But I don’t want another yard: the potential unintended consequences of vacant property

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But while the city [Youngstown, Ohio] had planned on a stable population of 80,000, more than 1,000 people move away every year, leaving behind 130 additional empty homes in addition to the city’s 22,000 vacant properties and structures. Four thousand of those homes are in dangerous condition, according to the city, but each demolition costs $9,000 and the city has yet to decide whether to close nearly abandoned neighborhoods to try to save money.

“It’s almost anti-American to say our city is shrinking,” said Heather McMahon, the executive director of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, a Youngstown community group.

“But if we’re going to survive as a city and not go bankrupt like Detroit,” she said, “we’re going to have to figure something out.”

Blighted Cities Prefer Razing to Rebuilding”New York Times, December 12

 

Figure something out…

 

I have had a high level of personal uneasiness toward mass demolition programs for decades.  Since I cut my professional teeth in historic preservation, and in the aftermath of an ambitious urban renewal program to boot, that’s probably not surprising.  But there’s a risk in preservation of trying to preserve everything for the sake of preserving everything – sometimes it’s extremely hard to make the kind of judgment calls that preserving some places, but not all, requires.  It’s a internal struggle I still face every time I deal with a older building or community.

 

Because I know that conflict in myself, I’ve tried to give the mass demolition programs developing in many of the cities of the northeastern US the benefit of a doubt, depite the opposition shown by many of my longtime preservation colleagues.  After all, I do understand the macro-economics — the oversupply of buildings, the spatial shift in where economic activity happens, the up-against-the-wall situation facing so many of these communities.  And the fact that arson and crime and potentially deadly spaces can’t be tolerated.   And the fact that not everything old is “historic.”

I’ve worried in the back of my mind about the consequences, but I haven’t been able to articulate what was worrying me.  Or tell for sure if it isn’t just an old reflex of mine reacting to a stimulus.

Youngstown was one of the first to make city downsizing its official policy, and one data point does not make a trend.  But I’m concerned that what we’re seeing in Youngstown might be a first indicator that mass-scale vacant building demolition, and the way that we are often handling the vacant land that results, might do more long-term harm than good.

 

In downtown revitalization, we often find that districts that have too much vacant land, such as too many parking lots, struggle to achieve a healthy economy.  The root reason is amazingly simple, but somehow gets overlooked: if there are fewer buildings, people have that many fewer reasons to go there – each parking lot represents a space that can’t hold a business or a restaurant or another reason for people to come downtown.  Most downtowns need to accommodate some cars, but successfully revitalizing downtowns have come to figure out that plentiful parking doesn’t attract customers if those lots mean that there are less reasons to come to the downtown district.  Unfortunately, a lot of them figured that out after they have lost a lot of buildings to mostly-empty parking lots, but in the world of downtown revitalization professionals, that’s pretty well understood now.  That’s why you see more building of new buildings on parking lots in downtowns, as a national trend than you see the kind of demolition for parking that dominated the 1970s.

 

Does similar logic hold for urban neighborhoods?  Do we create a worsening spiral of disinvestment by simply trying to get rid of the bad stuff?   Can massive demolition have the same kind of backfiring effect that surface parking lots have in a downtown?

 

Are there fewer reasons to live there if there’s fewer houses around?

 

 

We get into trouble sometimes because we think of people, and the places where people live, as these straightforward, uniform creatures.  Of course, we know that’s not really the case – we know that we fight with our spouse and we certainly don’t have the same tastes as our fuddy – duddy parents!  But when it comes to public policy, we have an tendency to say “people want this” “people don’t want that.”  If we’re honest, we have to admit that it’s a tendency that should make us uncomfortable.

 

A lot of uses for vacant urban lots have been proposed, but one of the most common so far seems to be giving the vacant lot to the home owner next door.  Maybe it’s a case of what my Appalachian mother used to call “making a silk purse our of a sow’s ear” – she meant when she said that, attempting to make something nice out of something not all that appealing.  And given that most mass demolition programs so far have basically created scattered vacant lots interspersed with some proportion of leftover houses, it’s certainly an on-its-face-logical tactic.

 

But as the idea has proliferated, the rhetoric being used to justify attaching vacant lots to the house next door  — and the act of calling that a “solution” — is starting to worry me.  It’s worrying me because it sounds like the kind of solution we invent when we fall back on an old assumption without asking whether that assumption fits this issue – or whether it ever fit anything at all.

 

One of the themes of the vacant-building-demolition movement, and a common justification for trying to hand the vacant lot to the neighbor, has been this idea, this assumption, that giving people more open space, less density, more distance between buildings, means giving them a benefit.  If you review “rightsizing” plans and other vacant lot strategies all over the northeastern US, you repeatedly encounter the more-breathing-room, big-side-lot, look-you-can-have-your-very-own-garden justification for handing that newly-vacant lot over to the house next door.

 

Here’s my problem: we’re assuming (or maybe hoping) that urban residents will see more land, more open space, as a good thing.   And I am not convinced that it is a good thing. Or that the people we need to invest and re-invest in these neighborhoods will see it as a good thing, either.

My bigger concern is that we may be assuming that without realizing that we’re assuming it.  Which means we can’t see the flaws in what we’re assuming at all.

 

If you were trained in planning or urban design or urban studies or the like, you got exposed at some point to the Garden City school of thought.  It runs, kind of counter-intuitively, through the whole history of urban planning – from  Ebineezer Howard’s Garden Cities to Mies van de Rohe’s mega-blocks surrounded by parkland, and back from that and forward from that.  They look a little different, but the overarching theme is the same: Design places so that people live as close to an idealized small town , semi-agrarian life as we can get.

 

And in case that sounds like ancient history, note that there is a new Garden City competition unfolding in the UK today.

 

For some reason (probably rooted in a desire for cleanness and simplicity and a system that we can understand), urban planning types have always had an ambivalent relationship with full-bore urban places.  We have this strange tendency to keep wanting to revert back to that “everyone can be a gentleman farmer” mode.  And even with the embrace of the Jane Jacobs legacy over the past 20 years, with the value that she placed on an urban environment’s vibrancy, and the economic power generated by proximity, and her distrust of forced “open spaces,” this tendency in the profession’s thinking patterns seems to keep surfacing, like a partially-forgotten reflex.

 

It’s dangerous to give too much weight to your own experience.  But here’s something to think about:

 

How many people living in an urban or semi-urban setting actually want to double the amount of land that they are responsible for maintaining?

 

There’s probably some, no doubt.  All I really know is that I’m not one of them.

 

I live on a third of an acre lot in a suburb.  I have very busy days and a lot of things making demands on my time.  With the exception of a couple of weeks in the spring (when the first sight of green shoots after months of grey probably turns everyone into a closet farmer), I don’t even want to maintain the yard and flowers and trees I already have.  In my head, the trimming and weeding and planting is just Another Thing I Have to Deal With.  If you gave me the lot next door to take care of, free or cheap as long as I would take care of it…I wouldn’t want it.

 

I wouldn’t take it unless I felt that I had to… that I had to control that land in order to protect my home from someone or something else.  Unless I felt that I had no other choice.  And if I have to take on that burden to defend my home, that would probably increase my eagerness to find a new home as soon as I can.

 

Just one, admittedly over-extended, person’s opinion.

 

But in a society where the average age is climbing, where average household size is plummeting, where hours worked are increasing, and more and more people live alone, how many people are seriously going to want more land to take care of?

 

Post-War single family suburbs are being told by planners that they are in trouble, that they have to diversify their housing stock, because the traditional two-parent, two-kid families is on its way to becoming an endangered species.  And as a denizen of one of those, I will tell you that I believe it.  But I will also tell you, having lived in those neighborhoods: those are the places where people have the time and money to maintain big yards and trees and flower beds.

 

So, while it’s likely that a few people in your Neighborhood X might tap their inner Hobbit and embrace the opportunity to extend their flower and vegetable plots onto the next lot, I cannot help but fear that this is more of a once-in-a-while idiosyncacy than a workable strategy.  But since no one’s going to force someone to start gardening the lot next door, no harm, no foul, right?

 

That’s what I thought… until I saw the item about Youngstown that opened this essay.  Now I wonder if we are not inadvertently reinforcing these neighborhoods’ and cities’ decline.

 

Here’s the core problem: we’re assuming that more open space and more trees and more room between houses will look like a Good Thing to potential future house buyers.  In a sense, we’re saying,

 

“Look! This is just like those big lots in the suburbs… look how much room you’ll have!”

 

But here’s how that might translate in the minds of those future buyers:

 

“Look!  You’ll get more stuff to have to take care of!  Oh, and all those benefits of being in the city, like transit and ability to walk places and shopping options… well, there’s not enough people to support that stuff here anymore, so you’ll have to drive to the shopping centers the same as the suburban people.  And yes, I know these roads are broken up and half the street lights don’t work and the recreation center two blocks over closed because we don’t have enough tax revenue to support all this stuff.  But look how much land you have!

 

I think that we have to recognize, rationally, that this isn’t a very compelling sales proposition.  And because it’s not a compelling sales proposition, and because we haven’t come up with anything better, I fear that we are going to watch that hemorrhage continue, rather than stabilize.  If we don’t think critically about their assumptions, and instead pin our hopes on this Urban Little House on the Prairie idea, we will probably find that we have thrown money and time at a strategy that did nothing to stem the population loss, and may in fact make it worse.  It’s more likely that the vacant lots signal to people a lack of future, not some happy urban farmer/fake suburbia thing.

 

 

I understand very well that people who are struggling to try to fix these neighborhoods are faced with the bitterest of awful, no-win choices.  Nothing in here is intended to imply anything else, and I’ve worked over and worked over this essay until it turned into a baroque tangle of caveats and conditions in an attempt to not sound like I want to cut them off at the knees.   As I’ve said elsewhere, I am frankly in awe of the determined people who fight to make communities better in the face of disinvestment, discouragement, unending frustration and setback.  And I know that’s what the people on the front line of the urban vacancy issue are living with.

 

My goal here is to encourage these folks to keep fighting, and not give in to the temptation to cling to a simplistic answer as the longed-for solution. The urban vacant building issue is probably the biggest wicked problem we are going to face in the next decade, and I sure as hell don’t have an easy answer.  There probably isn’t one answer – urban farmers, condo-seekers, restless temporary alighters and overextended, overwhelmed constant-workers are probably all parts of our future urban neighborhoods.  Monolithic assumptions are a big piece of what gets us into trouble in the first place.

 

And I know that’s not the neat wrap-up answer that people want at the end of an essay like this.  It’s damn easy, I know, to be a critic.

 

But a big part of the problem with how we are handling urban vacancy, and many of the other issues we face, is that we keep looking for easy answers. We have too much of a tendency, particularly among urban planning and design professionals, to blindly accept the received wisdom of past generations, even when we can see for ourselves the evidence of that wisdom’s failures.   And when we accept a happy piece of pablum, one that pacifies us into thinking that we might not have to undertake the blindingly hard fight to gain the money and the attention that we need to figure this out in a manner that will actually work, then we have done ourselves no favors.

 

So let’s take this issue on seriously, and more meaningfully support the organizations and volunteers and communities who are facing and taking on this fight. Let’s test some tactics – really test them, putting money and intellectual rigor into figuring it out.  There have been a few systematic experiments, but nowhere near enough.  Let’s figure out what we actually need to have in our toolbox, and how we can best use it..

 

Preferably before we finish all that planned demolition.

5 thoughts on “But I don’t want another yard: the potential unintended consequences of vacant property”

  1. I think you’ve nailed it with the “no easy fix” idea. The forces at the root of this have been in place for 50+ years and will not be unraveled overnight. A laundry list of contributors to the problem: Social problems / family breakdown, the effect of drugs, poor schools, forced and voluntary segregation, exclusionary zoning, demographic changes, out-migration to more prosperous areas of the country, globalization, economic changes, valuing money above people, the triumph of the auto over transit, and so on… Does this mean we throw up our hands? Of course not. But it’s good to recognize the complexity of the situation, look at the things we can and cannot influence, and influence what we can. I sure wish I had the answers. It is sad to see this happening.

  2. Within Matt’s comment is a good point about segregation and exclusionary zoning. It has occurred to me that minimum dwelling sizes and prohibitions of echo-housing have become part of the problem. Re-reading Jane Jacobs, she makes a good point about the need for multiple types of housing. I also saw an article about a county in Alabama (I think???) where they required multiple types of housing in each development and found that there was a reduction in crime rates! – both low income and spoiled rich kids – concentrations of any social group seems to lead to problems.
    Della, what do you think about allowing more flexible types of housing when the neighbor acquires the now vacant lot? Let the new owner start a home business and/or rent rooms. I think there needs to be some easily enforceable method to keep these from becoming absentee landlord situations. We as a society are going to need a lot more inexpensive housing because I don’t see the high pay factory jobs coming back. Low rent requires high density and a mix of income types – I don’t know how you control that.

  3. A very nice article. How has Europe dealt with this? Or what dynamics are different? Just thinking they have a lot of 200-400 year old neighborhoods. Cities should be looking to turn some of those empty lots into maker shops!

  4. I agree with much of what you have said, and with the conclusion that experimentation with different techniques is valuable. However….(there’s always a however, isn’t there?)…I have seen too many neighborhoods deteriorate because of the impact of vacant unmaintained properties, to assume that demolition is not part of the toolbox. It’s the use of the properties once the site it cleared that becomes another discussion point. We’ve got a number of demongraphic trends that could help us point the way, notably the interest in returning to more denser, urban neighborhoods. But for now, that appears to be focused on downtown areas, not on central city neighborhoods. There is much discussion about the importance of good schools, transit options, reduced crime. All of which are important longer term strategies. But how do we protect these neighborhoods while we work on those strategies? Unfortunately, that brings me back to demolition and public/community/nonprofit ownership of these properties.

  5. This was a thought-provoking piece — and echoes a lot of what I have been grappling with in the past few years Della. I love reading the posts about Jane Jacobs and about the study (Alabama? If anyone can find that piece I’d love to read it!) that showed a variety of housing types are needed to help with safe (happy?) neighborhoods. My mother has said that for years…and at 83, she mostly gets such thoughts right! And our DXN Book Club is reading Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities) this month and reading The Local Economy Revolution in June — THANK YOU DELLA!!) See http://www.xenianow.org/index.php/xenianews/dxn-book-group

    And with the Roberta Graz mantra of incremental growth — not silver bullets —
    Anyhow as we discuss the lack of income due to loss of manufacturing jobs/pensions etc, and as we see houses shrinking, the desire for huge yards decline, I wonder if a lot of those “functionally obsolete” homes of the 1940s/50s etc. might begin to look awfully attractive again to some. Are any young architects studying how to deal with the little 2 or 3 bedroom/1 bath homes in a dollar effective way? Do we go up? Can we get models for mother-in-law suites, modular homes that can more flexibly help us keep those homes that we are so eager to tear down? Just makes me sad to give up on the old structures — it seems the Midwest is so eager to admit defeat…to say we’ll never have populations like we saw 50 years ago…And I know I sure don’t want a big yard! Although it we all anticipate living in a survivalist mode, we may need those extra yards to eat (i.e. garden) ala the 1930s…I hope it’s not going to get that bad again though. I’m a terrible vegetable gardener! too many hours at work I’ll admit.. Thanks for all the great thoughts here.

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