Downtowns: the Interior Frontier
Wasting land worsens dependency on cars, those everyday polluters and congesters. If urban living is to get as good as it can get, cities need to geonomize.
July 14, 2015
Jeffery J. Smith

You don’t see them but they’re there, pockmarking cities. You go right by them. Often an eyesore, covered with trash, you don’t want to see them. But register your blind spots. Those ugly, unused parcels of urban land are wounds in the cityscape. Vacant lots are the wounds cities suffer from speculation in land.

You can correlate vacant lots with all sorts of negative urban action and inaction—namely, crime and unemployment.

How wounded are American cities? One study found 15% of urban land to be either vacant or covered by an abandoned building. In other words, way under utilized. That figure rose to 25% in towns (small cities), another study found.

Those figures do not even include the amount of urban land claimed by the car, which is about half of the surface. Besides the streets, which have to be there, tally up parking spaces, parking garages, gas stations, repair shops, parts stores, dealer lots, junk yards, impound lots, traffic courts, traffic cop quarters, car insurance offices, etc. Cars infest cities in more ways than one.

Combine the two anti-social uses of land—speculation and car driving—and you find in some towns that 75% of the land is lost to traffic and vacant lots. While those are extreme cases (usually younger towns in poorer regions), why do we put up with any waste of land? It’s all bad.

If Not For Our Footprint, Our Tire Track, Then…

If people in cities got around more by foot, bike, jitney, bus, and trolley, then automobiles would not claim so much land. Much of that urban acreage would find other uses: bike lanes, sidewalk cafes, street performers, housing, non-auto-related businesses, etc. Imagine a city without so much traffic—quieter, cleaner, safer.

When owners quit withholding prime sites and put them to good use, then those lots absorb any newly needed development. There’d be scant demand for new structures leftover to spill out of the urban core. Like a good Buddhist, the push behind sprawl would be redirected inward. It’s what the experience of Harrisburg, PA shows us.

Building on formerly under-used sites means cities would have more housing. Housing prices would fall. So would homelessness. Pittsburgh shows us that. For a major American city, it had by far the lowest housing cost and the least homelessness.

Plus wages and investments would rise. A prime location is prime because that’s where the most money can be made. To use it, wannabe users are willing to pay top dollar. When they can’t use it, they must find parcels farther from the center, where less money can be made. Earning less, the business can only pay less, thus vacant lots keep down wages and employment.

Anytime you see a vacant lot, you should also see the resultant sprawl, joblessness, crime, and the missed opportunities.

Better Cities Await Treating Land As Commons

Besides an owner or investor developing a parcel that they now under-utilize, the public could purchase the lot and use it as a park or urban garden. Or, the site could be developed in exchange for razing the buildings and de-paving the streets that now suffocate streams and rivers in cities. Once “uncivilized”, the banks of the riparian area could become wildlife corridors, even in a major city, and a bit farther away, the city could lay out a footpath, and still farther away pave a bike path.

Meanwhile, land speculators are not misbehaving. They’re investing. In this culture, it’s not frowned upon to keep prime land idle, awaiting a higher future price. It’s the troll strategy to fortune—you don’t produce new wealth but just get in the way of the producers until they pay you enough to move out of the way. Patent trolls do it. Some owners of bandwidth do it (notably low power stations).

However, the value of a parcel of land does not belong to the owner alone. No owner creates demand for land; the populace does that. And nobody created land. So each resident is owed compensation for respecting the private property of everyone else.

Owners would not profit from their own land alone but from all the region’s land, as would all residents. Each citizen would get a rent share. Each owner would pay in land dues, which would replace the property tax.

Shifting that tax from buildings to land is what worked in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. Applying “geonomics” ends the waste of urban land. It lets us heal cities, making every one a garden city.

Anytime you see a vacant lot, you should also see the resultant sprawl, joblessness, crime, and the missed opportunities.

Cities have plenty of room to grow without sprawling onto woods and farms. Cities are like roadside signs shot through with the holes of misguided custom.

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Jeffery J. Smith

JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at