner, in return, receives a tax break from the District government and would retain the right to develop the lot, with fair notice to the gardeners. People get food and a chance to get their hands dirty, neighborhoods have a new form of social capital, city officials return land to active use (potentially stemming property devaluation and criminal activity), and property owners get a tax break. Everyone wins.
I’m ever-mindful of a wonderful community asset in LeDroit Park, the Common Good City Farm. This urban farm, which I am proud to be associated with, has reclaimed an empty lot, provides healthy produce for its neighbors, creates a point of pride in the area, and is working to ease a range of health, social, and justice problems. Gardens can do amazing things, and DC could have one on nearly every block. Just think about it.