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North Sider Seeks to Beautify Belmont Avenue One Empty Lot at a Time

By Victoria Johnson | November 12, 2012 5:23pm | Updated on November 20, 2012 4:52pm

ROSCOE VILLAGE — Erin Dowdall quickly grew tired of looking at the abandoned lot near her Roscoe Village home.

She also got sick of looking at the seven or eight empty, trash-filled lots along her frequent drives to the Blue Line Belmont station.

So, she decided to do something about it.

In October, Dowdall launched the Belmont Open Space Initiative, a project that seeks to "reclaim" abandoned, run-down lots and turn them into vital green spaces for nearby residents to enjoy.

"My mission is to get people in the community to take a look at their surroundings and see the potential," she said.

A professional organizer and self-described naturalist, Dowdall, 29, recently moved back from New York City, where, working as a community organizer, she saw first hand the benefit of bringing a touch of nature to the concrete jungle.

Originally from Oak Park, Dowdall decided to bring that idea back to Chicago, and saw an opportunity among all those empty lots.

"I want to use the vacant lots as a way to provide an urban natural environment," she said, adding, "There's a disconnect between city living and exposure to nature."

Currently, she is looking at eight possible sites along a one-mile stretch of Belmont Avenue between Ravenswood and California avenues.

Not all of the lots are suitable for urban gardens, but Dowdall hopes to create miniature nature parks, or "micro-environments" where kids and adults can learn something new.

She points to recent studies that link a lack of exposure to nature among children to higher rates of attention deficit disorder, depression and anger management problems, emphasizing that her first priority will be making the spaces fun and educational for kids.

She purposely launched the project in fall so she and other volunteers could spend the winter months learning about the lots and wrangling accompanying paperwork. She hopes to have one or two sites ready to fix up by the spring, especially the one near her house that started it all.

"I see it every day and it's an ugly mud pit right now," she said. "It's an eyesore."