Establish the "Area"

Identify the Corridor

Inventory Sites of Interest

Identify the Corridor

Narrow the Focus

Before you set about finding specific sites, you need to determine the scope of the project. First, give yourself some limitations and some guidelines. These limitations might be spatial (ie. only considering sites within a certain Ward) or based on other criteria (ie. no toxic sites). The work you did to connect with and consult with stakeholders should be helpful. For instance, a local historical society might know of an old factory that could serve as a great indoor/outdoor space for a farmers' market. In that case, you may want to start there and center the rest of your sites around this space. On the other hand, a local elder might remember a previous attempt to cleanup a handful of gas station sites and how it ran into snags. That might dissuade you from choosing those sites or at least prepare you for potential difficulties.

Feet on the Ground

There is no replacement for a hands on approach to identifying sites. As the following sections note, mapping is an excellent tool and in depth research of sites is necessary but seeing the spaces in person is extremely important. If you are not a long-standing member of the community, you certainly need partners who know the area. Even if you have lived in the community your entire life, a walk through will still be beneficial because you will be looking at spaces from a new perspective.

Identify a Unifying Theme

You may find it helpful, based on preliminary discussions with stakeholders and after a walkthrough, to settle upon a theme for the project. This can help you to identify sites, shape end-uses, and better explain the project to funders. The theme need not be complex. For instance, if you discover that Roger Ave. used to be a center of community life, you may wish to focus on sites along this road and make revitalizing it the unifying theme of the project. Or perhaps the community lacks green spaces and introducing parkland can be a major goal of your corridor project.

Introduction to EJ Mapping

A Game Changer in the Making? Lessons From States Advancing Environmental Justice Through Mapping and Cumulative Impact Strategies

Inventory Sites of Interest

Gather Data

The first task is to identify all potential sites of interest. The simplest method is to obtain a list of blighted and vacant sites from the local redevelopment or environmental protection authorities authority. In some areas, the local agency will have this information online, or will have developed an online tool to check the status of certain properties. Many times, finding these blighted, vacant, and brownfields properties can be as simple as googling “blighted properties in ward/bourough X”. In other instances, it may be necessary to reach out to the local zoning agency and inquire if a list exists that they are willing to share. In the event that the local authority possesses a list, it may be incomplete or outdated so additional legwork will usually be necessary. 

Depending on the size and location of the corridor being contemplated, it may be possible to do a walkthrough of the area, to confirm sites on the list and to identify new sites. If this is not possible, google earth/google maps may serve a similar function, though the satellite images are not always up to date. 

If the local authorities do not have a list of sites, you'll need to construct one from the ground up. Here, you have several options: 

Preliminary Due Diligence

Once sites are identified, project leaders should perform some preliminary property research on those sites. Sometimes the lists with the preliminary sites will already have some of the information needed. Local agencies often have property research tools on their websites. The goal is to discover information such as the owner of the property, assessed value, and whether there are any liens on it. 

Another resource available for use throughout this initial researching process, especially in relation to property owners, liens, etc., each county is legally required to possess a law library. This law library will have access to a database called Lexis or Westlaw, which can help locate the actual documents associated with property.

Map the Properties

Layer Watershed and Zoning Maps

Map the Properties

Map to Visualize

Mapping is incredibly important because they can hold an incredible amount of information and reveal new connections. Seeing all the sites you've collected in one place can help you determine which are the best candidates for further research.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) 

Mark Schmandt, Introduction, GIS Commons,

QGIS, - homepage for what is considered the gold-standard of open source GIS software

Many sophisticated mapping services exist but these are sometimes costly and require specialized expertise. Community partners such as universities or local groups may have access to these services and the ability to use them. However, free and simplier options also exist. One option that will already be readily familiar to most is Google Maps. 

Google Maps offers a My Maps service, through which users may construct their own personal maps, using the standard as a scaffold. The web application has several important functions which require some detailed explanation.

Brief Intro to My Maps - Free Version

This will be a detailed analysis on how to use the Google Maps, My Map software. If you are familiar with the product or your organization uses different software, please feel free to skip to the next section, so long as the completed product is a map detailing all the blighted, vacant, and brownfield properties in the area.

First consider the function buttons which reside underneath the search bar along the top of the page. The hand icon is the default and allows a user to grab and move the map around, without altering it.

Second, there is a pin icon which allows the user to drop a marker. 

The easiest way to make use of the pin is to select it and then click on the map the location that needs to be marked. Once the location is marked, it can be labeled with a title and a description containing additional info. 

Clicking on the marker itself also opens up a dialog box that permits attachment of an image/video as well as modification of the appearance of the marker. This latter function is particularly useful for maps with will have a variety of markers that fall into different categories. A hospital can be designated with a red cross while a bank could be designated with a dollar sign or any other symbol that communicates the category of the marker in an intuitive way. 

Note also the panel on the left side of the page where the pins dropped are assigned to a layer. Those who have used an image modification software such as Photoshop will be familiar with this concept. Layers can be toggled on and off so that the map view can be altered without adding or taking away data. For instance, all the lots with potential petroleum contamination can be placed on one layer and all those that were formerly laundromats can be placed on another. Additionally, throughout the map making process, the “base map” tool on this panel can be useful as well. Base Map allows the creator to toggle between map views, including satellite (google earth), terrain, and atlas.

Markers can be easily moved from one layer to any other by dragging and dropping. My maps permits the user to identify objects on the same layer all with a single symbol or to apply individual styles to each marker. Imagine for instance, creating a layer for places of interest and marking parks with a tree symbol and recreation centers with a swimming pool icon. 

Next to the pin function button is one with a series of connected lines not quite forming a triangle. 

Selecting it opens up a drop down menu with the option to create driving, walking or biking routes. In addition, it permits the user to add a line or shape directly onto the map. To create a rectangle around a plot of land, simply click on one corner, move your cursor to select the other corners and close the rectangle by clicking on the original point. Once the original corner is selected, the shape will become a polygon. The defaults are set so that the border will be bold and the interior will be a semi-transparent grey. 

As with pins, these polygons and lines can be added to and moved between layers. Different colors can be applied to differentiate them from each other. These polygons can have a variety of uses. They can be used to mark off the project area, and then toggled on and off (via the layers) to help visualize whether the plots being selected are within the appropriate area. They can be used to denote a watershed or mark off federally owned land. They can also be used to give a rough calculation of the area of a plot of land. 

After creating the polygon, selecting it brings up a dialog box similar to the one that appears when selecting a marker except that there will be two numbers in the bottom left hand corner. The first gives the number of acres within the boundaries of the border of the polygon no matter how irregularly shaped it is (though it does have to be closed) and the second is the length of the perimeter. Though these estimates are inexact and more advanced software would be needed to make precise findings, this is quick and easy way to get a good sense of the available space. 

The final ruler icon allows measuring of the values described for the polygon tool without creating an object. It works just as the polygon icon does, by clicking at the point where the measurement should start and then selecting other focal points. A running total distance will be displayed. Enclosing an area in measurements will bring up a calculation of the perimeter length as well as the area in acres, just as with the polygon creation tool. 

Thus, the My Map tool is an incredibly versatile and powerful way to visualize the proposed project area. It can be adapted and changed easily and the tools are fairly intuitive. This is especially so because of the variety of ways properties can be added to the map. One method is to simply type in the address. Another is to find the property on the map by panning to it and dropping a marker there. The easiest way however, to add properties or sites en masse is to import those locations. The addresses must be in a .csv file or equivalent. This can be created using excel. There are many online guides of how to do this, including one here. The basic idea is to create an excel file with addresses entered into columns. The first row should hold an identifier for the information in that column such as “City” or “Zip Code.” One column should contain the titles you would like each of your data points to be labeled. This allows up to 2000 locations to be marked at once. 

Layer Watershed and Zoning Maps

Additional Layers Provide Context

Mapping the blighted properties is a good first step but for a fuller understanding of the community, the watershed and zoning maps should also be tracked down. These will inform the selection of corridor sites as well as the potential end uses for those sites. After all, an area that resides in a floodplain may not be a good location for a residential site, and it would be unfortunate not to know that a planned commercial hub is in an area of the city zoned for residential use. Zoning changes over time and watershed maps are not perfectly predictive, but obtaining updated maps with this information is nevertheless important. 

Watershed/Flood Maps

Watershed maps are mandatory so the local environmental or planning agency should have them on file. In the event that they do not or turn out to be unresponsive, there are online resources. Many of these tools are geared toward high level analysis of large watersheds instead of detailed block by block analysis, but they are a good place to start visualizing. 

First, EPA has an online tool that allows citizens to search for watershed maps by filters such as city name and zip code. Because these maps are watershed wide, it is unlikely to be at the level of granularity that a small community needs. Many times, they will show an overall watershed, which is then broken down into smaller, creek watersheds in localities. Still, they may be a good starting point. USGS has a similar online tool except that it allows the user to download the watershed map in a way that can be viewed in google earth.

The local planning agency should also have annotated flood maps but if it does not, FEMA has an online map visualization tool. Layers with different colors of shading show the boundaries of the floodplain and other areas of interest.

Regardless of where the map originates, it is unlikely to be 100% accurate. It may be out of date. Given climate change, many watersheds are changing, and flooding is more likely.

Zoning Maps

Zoning maps should be easily attainable at your local city planning agency. If they are not responsive, contacting your local government representative to hunt down a zoning map on your behalf may be effective. The local chamber of commerce may also have a zoning map. 

Zoning can be a huge impediment, so it is important that you acquire a zoning map early in the planning process. Many of the existing zoning laws and city plans were created at a time when in a time city planning was less sophisticated. Zoning plans are often optimized for cars and seek to maximize the separation between residential and commercial areas in a way not at all conducive to urban density or walkability. On top of that is the reality that zoning laws have often been used precisely for the purpose of impeding development for environmental justice communities. Yet just because an area is not properly zoned for the types of end uses that your project calls for does not mean that those properties should be abandoned, especially if they otherwise seem like a good fit for the corridor.

As cities and townships have started to recognize the disparate impact of some of their own measures, they have also started to become more creative in helping communities work around cumbersome zoning processes. 

One such mechanism known as Enhanced Financing Districts (EFID) has been used used effectively in California. It allows the creation of a separate local government entity to finance projects within a defined area to finance infrastructure projects. Municipalities will subsidize development and then divert increases in property tax revenue that come from the redeveloped property to repay debts.

Some localities deal with the problem of zoning impediments by passing legislation either loosening the process or dropping zoning laws altogether in a defined area. Other mechanisms also exist and local government authorities may be willing to work with communities interested in revitalization, to develop new strategies.

Finalize the Project Map

Washington, DC Case Study

Finalize the Project Map

Once the above elements are incorporated into the project map (making sure that they are separated into layers so they can be toggled on and off for different views), the map is substantially complete. Before using the project map to pick target sites however, some additional locations would be helpful to visualize. 

First, create icons and label groups and institutions that may be interested in revitalization or may have helpful assets. This might include community groups, local nonprofits, schools, and businesses. You can find these types of groups by googling nonprofits and community groups directly in the target area using your maps. However, there is also a chance that some groups outside your specific area may be willing to help as well, especially those geared primarily toward neighborhood improvement. It is worth looking at other local agencies as well, and it may be useful to add them to your map. Additionally, keep in mind that churches, recreation centers, and other neighborhood groups may also be willing to help, so it is worth adding these organizations.

Next, it may be helpful to have a visualization of demographic data. There are many different sources for this but one particularily useful one is EJScreen, maintained by EPA. This tools allows the user to generate maps with demographic data such as a percentage of low income or minority populations along with data on proximity to wastewater, toxic sites and other environmental indicators. Altogether, this information should permit project leaders to identify the areas of greatest need and potential to construct a corridor consisting of inter-related sites whose development can catalyze holistic community revitalization.

Washington, DC Case Study

Step 1 - Identify the Corridor

Community members in Southeast Washington, DC expressed a need for enhanced stormwater and water quality management, a critical issue in the corridor. After several site visits and research about specific sites in the area, ELI and project partners concluded that the corridor should help connect Watts Branch and its parks to the Anacostia Park, staying narrow enough to Burroughs Avenue to facilitate a greenway from the neighborhood center to the river.

Step 2 - Inventory Sites of Interest

DC's local Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs collects reports of vacant buildings and puts together a list twice of year of vacant and blighted properties. Since we were already focused on Ward 7 and had identified the corridor we wanted, we simply loaded those sites into the map.

Step 3 - Map the Properties

We simply added the sites in Ward 7 onto the google map and the corridor boundaries we already drew helped us narrow down project sites.

Step 4 - Zoning and Watershed Maps

The corridor was small enough, in this case, that watershed and flooding maps were not quite granular enough. Instead, the team relied upon community members get a sense of which areas were most likely to flood.

Step 5 - Finalize the Project Map

After mapping potential project sites, we did another walk through with a community leader. The finalized project map included the sites identified through the local agency list (orange), sites identified on the walk through (brown), as well as possible community partners (blue).

St. Louis Case Study

Additional Resources

St. Louis Case Study

Step 1 - Identify the Corridor

The first step we undertook in this mapping process was adding the area encompassed in Ward 4. We used this map, and added the ward borders using the “draw a line tool” on Google Maps. 

Step 2 - Inventory Sites of Interest

We then went through the process of identifying blighted, vacant, and brownfield properties. For Ward 4, this was as easy as googling “vacant properties in Ward 4 St. Louis”. Luckily, a list of properties, both vacant and blighted, were found on a government website. These are properties owned by the local government that have yet to be sold to private owners or converted into leasable properties. This list however, did not specifically provide for “brownfields” properties as we know them. In order to determine which of these vacant properties would probably be considered brownfields, we used google earth to identify properties like this one below.

Step 3 - Map the Properties

Using the list from the LRA website, because there were over 2000 blighted and vacant properties, we added only those in specific areas, which we identified as vacant lots, derelict buildings, and brownfields using different icons. An example of one of those corridors is below. 

In listing these properties, we were sure to also add the exact address as well as a street view picture of the lot, so that it would be easier to directly identify these properties after the mapping process was complete.

Step 4 - Watershed and Zoning Maps

Within this specific area, the main watershed was the Mississippi River Basin. However, this was broken down into separate, secondary water basins, which we needed to identify as well. We accomplished this by looking to online maps, as well as contacting Ward 4 municipalities for their watershed maps. In order to add these watershed to the map, we used the “draw a line tool”. 

In regards to flooding zones, fortunately in Ward 4, FEMA has determined that there are no risks, so there was nothing to add to the map. However, in regards to your area specifically, we suggest adding the areas at risk for flooding, so that those using the map in the future will know which areas to avoid building a new residential complex in a floodplain area. 

Step 5 - Finalizing the Project Map

Lastly we composed a list of nonprofits within Ward 4, as well as those outside of the Ward, that we believed may be helpful to our community outreach and rebuilding process. 

NOTE: It is important that throughout this process, we put each of these steps under a different “layer” on the map. As a result, we are able to view each step separately in terms of the map. For example, if we just want to see the Ward area, we can select “Ward 4” to view the shaded area. 

Additional Resources

Links to further reading