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June 2016 Featured Article
Using Walking Tours to Highlight the Potential for Abandoned and Historic Properties
When confronting the challenges of blighted historic properties, some local governments are finding ways to promote reinvestment by the private sector at little to no cost to the taxpayer. Thanks to strategic partnerships between institutions of higher learning, historic preservation groups, landmark agencies/foundations and neighborhood community development organizations, communities are crafting win-win outcomes through grassroots redevelopment efforts. This process builds on the sharing of existing resources strategically.
Wilkinsburg Borough in Pennsylvania, located just east of Pittsburgh, is demonstrating these possibilities through the power of self-guided walking tours. It is called the Vacant Home Tour, and is made possible through the cooperation of Carnegie Mellon University, the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation and Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. Originally, the product of a student-driven initiative at the University, variations of it can be seen across the United States, including large cities like Detroit and Philadelphia.
These tours tackle Wilkinsburg’s long-standing struggles with neighborhood blight by highlighting specific historic vacant properties every year. Keeping costs low, these tours are self-guided with volunteer neighborhood residents stationed along the way to help explain the history and significance of each vacant property identified on the tour. The tour’s coordinator told NPR News that telling the story of the homes and the people that used to live there adds a little bit of emotion and personality to these vacant properties. By connecting people to resources, potential investors can actually do something to rehabilitate the vacant properties.
This requires some serious planning and logistics. In Wilkinsburg, optional workshops are provided to educate visitors on the programs and services available to any parties interested in acquiring any of the properties toured for rehabilitation and/or occupancy purposes. Area organizations were invited to administer workshops on home repairs and on housing assistance information.
Philadelphia takes a similar approach and applies it to vacant lots. Through its partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, vacant lots that once were havens for gun violence and illegal dumping are now community assets, serving as green space to attract visitors and encourage them to reimagine formerly abandoned spaces. This initiative runs at the cost of about a dollar a square foot, and includes removing trash, trucking in topsoil, planting grass seed and new trees and a three-root post and rail with wooden fence.
The lessons taught from these efforts illustrate the power that significant community organizing and strategically targeted property inventories can have for a community. By enhancing the potential for private investment, municipalities can offer an alternative to property condemnation or public acquisition. As important as government incentive programs are in acquiring and rehabilitating vacant and abandoned homes, recounting the history of these properties to remind people of their potential is a crucial ingredient many municipalities miss.
Published June 2016.