RIT Students Help Determine Future of Vacant Lots in Rochester

Students from RIT and Rochester high schools team up to survey vacant lots in the Marketview Heights neighborhood of Rochester in hopes of turning them into community assets. Credit: A. Sue Weisler

Students at Rochester Institute of Technology are working 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 assets such as community gardens, playscapes or exercise stations.

The survey is a pilot program that is using 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.

Using an app on their phones, city high school students, supervised by RIT students Malkia Nyakako, a fourth-year double major in civil engineering and sociology and anthropology from Princeton, Mass., and Exa Page, a fifth-year environmental sciences major from Annapolis, Md., recently canvassed the streets running off Bay Street in Rochester.

They loaded 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. 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 to be built, 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.

The survey is a collaboration with the Field to Table program, and the Marketview Heights Collective Action Project.

James Winebrake, dean of RIT’s College of Liberal Arts, said the project helps 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 are also partnering with city youth who learn leadership skills, resume´ 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.

The group meets Monday through Friday for six weeks during the summer. The high school students who apply for their Summer of Opportunity positions receive a stipend from the city for their work, which can also be added to their resume´s.

As one group of students collected data about the vacant lots, Jovon McCullough, an RIT third-year public policy major from Rochester, welcomed several neighborhood children from St. Phillip Missionary Baptist Church’s Academic Summer Camp to the garden on First Street. The children, ages 3 to 13, were given a tour, told how composting works and given plastic bags to harvest some of the fruit and vegetables grown in the garden.

“Today, we’re teaching the younger children in the community where their food comes from,” Griffin said.

A five-year-old boy sheepishly plucked a red raspberry from a bush and placed it in his baggie. He then picked an unripened white berry. When he was told that it wouldn’t be good to eat yet, he tried to put it back on the bush.

“It’s great to see all the children excited,” said Lesa Jackson, a manager from the church’s program. “For a lot of them, this is the first time they have seen food where they can touch it other than in a supermarket. It’s definitely a learning experience.”

Several of the high school students in the program are also working in the David Gantt R-center to obtain their junior master gardener certification.

Griffin said the program has become a model for other block clubs in Rochester, who attend monthly meetings in the Marketview Heights Community Action Project and learn some of the things they are doing.

City officials and neighbors have supported the projects. And so have neighborhood residents.

Trudy Harper has lived on Third Street for more than 44 years and has had a vacant lot next to her for the past few years. Although it appears tidy and the grass is cut, she’d like to see the lot turned into a vegetable garden, with alternating rows of flowers to “pretty up” the neighborhood.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Harper said of exploring alternative uses for the city’s empty lots. “Most people in the neighborhood are elderly or sickly and although they’d like a garden, they can’t have one. If you have the younger people get involved, then you’d have something successful.”

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