The Good, the Bad, and the Empty

Why are there so many empty lots in our neighborhood?

This is the deceptively simple question posed by students at Walt Whitman Middle School in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and it propels The Good, the Bad, and the Empty, the latest video exploration created by the Center for Urban Pedagogy

Working in partnership with the Brooklyn College Community Partnership, CUP teaching artist Douglas Paulson and the Walt Whitman students deploy a variety of story-telling techniques — from sock puppets to site videography — to tally up and analyze the empty lots in the neighborhood.

The students interview local landowners, city officials, an environmental consultant, an advocate for the homeless, and a high school administrator, among others, and learn some of the non-intuitive rules of urban real estate (e.g., why it’s often more profitable to leave a lot vacant and trashy than to construct something useful and attractive). They take their video cameras to the streets, and read the fine print fine on the signage, noting that the lot owners are usually absentee suburbanites. They find that most of the empty lots look derelict, cluttered with garbage and junk, but that some show signs of life (e.g., a few rows of corn (!) planted in one lot; a full-fledged community garden in another).

Along the way the students delve into alternative futures (locals focus on parks and gardens, which have become a kind of urban open-space default, but the students don’t hesitate to think big: one imagines an embassy), and they make the essential connection between land use and community well-being. As they discover, it’s a connection that city leaders and urban developers too often overlook.

Nancy Levinson and Center for Urban Pedagogy, “The Good, the Bad, and the Empty,” Places Journal, August 2010. Accessed 22 Sep 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Daniel D'Oca

    08.25.2010 at 18:15

    This is a wonderful project. It's great to see middle school students thinking critically about their neighborhood, and making connections between vacancy, warehousing, and absentee landlords. Here's to an embassy in Flatbush!

  • Meena Kadri

    08.26.2010 at 04:34

    Great stuff guys. I just popped in quickly and got totally hooked and now I'm late for work! Impressive trigger for much needed community conversations.

  • David

    08.26.2010 at 07:50

    Interesting article, thanks for posting.

  • Carmen Pernicola

    08.27.2010 at 13:54

    Very interesting project of environmental education. Thanks for posting.

  • mathias burton

    08.27.2010 at 15:10

    I worked on a project with a similar message, and ended up taking a slightly different route. Here is the site, the project was called SHOUT. I was going to write a short essay about it for DO, now I think I might!

  • Maren

    09.02.2010 at 18:46

    What a great project! Check out Depave (, a local project in Portland, OR that works to transform our vacant lots into community spaces, like community gardens! We love to see more of this happening all over the country, and think it is wonderful to see it happening at the youth level in Brooklyn. Way to go!