Chicago’s Vacant Lots Near Transit: An ETOD Deep Dive

Chicago’s Vacant Lots Near Transit: An ETOD Deep Dive

Vacant lots near transit are a crucial part of Chicago’s equitable transit-oriented development (ETOD) agenda. Their presence increases exposure to environmental hazards, impairs walkability and safety, and symbolizes disinvestment in predominantly Black communities, which contain a disproportionate amount of the City’s vacant land. On the positive side, the abundance of vacant lots is an opportunity to encourage community-informed redevelopment projects that could bring affordable housing, sustainable green space and healthy food to residents. 

To explore the current impact of vacant lots near transit on the South and West Sides, Elevated Chicago put together two case studies: one in East Garfield Park near the Kedzie/ and Lake Green Line CTA stations and the other in Roseland/Washington Heights near the 95th/Dan Ryan Red Line CTA station. 

This webpage: 

  • Looks at the impact of vacant lots, particularly those near transit assets, on communities. 
  • Gives an overview of vacant lots near transit in Chicago’s South Side and West Side , specifically those with ½ mile of a CTA station, through an ETOD lens. 
  • Offers relevant supporting data about land ownership, transit, and the demographics of the neighborhoods most affected by vacant lots, including racial and economic demographics and housing affordability trends. 
  • Showcases videos featuring community members explaining the impact of vacant lots near 2 major transit hubs. 
  • Outlines key takeaways from community engagement conversations. 
  • Provides resources and next steps for those interested in vacant lots and ETOD in Chicago.
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Vacant Lots & Equitable Transit-Oriented Development in Chicago

Vacant lot in East Garfield Park, Chicago

Since maximizing green space and encouraging sustainability are common ETOD goals, vacant lots may initially appear neutral in their impact – like a holding space for better things to come. However, they are symptomatic of disinvestment, and when left untouched, they can create problems for Chicagoans, particularly those who live on the South and West Sides where these underutilized assets are most prevalent. 

Vacant Lots Reduce Walkability & Safety

Walkability is impaired when transit stops are surrounded by vacant lots instead of amenities like grocery stores, retail storefronts, and affordable housing. 

For frequent public transit users, it is inconvenient and time-consuming to walk by empty lots day-to-day instead of retail businesses where one can shop or grab food. There is also a real safety risk when walking by unlit lots early in the morning or late at night.  

Vacant lots near transit could hold mixed-use developments that include a combination of community assets – such as locally owned businesses and affordable housing, or community spaces and health services – bringing more activity to the street and offering residents quick and easy access to public transit. This would make the ‘L’ a more viable method of daily transportation. A growing pipeline of developments representing the aspirations of communities is starting to take shape near Chicago’s train stations, but more are needed. 

“Walk with us to the Pulaski Green Line” TikTok with Jannice Newson

Vacant Lots Could Be More Sustainable

Vacant lots may initially appear to have a positive ecological impact, since they are green space and provide room for local plant and animal life. However, these lots often accumulate trash, may have environmental hazards, and are underutilized in their current form. Some investment and thoughtful design and planning can drastically enhance the sustainable impact of this vacant land. 

More effective uses of vacant lots include parks, community gardens, or urban forests that bring natural resources to the local community. When green infrastructure is intentional and well-maintained, it can boost community participation, add visual appeal, and enhance stormwater reduction efforts. 

Vacant Lots Symbolize Disinvestment in the South and West Sides

Lastly, there is the question of where in Chicago vacant lots are typically located.  

Due to historic disinvestment, communities on the South and West Sides, and particularly Black communities, tend to have more empty lots than neighborhoods on the North Side. This exacerbates car dependency in these communities and makes affordable modes of transit – such as public transit, biking, skateboarding, scootering, and walking – more difficult.

Painted tires in front of a vacant lot in East Garfield Park, Chicago

The Negative Community Impacts of Vacant Land

The abundance of vacant land surrounding many transit stations and stops in Chicago’s communities of color is a clear manifestation of the disinvestment-related challenges facing these sites. However, it also represents one of the most substantial opportunities available to community residents and public agencies to shape the futures of these key locations.  

 The high level of vacant land in Chicago’s communities of color is the product of decades of discrimination and disinvestment, followed by long-term population loss, property abandonment, and ultimately demolition of distressed, deteriorating structures. A range of challenges associated with redeveloping or repurposing these vacant lots means that they can often sit vacant for years despite significant community efforts.  

 Unfortunately, concentrated levels of vacant land can have a broad range of negative impacts on communities and residents, including: 

  • Negative impacts on nearby property values. 
  • Increases in crime.
  • Increased exposure to environmental hazards.
  • Negative effects on mental health, physical activity, and social cohesion. 

Repairing Disinvestment With Community-Driven Redevelopment Projects

The redevelopment of vacant lots is a sign of renewed investment in areas that have been redlined and subject to predatory financial policies in the past. However, redevelopment plans can exacerbate displacement and gentrification when undertaken without proper community guidance. 

Redevelopment efforts are more likely to bring about positive economic and emotional change when they:

  • Place residents and community stakeholders at the center. 
  • Engage the community in the process from the beginning. 
  • Actively work to meet the needs and wants of the community. 
  • Express or amplify community culture, history, and legacy. 
Through community engagement, residents shared what they would like to see in Garfield Park: self-care and wellness, small businesses and retail, community centers, market-rate housing, industry and employment, and public spaces, among other things

Past & Present Attempts To Repurpose Vacant Lots

Chicago’s vacant lot problem is not new. Over the years, a range of initiatives have attempted to address these challenges, attract new investment, and repurpose vacant lots for productive uses. Despite this, the abundance of vacant land around many transit sites remains a major challenge and impediment to broader neighborhood investment efforts. 

Recently, the City of Chicago’s Connected Communities Ordinance and other city programs designed to activate and redevelop vacant land in historically disinvested communities highlight new opportunities to leverage transit assets to attract new investment to transit-rich, but underinvested areas. As a result, ETODs have been completed or are in development in majority-Black communities like Bronzeville, Washington Park, Woodlawn, Garfield Park and North Lawndale. 

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Data About Vacant Land in Chicago

There are about 441 vacant lots located near rapid transit (within ½ mile of the CTA 95th Red Line station and the Metra 95th Street/Chicago State University station)

Elevated Chicago’s partner, the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University (IHS), was able to provide quantitative context for our community case studies regarding: 

  • Ownership of vacant lots (City-owned vs. privately owned). 
  • Racial and economic composition of affected neighborhoods. 
  • Access to transit. 

Type 1: City-Owned Vacant Land

Over the years, the City of Chicago has acquired vacant land through a range of channels, such as: 

 As of July 2023, the city owned roughly 8,800 vacant lots, with the vast majority of these lots being zoned for residential use. City-owned vacant land is highly concentrated in Chicago’s communities of color.  

Type 2: Privately Owned Vacant Land

There are nearly over 3.5 times as many privately owned vacant lots in Chicago when compared to City-owned lots.  

Privately owned vacant land can be challenging to understand, categorize, and catalog. While some properties are temporarily vacant awaiting planned redevelopment, others may sit vacant for decades and be severely tax delinquent. Ownership of can be difficult to determine, and site control (ownership, lease or long-term permission) can be challenging to obtain.  

Data from the Cook County Assessor indicate that there were nearly 32,000 privately owned vacant lots in Chicago in 2022. Similar to City-owned lots, the vast majority of privately owned vacant lots are located in majority-Black communities.  

Distribution of City-owned and privately owned vacant land by neighborhood race/ethnic composition in Chicago, as of July 2023 and Tax Year 2021

Bar graph displaying the distribution of City-owned and privately owned vacant land by neighborhood race/ethnic composition in Chicago, as of July 2023. 58.6% of privately owned vacant land and 80.2% of City-owned vacant land is in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Statistics on Vacant Land Near Transit in Chicago

A substantial portion of Chicago’s vacant land is close to a transit stop or station, and the vast majority of vacant land near transit (within ½ mile of a CTA station) is in Chicago’s predominantly Black communities. 

  • Over 43% of Chicago’s City-owned vacant land is located near a CTA train station. 
  • Approximately 90% of these city-owned, transit-accessible lots are in predominantly Black communities. 

Levels of privately owned vacant land near transit follow similar patterns.  

  • Over 34% of Chicago’s privately owned vacant land is located near a CTA train station. 
  • Over 68% of these privately held, transit-accessible lots are in predominantly Black communities.  

This means there are nearly more than 11,000 vacant lots located near transit in predominantly Black communities. 

Over 3,400 are City-owned, and roughly 7,500 are privately owned. 

The Chicago community areas with the largest number of city-owned and privately owned vacant lots near transit include South and West Side communities like: 

  • Englewood. 
  • East Garfield Park. 
  • North Lawndale. 
  • Austin. 
  • Grand Boulevard. 

Distribution of City-owned and privately owned vacant land within ½ mile of a CTA train station by neighborhood race/ethnic composition in Chicago, as of July 2023 and Tax Year 2021

Bar graph visualizing the distribution of City-owned and privately owned vacant land within ½ mile of a CTA train station by neighborhood race/ethnic composition in Chicago, as of 2022. 66.3% of privately held and 90% of City-owned vacant land within a half mile of a CTA station is in predominantly Black communities.

Top 10 City of Chicago community areas with the largest number of vacant lots within ½ mile of a CTA train station, as of July 2023 and Tax Year 2021

Chart showing the top 10 City of Chicago community areas with the largest number of vacant lots within ½ mile of a CTA train station, as of July 2023: Englewood, East Garfield Park, North Lawndale, West Garfield Park, West Englewood, Austin, Grand Boulevard, Washington Park, Near West Side, and Woodlawn.
Elevated Chicago horizontal rainbow fractals

Vacant Lot Case Studies: Roseland/Washington Heights and East Garfield Park

To explore the impact of vacant lots on local communities, Elevated Chicago has put together two case studies – supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and in partnership with the Institute of Housing Studies at DePaul University (IHS) and Rudd Resources – to examine the current vacant lot situation in Roseland/Washington Heights and East Garfield Park 

The case study goals were to: 

  • Use data and community narratives to highlight current conditions around vacant land near transit. 
  • Hear from the community on how they want to see this land redeveloped. 
  • Identify opportunities to better address community wants and needs in redevelopment or repurposing of vacant land. 
  • Learn about the key challenges associated with the redevelopment or repurposing of vacant land around transit stations. 
  • Understand the impact that the high rate of vacant land has on community health, opportunity, and vitality. 
Overhead view of the 95th/Dan Ryan Red Line station and surrounding area

We have come out of this process with: 

  • Two video tours led by community members. 
  • Community area data from IHS to contextualize the project. 
  • Key takeaways from conversations with community stakeholders. 

Elevating Community Voices in the Discussion Around Vacant Land

First, Elevated Chicago worked with two community partners – one from East Garfield Park and one from Roseland/Washington Heights – to: 

  • Better understand the impact that abundant vacant land has on their respective communities. 
  • Uncover challenges facing their communities as they work to repurpose vacant land near transit. 
  • Create videos that share community perspectives and visualize local challenges associated with vacant land. 

Later, we helped convene groups of community stakeholders to: 

  • Discuss how they wanted to see vacant land redeveloped. 
  • Identify barriers to achieving those community goals.
Community engagement session in Washington Heights

Case Study #1: East Garfield Park, Near Kedzie and California Green Line CTA Stations

East Garfield Park Racial & Economic Demographics

The East Garfield Park community area has been challenged for decades with issues related to disinvestment and vacant land.  

 It is a predominantly Black community on Chicago’s West Side where nearly 85% of residents are Black and the majority are very low income. To put this in numerical terms: 

  • Roughly 52% of households in East Garfield Park earn less than $25,000 per year.  
  • Over 76% of households in East Garfield Park are renters. 
  • Of these renters, over two-thirds are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income toward rent. 


As of June 2023, there are 380 City-owned vacant lots in East Garfield Park, Chicago

The community was hit hard by the Great Recession and foreclosure crisis. Since 2005, nearly 45% of residential properties in the neighborhood were associated with a foreclosure filing, ranking as one of Chicago’s most foreclosure-distressed communities.  

East Garfield Park Neighborhood Assets & Risk of Gentrification

Despite these challenges, East Garfield Park is a community rich in assets and has begun to experience gentrification-related pressures. 

Garfield Park is one of Chicago’s signature parks, providing residents with access to open space that includes the Garfield Park Conservatory. The community is also very transit accessible, served by both the CTA Green and Blue lines and containing multiple CTA train stations. This high level of transit service means that the community is easily accessible to Chicago’s West Loop, downtown, and other parts of the city.  

The neighborhood also has a historic housing stock, with more than half of its housing units in 2- to 4-unit buildings, a type of property that forms the backbone of Chicago’s unsubsidized affordable housing stock because it is generally lower-cost. 

East Garfield Park Loss of Housing Affordability

Recent investment trends highlight the risk of lost affordability in the East Garfield Park community.  

The communities on Chicago’s West Side have seen the city’s largest house price increases since 2012, with particularly strong growth during the COVID-19 housing market. These rapidly rising prices are an indicator of affordability pressures, and since 2010, East Garfield Park has seen a decline in lower-cost rental units. Part of this loss is driven by the loss of 2- to 4-unit buildings to conversion to single-family homes or deterioration.

As highlighted by the map, East Garfield Park has numerous city-owned and privately owned vacant lots near transit.    

Map of City-owned vacant lots (light blue) and privately owned vacant lots (light orange) in East Garfield Park, centering around the Garfield Park Eco-Orchard

These vacant lots pose a risk for gentrification if community members do not have the access, control, and resources they need to plan and develop the lots for themselves. However, if vacant lot redevelopment is put in the hands of the community, the lots present an opportunity to create affordable housing and other neighborhood amenities that serve community interests. 

Community Video: East Garfield Park Vacant Lots

This video centers around the activation of vacant land near a former commercial corridor, Fifth City, in the East Garfield Park community near both the Kedzie and California Green Line CTA stations. The community’s focus is on: 

  • Development of affordable housing near transit. 
  • Repurposing of vacant land as open spaces and community gardens. 
  • Establishment of a community-based grocery store to provide residents with access to affordable and healthy food options. 

More information on ETOD projects in the East Garfield Park area: 

Butterfly Flower Peace Project: A collaboration of Elevated Chicago and Garfield Park residents to promote peace, positivity, and harmony

Resources mentioned in the video: 

Case Study #2: Roseland/Washington Heights, Near 95th/Dan Ryan Red Line CTA Station

Roseland/Washington Heights Racial & Economic Demographics

Roseland and Washington Heights are predominantly Black, moderate-income communities on Chicago’s South Side. Roughly 95% of residents in both communities are Black.  

While incomes in Roseland and Washington Heights are below the City of Chicago average, both have substantial shares of households earning at least $50,000 per year – 45% in Roseland and 53% in Washington Heights.  

Both are majority homeowner communities. In Roseland, just over 50% of homes are owner occupied, and in Washington Heights roughly 70% of households are homeowners. The vast majority of housing in both communities is found in single family homes 63% in Roseland and 72% in Washington Heights.  

Map of City-owned vacant lots (light blue) and privately owned vacant lots (light orange) in Washington Heights, centering around the 95th/Dan Ryan Red Line station

Roseland/Washington Heights Housing Market

Vacant lot next to a crosswalk in Washington Heights, Chicago

In comparison to East Garfield Park, which is comprised of mostly renters, Roseland and Washington Heights have a high percentage of homeowners. This means that vacant land presents a different challenge and opportunity in these community areas. 

Because of the relative stability of the communities, Roseland and Washington Heights do not have the same scale of vacant property challenges as those facing other South and West Side communities, but pockets of vacant and underutilized land, particularly near the 95th/Dan Ryan Red Line station and along the 95th Street commercial corridor, are a key community concern.  

Given the noticeable lack of amenities for the homeowners in these community areas, vacant lots present an untapped potential for increased quality of life and better access to retail, groceries, and community services. 

Since 2005, over 33% of the residential parcels in Roseland and Washington Heights were hit with a foreclosure filing, and house prices in both communities generally had a slower recovery from the Great Recession than other parts of the city. 

While both communities were hit hard by the Great Recession and foreclosure crisis, there have been recent, positive indicators of housing market investment. In recent years, house prices have stabilized and started a recovery. This was in part the product of increased demand from Black homeowners.  

In 2020 and 2021, Roseland was the top neighborhood for Black home buying in Chicago, and Washington Heights was the third most popular neighborhood for Black homebuyers.  

In particular, both communities were popular with low-, moderate-, and middle-income Black homebuyers, likely attracted to the neighborhoods’ mix of stable, but affordable housing and other local amenities, such as access to the Red Line via the recently rebuilt 95th/Dan Ryan Red Line CTA station. 

Community Video: Roseland/Washington Heights Vacant Lots

The video centers around the 95th/Dan Ryan Red Line CTA station and 95th Street Chicago State University Metra Stations in the Roseland/Washington Heights community areas.   

Community partners worked with returning residents* (formerly incarcerated individuals) to conduct in-person surveys to log the physical conditions and current use of existing vacant lots near the transit stations. This information will help inform recommendations from community residents for future vacant land activation, ranging from side yards to small businesses, and will inform broader Federal Transit Administration-funded ETOD planning along the 95th Street Corridor. 

*We have chosen to use the phrase returning residents to refer to people who are returning to residential communities after having spent time in the justice system, as a charged, defendant or an imprison person, and is borrowed from the The City of Chicago ( We recognize that there are many ways to describe individuals with this background; by selecting this phrase for use here, we are not biased against other uses but choosing one for the sake of this project.

Jalen Preacely and Jannice Newson in “Walk with us to the 95th Red Line” TikTok video
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Community Engagement Sessions: Process & Key Takeaways

Bulletin board from a vacant lots community engagement session. It reads, “What features or elements would we like to see in our open lots to benefit our current community residents?”

Elevated Chicago helped hold community engagement sessions at each case study site. The East Garfield Park session focused on input gathering, whereas the Roseland/Washington Heights session focused on information sharing, informal conversation, and the kick-off of the upcoming planning process. 

From the community outreach, the following takeaways and community preferences emerged regarding the redevelopment and repurposing of vacant land. 

Community Members Are Concerned About the City’s Priorities

Community residents voiced substantial concerns that City efforts to repurpose vacant land were not fully aligned with community preferences. Stakeholders were excited by the opportunities, but also wary of how these vacant lots will be developed, by whom, and for whom.   

There were also concerns about the prospect of displacement of modest-income residents. Residents and other stakeholders wanted to pursue opportunities for community ownership, such as a community land trust.  

 Notably, there was a lack of confidence in redevelopment projects, as the community has witnessed previous housing redevelopments that have brought in unaffordable housing options for current residents. 

Hubert Morgan leads a community engagement meeting at The Endeleo Institute on 95th Street

Community Members Have Clear Priorities & A Desire To Be Involved

Mike Tomas, Executive Director of Garfield Park Community Council, leading a community feedback session where residents offer their ideas for vacant lots

Stakeholders want to be active members at the decision-making tables. They would like the ability to control the narrative and ensure that projects they would like to see in their community come to fruition.   

Community members specifically highlighted the following high-priority items: 

  • Grocery stores with affordable and healthy options as part of commercial redevelopment of vacant land near transit, especially given the current shortage of grocery stores in the case study areas.  
  • Repurposing of City-owned vacant lots that would otherwise remain undeveloped as open spaces like parks or community gardens. 
  • Affordable housing as a major component of new residential redevelopments, with the goal of having a healthy mix of affordable and market-rate housing in the overall community. 
  • Possible adaptive reuse of larger vacant lots (multiple adjacent land parcels) as temporary or pop-up spaces for local events. 
  • Community-based services, such as youth and elderly services, services and amenities provided via locally owned small businesses, and boutique and self-care services. 
  • Increasing knowledge of community-ownership models and Community Benefits Agreements to ensure economic benefits of vacant lot redevelopment for existing community stakeholders. 

Current City Policy Makes Community-Led Repurposing of Vacant Land Challenging

Stakeholders noted the often-onerous process and many steps required to obtain City-owned vacant land. In particular, they referenced a lack of thorough communication to make sure community residents are aware of vacant land programs that allow them to have a primary role in the redevelopment and repurposing of vacant land. 

There was interest in first-look programs to ensure community members have priority access to opportunities to acquire vacant lots and a chance to conduct site review and develop plans in advance of public offerings. 

Chi Block Builder homepage photo

Even when given priority access, community partners noted the substantial administrative, financial, and programmatic requirements that need to be completed before getting site control. They explained that these steps can often substantially extend project timelines, increase costs, and add burdens for community partners. 

There is a need for programmatic supports to encourage community participation, such as technical assistance for community members wanting to acquire, develop, and/or maintain a vacant lot. Similar support is already being provided to ETOD grant winners through the Elevated Works coalition of technical assistance providers. 

Above all, there is a growing understanding that City-owned vacant lots belong to the community. City, developer and community efforts and resources should be more efficiently coordinated to ensure that our communities can reap the benefits of these assets. 

Elevated Chicago horizontal rainbow fractals

What You Can Do About Vacant Lots in Chicago

Endeleo Institute Community Changers, Sirena Smith (left) and Jimmie Jones Jr. (right)

Do you have a vacant lot by your home? Are you interested in reducing the number of vacant lots in Chicago? Would you like to be included in future case studies or get involved in ETOD? 

We’ve compiled some helpful resources below. 

If this page doesn’t answer your question, or if you would like to be more involved, you can also contact Elevated Chicago directly. 

Participate in a City Vacant Lot Program

The City of Chicago is aware of the current vacant lot issue and has put several programs in place to encourage the maintenance and development of vacant lots. 

  • Read through a breakdown of the different lot types at Cityscape. 
  • CHI 311: Make non-urgent city requests like vacant lot cleanup. 

Get in Touch With a Local Nonprofit

Many local nonprofits partner with residents to help them successfully purchase and develop vacant lots for affordable housing, businesses, nonprofits, or open spaces, including: 

Community-based organizations are also often at the forefront of community engagement around development and investments in communities.  Community residents and stakeholders are encouraged to actively engage with their local organizations to help shape the future of their communities. 

Elevated Chicago horizontal rainbow fractals

Media Stories About Vacant Lots in Chicago