A pilot program launched nearly two years ago to beautify vacant lots in three Chicago neighborhoods is being lauded as a success, though the vast majority of lots appear not to have been cleaned up as promised.
City officials say the winter months and a blanket of snow make it difficult to see what’s been done; flowers won’t sprout until spring.
Even so, some lots are strewn with trash, others covered with fallen branches. Cars are parked on several, leaving deep tire tracks in the mud.
Grounds for Peace, a $250,000 pilot program, was launched in June 2019 with the intention of beautifying 50 city-owned vacant lots. The idea: Train 40 “at-risk” men in landscaping and maintenance, and have them work on lots in Englewood, Woodlawn and North Lawndale.
The program springs from the belief — backed by research — that beautifying vacant lots improves neighborhoods, creates jobs, and reduces gun violence and other crimes.
Grounds for Peace is a partnership between READI-Chicago and Urban Growers Collective. READI (Rapid Employment and Development Initiative) recruited men to work the lots; Urban Growers trained them. The initial $250,000 budget covered training and landscaping supplies.
Miguel Cambray, READI-Chicago’s director of strategic partnerships and initiatives, said the objective is “cultivate 50 lots throughout the city” in “violent places to give those spaces back” to residents.
“We decided to do this in collaboration with the mayor’s office, in collaboration with Urban Growers and READI-Chicago and build out 50 city lots in a way that they would be able to sustain themselves over times, and they didn’t really require nothing but seasonal maintenance to continue to sort of keep them living,” Cambray said.
Cambray said the program has been successful, with more than 50 lots already cultivated in the two years. But he clarified that “cultivating” means anything from testing soil for contamination, to cleaning up, to planting bulbs. It does not necessarily mean beautified.
“The original idea was 50, but we realized in year one that was a lot, so we carried some of those lots over to year two,” Cambray said. “We’ve already surpassed that and kind of just kept going as more lots became identifiable.”
Cambray couldn’t provide a list of cultivated lots, saying they are owned by the city. He wasn’t sure how many lots had bulbs planted or had been beautified.
The city said it fell short of identifying 50 lots for the program, and only 35 lots have had work done. A spokesperson for READI-Chicago said the city numbers are accurate; the additional lots Cambray talked about working on were not part of the Grounds for Peace program.
The Sun-Times visited all 35 lots on the city’s list and found only two have been beautified to the level promised when the program launched. Those adjacent lots are in the 6000 block of South Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Both have mulch, raised planting beds and fencing.
Five lots show signs of some tilling, as if for planting. Each of those five also had a mound of topsoil covered by a tarp.
About 28 of the 35 lots appear to have had no work done.
Only a third of all lots had signs touting the Grounds for Peace program.
Urban Growers Collective, in a written response to the Sun-Times, said in “a year of pandemic, unprecedented community violence and civil unrest, the expectation that a program would meet all its intended metrics is unrealistic” while also noting, “flowers don’t grow outside in Chicago winters and bulbs bloom in the spring.”
The pandemic also created financial constraints; Urban Growers has received just over $53,000, not its expected $250,000 budget. It also said it had scaled back to 25 lots, lower than 35 lots on the list the city provided to the Sun-Times.
As for cars parked on the lots, Urban Growers said those lots had been deemed inaccessible and taken off the list. Nor is it surprising, the group said, that garbage could be dumped after lots are cleaned up.
The group also said the two lots on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive received “full treatment” because neither is part of Grounds for Peace anymore; outside partners were brought in to help.
Those lots, however, remain on the city’s list, and a Grounds for Peace sign remains at that location.
There is evidence programs like Grounds for Peace can help reduce violence.
A 2018 report from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University found efforts to rehabilitate vacant lots to create urban gardens not only can improve people’s perceptions of safety but also provide material benefits.
“These interventions significantly reduced gun violence and other police-reported problems, such as burglaries and nuisances,” the report found.
The report, which focused on vacant lots in Philadelphia, found a 58% reduction in people’s fears of going outside and determined if vacant lots were properly maintained, that could translate into 350 fewer shootings each year.
An Englewood group, I Grow Chicago, already has had some success reclaiming vacant lots long before the city started the Grounds for Peace program.
I Grow Chicago began about seven years ago with the sole purpose of beautifying the 6400 block of South Honore Street but has expanded to 25 other blocks. The “Peace Garden” was its first initiative seven years ago.
“When I Grow Chicago started with the Peace Garden, this block alone was known for a heavy number of narcotic sales and gun violence — and all the stigmas that’s associated with those things,” said Ken Johnson, the nonprofit’s director of programs.
In its early days, Johnson said, it was important to empower both residents and people vulnerable to partaking in criminal activity. The organization provided job training for people and paid them, too.
The seeds sown then are just now blooming.
“Last year, during our ‘Summer of Hope’ program, there were no shootings on this block for the first time that we can remember,” Johnson said. “Not one shot fired.”
Johnson hopes vacant lots citywide can be reclaimed or reinvested in but notes it isn’t a quick fix. It needs commitment from the city, corporations, philanthropic groups — and, most important, the community.
The city remains committed.
“While this year’s program had a late start due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grounds for Peace initiative remains an element of Mayor Lightfoot’s comprehensive community-based violence reduction strategy, and the city looks forward to continuing this work into the future,” a mayor’s office spokesperson said.