Students plot the future of vacant city lots

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A. Sue Weisler

Rashid Jemel Thompson, 4, a visitor from St. Phillip Missionary Baptist Church’s Academic Summer Camp, helps harvest a children’s garden on First Street.

RIT students worked this summer with Rochester high school students to see if some of the 300 city-owned vacant lots in the Marketview Heights neighborhood can be turned into community gardens, playscapes or exercise stations.

Weekdays for six weeks this summer, city high school students, supervised by RIT students Malkia Nyakako, a fourth-year civil engineering, and sociology and anthropology double major from Princeton, Mass., and Exa Page, a fifth-year environmental sciences major from Annapolis, Md., canvassed the streets running off Bay Street in Rochester.

The survey is a collaboration with the Field to Table program and the Marketview Heights Collective Action Project. The pilot program used the leadership team of the Field to Table program, which began seven years ago when a vacant lot on First Street was converted to a children’s garden. The garden continues to be a positive neighborhood asset, educating children and providing food to area residents.

The students collected data about each vacant parcel they found, including whether there were any structures on the lots, the number of trees, curb cuts and access to water, and entered it into an app on their phones. Many city-owned lots, about 2,100 in Rochester, are idle and covered in grass. Homes once stood on most of the sites, but they were torn down due to fires or abandonment. Housing codes today call for larger parcels of land for new houses, so replacing homes is not an option for the parcels.

“This research is intended to supplement city data about these lots, and in combination with a Reusing Vacant Lot Guidebook drafted by students in collaboration with neighborhood residents, will provide residents for their review and assessment of its value for rethinking policies and initiatives regarding these parcels,” said Ann Howard, director of RIT’s University/Community Partnership Program.

James Winebrake, dean of RIT’s College of Liberal Arts, said the project helped RIT students become more involved in community projects.

“One of the pillars of our college is community engagement,” Winebrake said. “This project is an excellent example of how our students and faculty are working with the local community on research projects that provide significant positive impacts for both the students and the community.”

The RIT students also partnered with city youth who learn leadership skills, résumé writing and participate in mock job interviews at the Neighborhood Resource Center.

“We’re all about helping them build from the assets that are in the community,” said Tunya Griffin, youth director for the Field to Table program.

She said the program has become a model for other block clubs in Rochester, who attend monthly meetings in the Marketview Heights Community Action Program. “It’s great to see all the children excited,” said Lesa Jackson, a manager from St. Phillip Missionary Baptist Church. “For a lot of them, this is the first time they have seen food where they can touch it other than in a supermarket.”