Activating Land Stewardship and Participation in Detroit: A Field Guide to Working With Lots



Detroit, MI, USA | Detroit Future City | Publisher: Inland Press


The Field Guide to Working With Lots is a hands-on tool for vacant land transformation in Detroit. Primarily a website, the Field Guide ( was created to expand the local understanding of what is possible on vacant residential and commercial land, while providing broadly accessible and actionable site strategies. The website includes 34 designs for scattered site vacant lots, profiles of local land stewards, and practical tools such as a directory of landscape suppliers. The website is complemented by made-for-paper resources, including an exploratory workbook, which was created to structure the project development process of residents working in collaboration.

The Field Guide aims to address multi-stakeholder requirements, including those of individual residents, businesses, and organizations stewarding different areas of the city. With the express goal of cultivating resident-level participation, great consideration was given by the project team to the use of open, accessible language and graphics to describe landscape concepts.


The Field Guide to Working With Lots is a collaboratively developed, hands-on tool for vacant land transformation in Detroit. Primarily a website, the Field Guide was initiated to expand local understanding of what is possible on vacant residential and commercial land, to showcase existing land revitalization projects, and to provide broadly accessible site designs and strategies, each described with actionable levels of detail. The Field Guide website ( is complemented by select paper-based resources including an exploratory, draw-along workbook, created to structure the project development process of small groups, block clubs, and residents working in collaboration.

The Field Guide aims to address multi-stakeholder requirements in Detroit, including the needs of individual residents, businesses, and non-profit organizations serving as the stewards of an area of the city. With the express goal of cultivating resident-level participation, great consideration was given by the project team to the use of open, accessible language and visuals to describe landscape designs and concepts, as well as to the range of familiarity and comfort level of residents with building and maintaining landscapes.

The website includes 34 site designs for single, double, and triple vacant (structure-free) residential and commercial lots in Detroit. The designs are described for the purposes of both civic engagement and installation by the general public, as well as through more traditional construction detailing for groups and organizations choosing to hire a landscape contractor. Additional resources on the website included an interactive quiz to understand existing site conditions; a directory of Detroit-based landscape suppliers and helpful organizations; and inspirational profiles of people, projects and programs currently working in the region to transform vacant land into an asset.

On the website and as a made-for-paper download, each lot design is described through a discussion of the benefits and attributes, required level of upkeep (or maintenance), the anticipated cost, and difficulty level of construction for the design. Each lot design package includes a site plan, planting plan, planting list (with variations for sun / shade), materials shopping list, site preparation description, and step-by-step instructions for building and maintaining the landscape.

Site designs range from edged meadows with cues to care, to stormwater sensitive side lot parking designs. Planting options within the Field Guide include both native and urban tolerant species.

Through the website users can explore the catalog of site designs, filtering by desired cost, stormwater benefit, anticipated maintenance level, skill level of the site construction leader, as well as by neighborhood condition or individual lot type. The website provides a series of curated lists which each offer designs for anticipated user needs such as for Time Spenders (where users may improve conditions on their lot with more time than money), for Side Lots (designs that are most suitable for lots with a neighboring home or business), or for Getting Social (designs that are appropriate for large volunteer group events).

The printed companion to the website, the Field Guide workbook, is intended specifically for neighbors and residents, working alone or together in small groups. As a companion to the website, the workbook is a hands-on, exploratory tool, created to structure the practical process of moving from an idea or vision of vacant land transformation into an on-the-ground reality. Structured in four parts, the workbook offers a series of activities for residents at every phase of project development, including a group-based values discovery exercise, a series of draw-along activities related to the observation of an existing block and lot, and a budgeting exercise for considerations of both time and money. The workbook also contains a deck of tear-out trading cards, representing each of the designs in the Field Guide. The trading cards are supported by a pair of activities in the workbook, intended to facilitate an analog exploration of the online catalog of lot designs, while directing residents to the website for further information.

The approach of the Field Guide is to spur vacant land transformation and land stewardship in Detroit by connecting residents, organizations, and businesses without direct access to a landscape architect to the resources for taking informed and prepared action. The Field Guide was developed as a collaborative tool through a yearlong, multi-stakeholder engagement process, with active participation by over 50 Detroit-based businesses and organizations.

The project team’s approach was to make content accessible, friendly, and actionable, and to provide a reasonable series of designs requiring modest budgets and limited amounts of hired, landscape contractor oversight. By developing the Field Guide within the context of a multi-stakeholder participatory process, the approach was to expand the local definition of what is possible on vacant lots beyond community gardens, urban agriculture, and pocket park spaces. The project team’s approach was to enlist others—including residents, business owners, and experienced local leaders in land stewardship—and then synthesize this group knowledge into a tool openly available to others.

The Field Guide website and its printed companion are available for free to Detroit residents. Printed sets of the 34 lot designs, along with the companion workbook, are currently available at every branch of the Detroit Public Library system. By September of 2016, 4000 copies of the companion workbook will be in circulation. Since the launch of the Field Guide in September 2015, project team members have continued to facilitate orientation sessions to residents, businesses and organizations across the city.

The Field Guide provides a resource that was not previously available in Detroit—a series of accessibly described site designs ranging from rain gardens to management strategies for existing ruderal woodlands. The detail within the Field Guide enables action, whether the action is a streamlined grant writing process for neighborhood revitalization efforts or the physical transformation of existing vacant land through the actionable, step-by-step construction process description. With an intended audience that includes residents, business owners, non-profit organizations, and government agencies, the Field Guide’s value is the local capacity building and education that occurs through an expanded dialog around what is possible on and with Detroit’s vacant land. With both exploratory and prescriptive features, the online and in-print resources work together to support a range of implementation processes.

The project team brought considerable attention to the language, names, and methods of sharing landscape information that would resonate with the general public. The goal was to create a vibrant, accessible, hands-on tool for Detroiters to encourage participation in Detroit’s land-based revitalization efforts, while showcasing the great work that has been underway in Detroit for quite some time.

At every step, in both the printed workbook and the website, the Field Guide encourages users—whether individual residents, block clubs, non profit organization staff, or business owners— to reach out and work with others whenever possible. Transforming vacant land into an asset through resident participation is at the heart of Detroit’s journey to a recovery of equilibrium. The Field Guide encourages working together to ensure sustained momentum and success on the part of those who choose to participate in land stewardship.

With more than 4,000 more new vacant lots scheduled for creation in 2016 through the City-administered residential demolition program, the aspiration is that resources within the Field Guide will continue to find home and take root, to ensure that a diverse, engaged and prosperous future is created and by, with, and for the people of Detroit.

“The idea of a toolkit for disadvantaged communities is extremely valuable. With this in hand, you can ask the right questions. Very practical and user friendly.”

- 2016 Awards Jury


Lead Designer

  • Erin Kelly, ASLA

Berg Muirhead and Associates

  • Peter Van Dyke

Detroit Future City Staff

  • Allandra Bulger
  • Chris Dorle
  • Dan Kinkead
  • Dara O'Byrne
  • Ingrid White
  • Imani Manchu
  • Leslie Griffin
  • Shari Williams
  • Victoria Olivier

Inland Press

Gyro Creative

  • Jin Kim

Hamilton Anderson Associates

  • Melissa Hollingsworth, Affiliate ASLA
  • Christopher Riggert
  • Edward Lynch

Work Department

  • Nina Bianci
  • Libby Cole