Case Study

Water Quality

Roanoke, VA: Vacant Property Critical to Urban Tree Canopy



In many cities, large and small, population shifts have left many lots vacant — and prime to be converted into green space.

In most communities, vacant land is undervalued as a platform for green infrastructure and stormwater management.

Roanoke, Virginia

Humid subtropical


Metro: 85% White, 12% Black; 1% Latino; 1% Asian

City: 70% White; 27% Black; 1% Latino; 2% Asian

Below Poverty Line: 21 % Individuals

A study of Roanoke, Virginia in 2015 compared the ecosystem services provided by urban forest found on vacant lots to those of other land uses using an iTree Eco model, based on the assumption that vacant land is managed (and perceived) differently than other properties in a city.

Vacant land can include a variety of actual land covers including various impervious surfaces, which accounted for 15% of area in Roanoke (below other land uses), with a relatively high percentage of existing canopy (31%), and relatively high percentage of plantable space (59.2%).

Trees on vacant property are already estimated to be reducing runoff by 120,000 m³ with an associated value of $283,000. With appropriate planning and investment, vacant land can be reforested to provide a wide range of benefits to the community — from urban agriculture to community recreation space.

Roanoke’s trees on vacant land alone annually remove 83 tons of air pollutants, with a value to the city of $916,000.

Lessons Learned
  • Vacant land is an important component of Roanoke’s green infrastructure and is responsible for removing a significant fraction of the city’s air pollution and creating a cleaner environment for residents.
  • Maximize urban forestry on vacant lands to accrue significant ecosystem services.
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