Vacant and Verdant: Examining Chicago's Vacant Lots as a Socio-Ecological System
thesisposted on 06.08.2019, 00:00 by Elsa C Anderson
In summer 2015, the city of Chicago owned over 13,000 vacant lots. These lots were clustered in low-income neighborhoods and encompassed over 700 ha of available green space in the city. As such, they are a vital component of urban environments, and can have impacts on urban residents and wildlife. In this project, I aim to answer three primary questions: 1) how might vacant lots benefit social, ecological, and economic development in cities, 2) how have human activities shaped the plant community and structure in vacant lots, and 3) what methods are suitable for increasing biodiversity and resulting ecosystem services in vacant lots. I use a combination of literature review, field sampling, and experimental methods to examine the plants and patterns that impact vegetation in vacant lots. Social factors are important in driving vacant lots vegetation. The amount of trash in a lot is an important predictor of diversity and structure, and fence lines contain a unique assemblage of species compared to lot interiors. Management of vacant lots varies across the landscape, which creates a fine-scale patchwork of different plant communities and habitats across the city. Lastly, there are ways to improve the quality of vegetation in vacant lots by introducing native species. Broadcast seeding with native species results in an increase in plant diversity. Gardening—removing weeds and watering regularly—resulted in high target species abundance and floral resources, but also destabilized soils. In all, vacant lots provide a resource in cities to improve ecological, social, and economic well-being. Many of the ecosystem services provided are mediated by plants, which are highly modified by human activities. Using this knowledge can help urban land managers and sustainability practitioners leverage the potential of vacant lots to contribute to conservation and ecosystem services goals.