OH/LEX: Activating Land Vacancies

In a 2015 January snowstorm, Jake Boswell and Kristi Cheramie from the Knowlton School Landscape Architecture Section, and Mattijs van Maasakkers from the City and Regional Panning Section, drove from Columbus to a small diner in Lima, Ohio. Waiting for them was Charlene D. Gilbert, the Dean and Director of The Ohio State University, Lima campus, Lima Mayor David Berger and Community Development Director Amy Sackman-Odum. Safe from the elements, the group discussed how to initiate the Ohio Land Exchange (OH/LEX) project, a collaborative effort to reactivate vacant and abandoned land in Lima, by engaging a broad range of stakeholders. The project parameters would involve cross-disciplinary engagement and faculty from two OSU campuses in an effort to address the issue of urban land vacancies in a medium-sized Ohio city.

The institutional framework for OH/LEX had its origin in the 2015 Van Alen Institute's Future Ground competition, which invited multi-disciplinary teams to generate flexible design and policy strategies to reuse vacant land in New Orleans. Created by the Knowlton School team of Boswell, Cheramie and Maasakkers, The New Orleans Land Exchange (NO/LEX), a projective framework designed to transform abandoned landscapes into resources for the current and future city, won the competition.   

In developing their competition proposal that considered the relationship between vacant land, design and urban land use policy, the Knowlton professors coupled Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping with innovative stakeholder outreach and engagement efforts. "I'm not a designer of structures or buildings,” Assistant Professor of Planning Van Maasakkers commented. “I consider myself a designer of processes.” Van Maasakkers added that NO/LEX is fundamentally a process, whose goal of turning tax delinquent properties into new resources centers on effectively fostering and facilitating stakeholder interactions. “NO/LEX is prescriptive about how to reach out to people, whom to reach out to, and how to bring those people into contact with one another.”

The collaborative methodologies developed by the NO/LEX team have been adapted and applied to the OH/LEX initiative in Lima, aided by a $60,000 Ohio State University Engagement Impact Grant. Beginning in the fall of 2015, initial efforts were made to interview as many stakeholders as possible, from hospitals, public health officials, environmental groups, neighborhood groups, and individuals, to clarify their institutional or community interests through the lens of vacant land usage. Graduate Research Assistant Emily Knox explained, “If there is an organization interested in providing after-school projects in underprivileged neighborhoods, for example, we would attempt to find out through the interview what characteristics in a parcel would help them achieve their goals, and where a parcel needed to be located.“ The feedback from these interviews was then spatialized based on stakeholders' interests, a process that cross-referenced data to reveal clusters in the map of shared interests.

Also at this time, Honors students from OSU Lima began to locate and identify vacant properties. During a two-day workshop offered by the Knowlton team, students were introduced to GIS and taught how to map a site. They then spread out through the city to document properties that were either empty lots or contained tax delinquent or abandoned homes. In this data-gathering effort, 726 tax delinquent properties were eventually identified and mapped. Based on this mapping data, the Allen County Land Bank applied for and won a $4.5 million Neighborhood Initiative Program grant, which allows them to begin to demolish many of the vacant and derelict properties in the city.

Presented with this GIS data, the Knowlton professors began to identify parcels that met the criteria of a stakeholder's need. Weighing the collected data and stakeholder feedback, the team decided to focus the OH/LEX project on the St. Johns Corridor Cluster.

In the summer of 2016, stakeholders gathered to participate in a negotiation simulation that allowed each to assume the role of a different stakeholder within a vacant land scenario. Having stakeholders negotiate over the use of a set of vacant parcels from a hypothetical position of interest encouraged them to "step back and think about their own organization, and see how working collaboratively with other stakeholders at a variety of scales might help them achieve their goals," explained Boswell. 

The original pilot test of the OH/LEX project was to run through the process in Lima within a 24-month period. The longer-term goal is to offer to other Ohio municipalities the option of using OH/LEX, or elements of OH/LEX, to reactivate vacant parcels in medium or shrinking cities throughout Ohio. This will be achieved in part through a $40,000 Ohio State University Connect and Collaborate Grant. In order to develop an institutional infrastructure around the project, the Knowlton team this May will train OSU Extension Agents and land bank staff from across the state to conduct and implement future OH/LEX based projects. Boswell indicated efforts are also being made to collaborate with OSU’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis (CURA) “to develop an online tool to warehouse this GIS data and give cities the ability to easily visualize it.”

In mid-summer, Lima stakeholders will complete phase two of their negotiation simulation, in which participants will represent their own individual, community or corporate interests. The goal of the simulation is to encourage collaborative opportunities that clarify how stakeholders may activate vacant properties along the St. Johns Corridor Cluster.

The Knowlton team will then host a walking tour and site visit to selected vacant parcels in Lima. On site will be multi-functional pieces of equipment – movable and expandable pavilions as well as adaptive box systems – that were designed based on feedback from the initial negotiation simulation in Lima. “The boxes are meant to be used individually or collectively as a set piece.” Knox added, “Given their modular nature, they can stack as well as be turned into a stage, a chair or table.” This furniture has been crafted and built on two OSU campuses: the box system at the Knowlton School in Columbus, and the pavilions on the Lima campus by students in Assistant Professor Dan Matthews’s theatre set design course. Stakeholders will be able to engage with these set pieces at a particular site to envision how that outdoor space may be configured to meet their objectives.

“It’s really different from what anybody else has tried to do,” Van Maasakkers commented on OH/LEX’s efforts to spatialize and cluster stakeholder data, adding that while basic elements of consensus building had been around for more than 30 years, he was unaware of anyone having meaningfully applied it within the shrinking city context. “I know it’s a cliché to say that working across disciplinary boundaries creates innovation, but in my mind, this is innovation and it happened because we were working across disciplinary boundaries,” Van Maasakkers indicated.