Backyard Lots


Neighborhood based program that transforms vacant lots into safe and local recreational outlets for youth to self-organize sporting events. I developed Backyard Lot as my MFA thesis at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

 Learn more:


I’m solving for the lack of recreational outlets for children by using vacant lots as the solution.

Currently, only one in three children are physically active every day. Eight to 18-year old adolescents spend an average of 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media, including, TV, computers, video games, cell phones and movies, and only one-third of high school students get the recommended levels of physical activity.

My pilot took place in Slavic Village, a neighborhood in northeast Ohio. Slavic Village was declared the center of the 2007 foreclosure crisis. As of July 2015, Slavic Village had 3,045 vacant properties with 1,220 vacant structures and 1,825 vacant lots. The recession led to a lack of parental supervision, which created sedentary kids. Coupled with vacant lots, kids have nowhere to go. They are without hope and are unhealthy. According to Greg, a 15 year old resident in Slavic Village, “In this neighborhood you really don’t do anything besides stay in the house. On nice days we want to go outside and have fun and not be stuck in the house.”

Today, there is no place for kids to play in the neighborhood. They have limited access to parks and backyards.


Vacant lots are pervasive in middle America. Previously, like everyone else in troubled American neighborhoods, I thought vacant lots were dirty, derelict, and a detriment to helping kids because they’re full of trash, chemicals, and weeds, but what I saw was an opportunity to turn them into a solution. By reframing vacant lots, they can become a place for activity, community, exercise, fun, health and play because vacant lots can transform into accessible, available and safe locations.

I developed a neighborhood based program that transforms vacant lots into safe and local recreational outlets for youth to self-organize sporting events, this program is called Backyard Lots. Backyard Lots showcases the benefits and potential of vacant properties. The idea behind Backyard Lots is to take what some people may see as a liability and turn it into an asset for the community. Backyard Lots provides secure and convenient locations for youth to organize and participate in sports. The program provides residents with the necessary recreational outlets they don’t currently have, and attracts new residents and retains current residents in order to fill vacancies and create a thriving community once again.


When piloting Backyard Lots, I had three lots. Just with these three lots, if 6 unique teens play on each lot a day, that is 18 teens getting exercise who wouldn’t have had it previously. In a year, that is 6,570 teens. If we continue on this trajectory and acquire 3 lots every 2 months for a year, that would be 18 lots total, and if 6 unique teens play on each of those 18 lots a day, that is 108 teens getting exercise a day and in a year, that is 39,420 teens getting exercise on those 18 lots.

In order for Backyard Lots to make any significant improvement within the neighborhood, we need to occupy more lots and become more accessible. The more people who are outside and active around the neighborhood will create a safer environment and appeal to future homeowners who will in turn move into the vacant homes.

Community Response:

During the pilot, the response for Backyard Lots was great! Organizations were reaching out to partner and Backyard Lots partnered with Slavic Village Development, Sonny Day Development, Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland, and AWE Legends, four organizations working in Cleveland, Ohio.

Parents were on board too. One mother said, “We are always looking for things for our kids to do. What’s nice about your program is that it’s a lot less of a commitment, especially when your audience is youth. Sports will activate and give a good use to the vacant spaces because it doesn’t require a lot of investment or maintenance, kids and people can really pop in and out as they’re able to.”

In addition, I workshopped Backyard Lots with the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland. They loved Backyard Lots and thought it was great for their kids!

Next Steps:

Backyard Lots can be applied to other neighborhoods. The reason Backyard Lots has been noticed and being supported is because it provides residents with the necessary outlets they don’t currently have, but Backyard Lots is more than just recreation. In the long term, Backyard Lots will help attract new residents by bringing in more people who want to live in the neighborhood and cultivating kids who want to stay there. It’s a way for people to love their neighborhood once again which will help transition their neighborhood into a thriving community.

The next phase of my work is transforming Backyard Lots into a non-profit. Backyard Lots won’t succeed unless the community has ownership over it. I’m developing a framework and toolkit that I can provide community groups to implement Backyard Lots into their neighborhood.


Kara Isabella's thesis presentation: