Sustainable Land Lab to address vacant properties in St. Louis​

Teams to choose from six lots in Crown Square area, adjacent to historic Crown Candy Kitchen, for demonstration projects
By Neil Schoenherr

The City of St. Louis estimates more than 10,000 vacant parcels have come into its ownership through tax foreclosure — and nearly 20 percent of all property within city limits is vacant.

A new joint program between the City of St. Louis and the Washington University in St. Louis Office of Sustainability seeks to reframe the issue: turning vacant land into an opportunity that inspires innovative thinking and catalyzes tangible demonstration projects.

The Sustainable Land Lab, part of the university’s three-day Sustainable Cities Conference, will be launched at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

The Sustainable Land Lab is designed to be a living laboratory of two-year demonstration projects, which will showcase innovative ideas and integrated strategies for transforming one of the region’s greatest challenges — vacant land — into an asset that can advance sustainability.

Concentrations of vacant and underutilized land are closely interrelated with detrimental social, economic and environmental impacts, including depressed property values, high crime prevalence, environmental hazards and additional disinvestment.

Cities across the country are struggling with this problem. There are bright spots of positive interventions, but few, if any, have a holistic solution.

“St. Louis will be on the forefront of finding a sustainable solution to the issue of vacant land by creating an innovative competition that puts ideas into action,” says Henry S. Webber, executive vice chancellor for administration at Washington University

“While there may not be any quick solutions to such a complex problem, case studies from across the U.S. show that a shift in public thinking and policy around the highest and best use of these properties presents a major opportunity for innovation,” says Phil Valko, director of sustainability at Washington University.

The Sustainable Land Lab will be initiated through a public competition. Teams will compete for the opportunity to demonstrate their ideas through tangible projects at the scale of a single vacant lot.

“While competitions are typically great ways to generate ideas and garner attention, what’s so appealing about this particular effort is the practical application and on-the-ground demonstration pilot that will occur in the city,” says Catherine Werner, sustainability director for the City of St. Louis.

“We are excited to partner with Washington University in this effort and look forward to seeing the sustainability innovations put in place for research, learning and replication purposes,” she says.

The competition is a six-month effort. Winning teams will be selected through three qualifying review rounds by an esteemed jury. Prize packages include a two-year lot lease and $5,000 seed funding awarded to up to four teams.

In this first year of the competition, Old North St. Louis will serve as the pilot neighborhood. Teams will choose from six lots in the Crown Square redevelopment area, adjacent to historic Crown Candy Kitchen, to create their demonstration projects.

“The Sustainable Land Lab will be initiated by tapping into our region’s creative talent. The winning demonstration projects will showcase interim and potential long-term use of vacant lots and provide ongoing opportunities for public education,” Valko says.

The Sustainable Land Lab Competition officially will kick off during the Nov. 2 event. The program features a talk by Ron Sims, the former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who will share the national perspective on urban vacant land as an open canvas for sustainable interventions.

During the event, competition organizers formally will launch the public competition, providing key dates and information for participants, as well as opportunities for all attendees to network and engage in idea generation.

As a parallel student-run track, the 2013 Olin Sustainability Case Competition will be launched the following week on campus. 

The competition will encourage interdisciplinary student teams from across the Washington University campuses to develop creative solutions incentivizing sustainable development of vacant property throughout St. Louis, a challenge that will require negotiating and analyzing intra-city dynamics, myriad stakeholders and unique social and legal contexts.

The Sustainable Land Lab Competition was developed through a partnership between Washington University and the City of St. Louis. The inaugural year of this competition was made possible through support from the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and Equifax.

For more information on the Land Lab and the conference, visit sustainablecities.wustl.edu.

For more information on the Olin Sustainability Case Competition, visit apps.olin.wustl.edu/mba/casecompetition/index.cfm.

Neil Schoenherr
Senior News Director
(314) 935-5235