Vacant Land, Supply and Demand

I’ve been working on this idea lately that the discipline of landscape urbanism may have a ready and willing partner in shrinking cities around the nation, even the world.  While the discipline emerged as a sustainable response to suburban sprawl, I think it has incredible implications for our most devastated inner cities.  The problem, however, is that it’s rather counterintuitive, goes against the grain of most municipal leadership, and requires a dramatic shift in policy to implement. 
But it’s worth the effort.
Once again, let’s try to frame the context.  For the most part, the major cities associated with such abandonment, and in need of a reevaluation of policy, include Cleveland, Detroit, Gary, Flint, St. Louis, and Camden, among others.  I live in the Chicago area, and while the Windy City has made considerable strides in growth over the last couple of decades, there are large swaths of the city that exhibit similar characteristics.  Other cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Buffalo, post-Katrina New Orleans, Memphis and Birmingham may also qualify, in part if not in their entirety.  Actual numbers are hard to come by, but in each case we’re talking about cities that have a total amount of vacant and abandoned land in the area of 15 percent or more, and a net vacancy that may approach 20 percent.  The Detroit Future City Plan released last January has what may be the most accurate data for the most devastated city; the Plan states that about one-seventh of Detroit’s land is vacant and/or abandoned (20 square miles), or nearly one-quarter once streets, parks, highways and other rights-of-way are factored out.
For my part, the simple economic laws of supply and demand seem to display how a focus on reducing the vacant land inventory would positively impact shrinking cities.  When demand decreases for a given good, the price falls.  Relatedly, when supply increases for a given good, the price falls.  Doesn’t that describe the vacant land dynamic in shrinking cities?  Demand for urban living fell through the floor after decades of flight that led to destabilized neighborhoods.  Those same destabilized neighborhoods eventually became the home of tons of vacant land and abandoned homes – an abundance of supply.  The devastating combination of negligible demand and overwhelming supply results in incredibly cheap land prices in shrinking cities which negatively impact their ability to revitalize.
Here’s where the shift in thinking comes into play. 
Ever since the downward spiral began in shrinking cities, municipal leaders have focused only on the demand side of the equation.  We have an abundance of available land, they surmise; it will only be a matter of time before we return to our earlier built-out status.  Sorry to say, but only in a select few cities was that ever going to be the case.  For the rest, the kind of demand that led to population highs in the 1950s dissipated with that very decade.  It’s not returning.
It’s time to consider the supply side of the vacant and abandoned land equation.  Shrinking cities have too much and must do what they can to reduce the inventory.  Shrinking cities must consider non-residential but still productive land uses that will not compete with more stable areas for residential or commercial development.  Such uses include:
·         Nature preserves
·         Stormwater management areas
·         Urban agriculture areas
·         Parks
·         Brownfield remediation sites
The above uses could be implemented in areas with extensive swaths of vacant land, maybe 10 acres or more.  However, many neighborhoods that are otherwise stable (or on the brink of decline) are pockmarked with vacant lots or abandoned homes that challenge neighborhood stability.  Uses to help stabilize them could include:
·         Small urban gardens
·         Playlots and pocket parks
·         Community pathways connecting open spaces, or providing shortcuts to commercial corridors
·         The subdivision of lots between two existing property owners to create larger lot sizes
The fact is, cities must find ways to shift the supply.  I believe this will have a positive effect on cities – the reduction of the vacant land inventory will result in higher prices for land in the stable and thriving portions of the city.  And one cannot dismiss the psychological impact that this will ultimately have on the demand for land – changing the land use of vacant land from fallow to utilized can stimulate investment in stable and thriving areas.  This is the counterintuitive part – reducing the amount of land can actually strengthen your shrinking city.
I’m waiting to see which shrinking city will take the bold step of reducing their land inventory to save its stronger parts.  I’m also waiting to see if adherents of the landscape urbanism discipline can get involved to provide guidance to shrinking cities.

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