In a recent blog post we posed the question of what’s a park worth? In general, the answer is that it depends on whom you ask. Here at Impact Infrastructure we have used AutoCASE to provide a monetized answer to that question a couple times, see here and here. Let’s extend the hypothetical question to another public asset, undeveloped public land. What is a vacant lot owned by a city worth?
The natural starting point is to consider the pure financial value of the land. Determining the financial value is as simple as the price of the lot if sold by a city. The true value is a little more complicated than that. For starters we can think about the cost it imposes on the city. Casually it is easy to think that this land sits idle and doesn’t cost the city any money. However, cities pay to maintain this idle land. Sometimes maintenance is as simple as cutting the lawn on the property. Other times, maintenance is much more intensive and expensive including waste clean-up, pest control, and police and fire services. The results is that this public asset is a yearly expense which can range from $150 to $4,100 per vacant lot.
In a previous blog post we told you that public land in the form of parks is quite valuable, especially for environmental and social reasons. Vacant land owned by the city does not produce the same benefits that parkland can produce. In fact, this land does not produce any benefits at all. Although it has some inherent financial value, that value is realized once the land is sold to a developer. In some cases, this land is not going to be sold to a developer meaning it is a financial cost to the city to own the property. In addition to the financial cost, this public asset imposes a negative social and environmental cost to the surrounding community. Increased crime, and depressed property values have been linked to vacant land. If the vacant land is covered by an impervious surface, then it contributes to an increased flood risk and water quality issues in the surrounding community.
This is not an indictment of the city owning vacant land. Instead, these costs borne by the city and the community present an opportunity. What options are available to the city beyond letting the land sit idle? They could convert the land to parkland that provides a host of benefits. Alternatively they could convert the land into urban agriculture plots. Similar to parkland, urban agriculture programs have a wide variety of social and environmental benefits. The relationship between the farmer and the city can be constructed such that the program is revenue positive, or at the very least neutral for the city by having tenant farmers lease the land from the city. The City of Toronto has both community garden plots and allotment garden plots. Seasonal fees are paid to use an allotment garden whereas, community garden projects receive some financial assistance from the City of Toronto.
Urban agriculture projects provide significant benefits to the surrounding community. First and foremost, they provide a space that can be used for recreational activities bringing recreational benefits to the community similar to parkland. Secondly, they increase the value of surrounding houses. Not only do they counter act the negative effects of vacant land, green space has been shown to increase property values. Urban agriculture can be a source of revenue for farmers, as well as providing access to fresh produce to the farmer’s daily diet. Both of these benefits are of particular importance for projects targeted at low income neighbourhoods. Supplanting the regular produce from urban farmer’s diet also generates the social benefit of reduced trucking miles. Given the wide geographic representation in the produce aisles at grocery stores, eating locally sourced produce offsets some of the negative environmental and social costs of transporting produce. Although not a comprehensive list, the above benefits make a compelling case for urban agriculture projects.
Many projects across North America are already underway that make use of idle public land. Right here in Toronto there are more than 70 community or allotment garden projects. Large-scale initiatives in New York City, San Francisco, and Philadelphia are also underway. Idle public land can have significant value if cities and municipalities take the care to unlock it.
 http://planphilly.com/uploads/media_items/http-planphilly-com-sites-planphilly-com-files-econsult_vacant_land_full_report-pdf.original.pdf, https://www.huduser.gov/portal/periodicals/em/winter14/highlight1.html
 http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/documents/true-costs.pdf, http://www.spur.org/sites/default/files/publications_pdfs/SPUR_Public_Harvest.pdf, Urban Agriculture Impacts: Social, Health, and Economic: A Literature Review by Sheila Golden, UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis (2013), https://www.huduser.gov/portal/periodicals/em/winter14/highlight1.html
 http://www.spur.org/sites/default/files/publications_pdfs/SPUR_Public_Harvest.pdf, Urban Agriculture Impacts: Social, Health, and Economic: A Literature Review by Sheila Golden, UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis (2013)
 For a larger list of benefits see: Urban Agriculture Impacts: Social, Health, and Economic: A Literature Review by Sheila Golden, UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis (2013)