‘Boomerang’ Detroiter launches workshop to help residents activate vacant land

Tanya Stephens returned to the city after 20 years to ‘be a part of the revitalization.’
Tanya Stephens admires the landscape in Oxygen Alley in the city’s Poletown East neighborhood, formerly a vacant lot. This project is stewarded by Arboretum Detroit. Photo by Angela Lugo-Thomas.

When Tanya Stephens started acquiring and developing her first vacant land parcels, she found little support or resources for creative land use projects. 

So, in 2020, she formed a non-profit organization called Detroit Vacant Land Community Development Corporation to help Detroiters find new ways to activate vacant lots in their neighborhoods. 

Stephens identifies as a “boomerang Detroiter” — a native Detroiter who has spent significant time away from the city but has returned to live here. 

Stephens is an award-winning designer, artist, independent curator, consultant, licensed real estate agent, and developer. She has two Bachelor of Arts degrees in fashion design and merchandising. She grew up on the Northwest side of Detroit and graduated from Cass Technical High School. After graduating from Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, Stephens spent nearly 20 years away in Atlanta, New York, and Dallas. 

But the city called her back.

“I remember going downtown during the Superbowl and seeing the city’s transformation for that and the annual Winter Blast. It was in 2015 when I realized I needed to come home and be a part of the revitalization,” Stephens told Planet Detroit. She said the narrative that people who were not Detroiters were reviving the city did not sit well with her.

Detroiters have been transforming vacant land into useful community spaces like gardens, flower farms, mini forests, pocket parks, outdoor classrooms, and performance spaces for years. With so much vacant land in the city, there are endless possibilities to explore. The city is even exploring using vacant land as solar farms to power municipal buildings.

Stephens aims to support residents to reclaim land in their communities and help them explore the range of possibilities in creative and unique land use ideas – think nature areas, pocket parks, community gardens, art parks and more. 

She points to examples like East Eats, a now-closed, experimental outdoor restaurant on a vacant city lot, and a new basketball court on formerly vacant lots in NW Goldberg, as ideas that might inspire residents to think creatively about the possibilities.

Stephens’ Imagination Gardens project in the Heidelberg corridor aims to activate several vacant lots by transforming them into a community gathering space and flower garden. The Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund and Greater Metropolitan Association of Realtors (GMAR) Placemaking Grant partially support the Imagination Gardens project.

Stephens said that community members are often unaware of what they can do with vacant land. To help educate and inspire would-be vacant land activators, Stephens is collaborating with the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) on an ”eco-literacy” concept called the Detroit Land Lab

NW Goldberg Cares pocket park. Photo by Angela Lugo-Thomas.

Selected as an awardee of an Engage Detroit Workshops grant, Detroit Land Lab is one of the Design Core’s 2023 Detroit Month of Design programs, where participants can experience a range of learning opportunities on open space design, how to identify plants, and the importance of testing the soil. The overall goal is to educate residents on how to acquire, activate and steward land. 

The workshops will feature experts, including landscape designers, land use advocates, and residents who have done successful vacant lot activation projects in Detroit. 

“There are so many amazing projects that community-based, Detroit-based land stewards are creating without any support, without any fanfare,” said Stephens. “They are just doing the work.”

The workshops are for anyone– whether they want to acquire or own land already. 

Detroit Land Bank staff will walk attendees through the process of looking at a parcel map to find land, as well as design methods, plot plan development, and brainstorming creative land use ideas. And Keep Growing Detroit staff will also be on hand to help attendees understand how to start a garden.

A sold-out bus tour will stop at several sites in the city where previously vacant parcels have been transformed into urban farms, art parks, gardens, and other creative community gathering spaces.

“That’s the whole mission of our venture – to showcase the options,” Stephens said.  “I look at land as like a palette, like a canvas.” 

Event details:

Saturday, September 23, 2023

11:00 am-2:00 pm Workshops and Speaker Sessions (Walk-ins welcome)

2:30 pm-6:00 pm Bus Tour (sold out)

The meeting location for Detroit Land Lab on September 23, 2023, one of the Design Core’s 2023 Detroit Month of Design programs. Photo by Angela Lugo-Thomas.


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