Vacant Land → Urban Farm Tool

A Tool to Help Build Food Security

Many people living in low-income communities in U.S. cities still do not have access to healthy, affordable food. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), nearly 23.5 million people live in a food desert and half of them are low-income. That’s more people than the entire state of Florida. Access to healthy, affordable food is a simple right that, unfortunately, not everyone enjoys.

This disparity in food access has only been made more obvious during the current COVID-19 epidemic. Many low-income families and individuals do not own private vehicles and therefore rely on public transit as their main mode of transportation. If you live in a food desert, this means riding the bus or the rail to get to your closest grocery store miles away. Public transit in many cities has been significantly scaled back in response to the pandemic, meaning less frequent service and more crowded trips. If you’re a low-income individual living in a food desert, you now have to risk viral exposure almost daily just to get your next meal. Like in many other cases, the pandemic has revealed the deep inequities within our cities.

Communities have decided to take it upon themselves to help solve this issue. Some groups, like Grow Greater Englewood in Chicago, have focused on creating urban farms in the city’s food deserts on previously vacant lots. These urban farms create social capital and provide the community access to healthy, affordable produce. All a farm requires is good soil, access to water and a lot of sun. Converting vacant lots to urban farms requires plenty of work but it could be a major tactic to help solve the urban food access inequity in our cities.

In addition to providing nutritional benefits, converting a vacant lot to an urban farm generates social investment from neighbors and helps revitalize communities. Using Washington, DC as an example, we can see there’s a huge opportunity for urban agriculture to take off in some of the city’s food deserts. There are plenty of vacant lots prime for conversion; the key is knowing where they’re located, how much they cost and who owns them.

Using data provided by the USDA and District of Columbia, City Limits created an interactive map to help identify and price the vacant lots located in the city’s existing food deserts. More importantly, since this is an issue affecting many urban communities, instructions on how you can create the same map for your city are included below.

How to create this map for your city:

1. Download the USDA food desert data (spreadsheet) here.

2. Download your state’s or city’s census tract polygon shapefile.

3. In ArcMap, join the food desert data to the census tract shapefile, using CensusTract and TRACT as the common fields. Keep only the matching records.

4. Select census tracts where LILATrac_1 (Low-income, low access tract where >30% of population is not within 1 mile of a grocery store) equals ‘1’ and create new layer from that selection. Export layer. You can now view your city’s food deserts.

5. Download your city’s property data.

6. Select parcels by vacancy attribute (i.e. {SALETYPE} = ‘V – VACANT’). Create layer from selected features.

7. Select vacant parcels located within the food desert polygons. Create layer from selected features. Export layer. You can now view vacant properties within your city’s food deserts.

8. Open the attribute table for the new food desert vacant properties layer. Add a field titled X_COORD. Calculate geometry > X Coordinate of Centroid. Add a field title Y_COORD. Calculate geometry > Y Coordinate of Centroid. Convert table to excel and add to the map.

9. Display the table’s XY data. Export the point layer as a separate file. You can now view vacant properties as point data.

10. Upload your food desert and vacant property point and polygon shapefiles to an ArcGIS Online map. Choose your desired symbology and visibility. Use available vacant property fields to display sale price, taxes, zoning and ownership information. 

If you have any questions, email

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