The meanings of vacant land across academic literature

Updated: Jun 17

Mowed and fenced vacant lot in Edgemere (Queens, NYC)

To understand vacancy and abandonment as urban phenomena, it is necessary to first engage with the meta meanings of land. The ways in which human beings relate to land, at least over the last four centuries of settler colonial expansion, may be divided into two main ideas, according to Aboriginal Canadian leader George Manuel. In one idea of land, people regard it and treat it as object, one that they can abstract themselves from, and therefore can “speculated, bought, sold, mortgaged, claimed by one state, surrendered or counter-claimed by another” (1974). The other idea of land is one that is based on kinship relations between people and between people and the land. Where humans are one and indivisible from the Earth that brings us forth, he says.

The process of abstraction of humans from land, according to Ingold, began with specific representational forms and methods (for instance maps, statistics, the scientific method) and philosophies (e.g. Kant’s view of Aesthetics as a purely a priori conception of space, not rooted in empirical experience where mind and body are split) that gave man a privileged gaze over the world during colonial relations. As Plumwood (2006) posited, these external driver conceptual frameworks, such as mind/body, justified hegemonic understandings of agency, where we can conceive of master/slave relationships where the former can coerce the latter, deemed of less agency. Settler colonialism's plantation economy (Wynter 1971; McKittrick 2011), upheld by the forces of emporium (places of trade), or the forces of the market, created a rupture between land as kinship towards land as exchange. According to Wynter (1971) the plantation is a social order developed within the context of a dehumanizing system under slavery that considers human life, especially black lives, and land, for their – in Marxian terms - 'exchange' value, or the profitability of both land and bodies on the market. Yet existing at the same time, is the plot of land, where the actual growth of narratives, food, and cultural practices materialize the deep connections between blackness and the Earth and foster values that challenge systemic violence and exalt the 'use' value of land, where human need and their relations take over the market. Within Wynter’s frame, land as kinship between people and other beings survives in the resistance practices, the contestations of subaltern groups against the dehumanizing relationship of land as exchange. Yet is Marx’s use value of land the same as Manuel’s idea of land as kinship relations? In Manuel’s view kinship is not only formed between people but also with the Earth itself and by extension wildlife. For Marx, land is “the inorganic nature of the living individual, as his workshop, his means of labor, the object of his labor and the means of subsistence of the subject”(1857-58). Around land the community, consisting of kinship groups, organizes to protect it from other communities. So, one may infer that, according to Marx, the land has use value in so far as it can satisfy a human need or want but not necessarily a kinship with Earth as a whole, inclusive of non-human species.

Within a capitalist society where land is a scarce market good and where private ownership generally prevails over more communal models (Swann, 1972), vacancy is mediated by ownership and developability at any one moment and is always a temporary condition (Németh and Langhorst 2014). This means that the different use values of land always contain a latent exchange value, that may flip the land from one use to the other. Whether this occurs may depend on the typology of vacant land, whether abandoned, undeveloped, post-industrial site, or land held for speculation (Maldonado López et al. 2021). In what follows I aim to disentangle how various strains of literature explain the use values of vacant land for humans and non-human species, and when and how it addresses use values that are embedded in racial capitalism in ways that transform relationships between people, the city, and ecological systems. But first I turn to a brief review of why land may become or be vacant in the first place.

Why is urban land, vacant?

Urban land is a prime example of market exchange value that is abstracted from relationships of kinship and where land is subject to capitalist political economic transformations. It is generally accepted that urban land value is determined from the discounting of future net incomes attributable to urban land by virtue of its location (Wendt, 1957). But whether or not a location is desirable and stays so, rests upon the political-economic actions of institutions such as banks, insurances and city councils and federal agencies. Policies such as neighborhood redlining, encouraged development in certain areas over others, and many federal policies (including Community Development Block Grants) focus on new infrastructure and new development in some areas, versus rehabilitation or infill redevelopment in others. Also some tax policies encourage speculation, property holding and even abandonment over underperformance, keeping the land cheaper for future development. Vacant land can also be the result of physical features and zoning. Steep or unsuitable soil, presence of bedrock and other natural features representing hazards, like flood plains, can leave stretches of abandoned land. Zoning can leave some marginal and oddly shaped spaces through setbacks and buffers adjacent to what French sociologist Marc Auge’ called ‘non-places’ (2009) or highways, rail lines, airport infrastructure, or places without apparent identity, relationality or history. A recent review of vacant land typologies and definitions categorized this kind of land under two typologies ‘abandoned’, which includes ‘unattended land’, ‘parcels with physical limitations’, ‘land in wrong locations’, ‘parcels vacant for too long’, and ‘undeveloped’ which includes ‘natural sites’, ‘remnant parcels’, ‘vacant parcels too small to develop’ and ‘odd shaped parcels’. Also, since all land is subject to zoning, land that becomes vacant maintains its zoning designation (e.g. residential, commercial, industrial, etc) but city councils can decide to zone land as ‘vacant’ in expectation of designating a more specific zoning at a later date. The same review classified this land as ‘land held for speculation’. Finally, the economic shift from an industrial to a service economy and the often unsanctioned polluting behavior of small and large industrial facilities, left behind expensive cleanups and environmentally degraded lands. These are often categorized as ‘post-industrial sites’, landscapes of contamination often awaiting or undergoing remediation. Finally, land may become vacant, following a flood risk elimination strategy called 'managed retreat'. This is a policy considered “of last resort” in areas where the socio-economic and physical risks and impacts of flooding outweigh the benefits of living in a floodplain (such as views)(Siders 2019). Managed retreat often, but not always, implies that the city or State buyout or acquire properties in floodplain, living empty vacant lots behind (BenDor et al. 2020). Land restoration following managed retreat is a practice that deals with the aftermath of property buyouts for the communities that decide to stay and deal with loss of community and sense of place (Koslov 2021). Generally land restored following retreat is limited by zoning changes requiring the land to stay vacant in perpetuity or dedicated to temporary uses, such as athletic fields, urban gardens, pocket parks, playgrounds and as space to host other recreational facilities without sleeping units (Zavar 2015). Now I turn to four strains of literature that talk about the different meanings and uses of vacant land.

Vacant Land in Environmental Justice (EJ) and Critical Race Theory (CRT) in Urban Agriculture

There is some evidence that the proliferation of empty buildings, dilapidated homes, closed schools and abandoned industrial sites occurs predominantly in low-income and black and brown neighborhoods (Langhorst 2014; Ganning and Tighe 2015; Ehrenfeucht and Nelson 2020). In the Environmental Justice (EJ) literature, such land is coupled with the slow violence of environmental disasters (Nixon, 2011) enabled by tools like exclusionary zoning, that allow governments and private industries to target landfills, incinerators and dumps for African American and Latinx neighborhoods, causing polluted rivers, drinking water sources, air and lands (Bullard 2001; Mah 2013; Bryant and Mohai 2019; Mahtani 2014; Collins, Munoz, and JaJa 2016; Pastor, Sadd, and Hipp 2001; Trauth-Jurman 2014). The creation of uneven spaces and differential value is essential to the unfolding of capitalism (Harvey 2001) as well as what Pulido (2011) referred to as racialized capitalism, where not just the lands and air but also the bodies of people of color become sinks for industrial and manufacturing companies unlawful toxic waste dumping. EJ scholars have focused on integrating neglected views and perceptions of African-American communities affect by polluted lands and rivers into remediation processes (Barron 2017), while others stressed the importance of engagement to articulate the positive potential of vacant land would allow the general public to understand the importance of transforming vacant urban land into ecologically and culturally productive spaces (Kim, Newman, and Jiang 2020). Yet involving residents in planning and implementing programs for greening vacant land requires additional training and resource support, especially in lower-income neighborhoods experiencing high vacancy (Rupp et al. 2022). In this regard, urban agriculture movements are building social capital and alternative ways to provide fresh produce by caring for vacant lots (Mees and Stone 2012; Santo, Palmer, and Kim 2016). These movements have been both commended and criticized because of the ways they can resist and transform hegemonic food systems, through forms of resistance and kinship with nature (White 2011), by providing affordable nutritious food (Barthel, Parker, and Ernstson 2015), but also reproducing racial injustices (Reynolds 2015). Hoover (2013) for instance, called for the use of a critical race theory to decenter whiteness and re-assert the historical roots of urban agriculture in black and brown neighborhoods. Indeed, urban agriculture is inherently contradictory when it’s expressed through market and health and wellbeing approaches so one should always consider who mobilizes for urban agriculture to unveil the potential entanglement that justice-based urban agriculture may have with the former too (London et al. 2021).

Detroit has more than 1,500 farms and community gardens — a large portion of which are run by Black farmers.

Vacant Land in Criminology and Urban Economics Literature

Terms like dead space (Coleman, 1982a, 1982b), derelict landscape (Jakle and Wilson, 1992), and/or wasteland (Mathey and Rink, 2010) have been used to describe how vacant land can discourage social interaction and disrupt neighborhood relationships. It also challenges the economic vitality of a neighborhood by reducing property values and diminishing tax revenue for protective and human services. Vacant land areas are especially associated with higher crime rates. Evidence from Philadelphia showed that overgrown lots can be used to stash firearms, or used as places to park cars that hide firearms, drug selling and drug shooting (Branas et al. 2011; 2018). Areas with high concentrations of properties in distress and foreclosures are also connected to crime levels (Ellen, Lacoe, and Sharygin 2013; Cui and Walsh 2015). Research showed that vacant properties afford gang members escape routes to either evade the police or avoid attacks from rival gangs (Popkin et al., 2000; Sullivan, 1989; Tita, 1999 in Valasik and Tita, 2018). Such evidence was used to support ‘broken windows’ theory (Wilson and Kelling 1998) and as motivation for zero tolerance policing. Another reading, however, sees the use value of vacant land as facilitating interstitial spaces where playgroups can evolve into urban street gangs, in the absence of informal social control due to structural/ecological conditions (Thrasher, 1927; Van Deburg, 1997). Evidence shows that street gangs presence often strives to fulfill multiple voids such as offering protection to the neighborhood (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; Jankowski, 1991; Patillo-McCoy, 1999; Yablonsky, 1962 in Valasik and Tita, 2018), providing economic support/opportunities (Hagedorn, 1988; Padilla, 1992; Sullivan, 1989; Valdez & Sifaneck, 2004; Venkatesh, 1997, 2000 in Valasik and Tita, 2018), or supplying a collective social identity (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; Hennigan & Spanovic, 2012; Vigil, 1983, 1988 in Valasik and Tita, 2018). There is evidence that programs aimed at greening vacant lots are associated with less gun assaults in Philadelphia (Branas et al. 2018), side yards programs selling land to neighborhood residents significantly reduced block-level crime in Chicago (Stern and Lester 2021). Perceptions of safety also matter and can be helped by greening vacant land; for instance, an experimental study in Detroit found that neighborhood greenspace that included more microscale elements intended as cues-to-care (CTC) or cues-to-safety (CTS) was significantly more frequently preferred and perceived as more well-cared for and safer than greenspace with fewer cues (Nassauer et al. 2021).

Dilapidated row housing in Philadelphia (Source: Matt Rourke for AP)

Vacant Land in Urban Forestry/Ecology and Greening Literature

This literature is interested in the vacant land uses that foster biodiversity, species richness and broad ecological functions in dense urban environments of the world. For as much as poorly maintained vacant land attracts pests, mosquitoes and rats, it can also function as habitat for a variety of other species that are not a nuisance to humans. Urban ecology as a discipline basically started with the study of plant communities on vacant land in European cities. Urban botanists in Berlin and other European cities studied the response of urban plants on “ruderal” bombed sites following World War II. These vacant sites, often consisting of rubble from destroyed buildings, provided warm, dry conditions for locally adapted plants to occupy. Indeed, because of their transitional properties, vacant lots can range in habitat from early-successional weedy lots to fully forested patches of habitat. The majority of vacant lots have some woody vegetation a landmark study found (Pagano and Bowman 2000). Up to 62% vacant lots in New York City have either shrubs or trees (Kremer, Hamstead, and McPhearson 2013) and vacant lots in Roanoke, Virginia average 30.6% tree cover (Kim 2016). Vacant lots can provide abundant urban birds habitat where shrub density is high (Rega-Brodsky and Nilon 2016), while other authors pointed out that species richness may vary depending on land use, and vacant uses can support more native species than park or residential uses (Villaseñor et al. 2020). This literature is also influenced, although often not explicitly, by concepts such as ‘multispecies planning’ (Houston et al. 2018), a re-awakening to how humans are enmeshed into ecologies where also non-human species, such as pollinators, make and remake the landscapes that humans are actively destroying. Vacant lands in post-industrial cities certainly represent a possible laboratory to test planning and design that facilitates multispecies flourishing (Signorelli 2018), but evidence of this is scarce.

Vacant Land in Green Infrastructure/Urban Planning Literature

Although with some overlap with the previous strain, this literature is interested with the potential of urban green spaces (vacant lots, parks, gardens) to be a very cost-effective way for land conservation and confront the ecological and social impacts of urban sprawl and the accelerated consumption and fragmentation of open land (Benedict and McMahon 2002; Dou and Kuang 2020; Koprowska, Łaszkiewicz, and Kronenberg 2020). Such spaces can aid in reducing the need for hard storm water management infrastructure and can also mitigate urban runoff by capturing a significant percentage of runoff (Gill et al. 2007; Demuzere et al. 2014; Li, Uyttenhove, and Vaneetvelde 2020) and other ecological features, often including, plant biodiversity, food production, microclimate control, soil infiltration, carbon sequestration, visual quality, recreation, and social capital - clustered under the name ‘ecosystem services’ (Lovell and Taylor 2013; Campbell et al. 2010; Pearsall 2017). It is deemed that good quality urban greening improves health through stress reduction and increase in safe physical activity (Bratman et al. 2019). Similarly, a review of 22 studies looking at impacts of greening of vacant land on health, showed that feelings of depression, self-reported stress, physical activity, use of outdoor areas for relaxation and socialization, and heart rate all significantly improved when living near or being within view of a greened vacant lot versus an unmaintained control lot (Sivak, Pearson, and Hurlburt 2021). Green infrastructure, however, can be associated with negative outcomes such as gentrification, when it displaces long term residents (Goossens, Oosterlynck, and Bradt 2020; Taguchi et al. 2020). At the same time, the simple presence of clusters of residential and commercial vacant land has also shown to be positively associated with gentrification (Lee and Newman 2021), triggering the need for retaining affordability through policies that target medium-sized and privately owned lots.

Concluding Remarks

While the presence of vacant land is often associated with blight and social degradation, here we presented how four literature strains see different use values for both human and non human species. We also identified literature that applies radical frameworks (such as critical race theory, political ecology, and multi-species design) to think how the racialized and human-centric nature of vacant land may shift onto spaces of liberation and kinship.


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