Perceptions of vacant urban land and resulting policies are based in nature/culture dualisms that condemn abandoned properties as wasteful at best and at worst outright dangerous for communities. Decades of research on urban vacancy reinforce these perceptions, with findings showing higher crime rates, lower property values, and poorer mental health in communities with high rates of vacancy. These established paradigms for thinking about vacant land obscure any benefits that such spaces have while also justifying gentrification. In this essay, we suggest there is more than meets the eye in common assessments of vacant lots. Biodiversity, ecosystem services, and informal community land use are all routinely overlooked in municipal decision-making processes. Using photographs from a pilot field study on ecological health in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, we advance a politics of sight that reframes overlooked features of abandoned properties. Rather than approaching urban vacancy as a problem to be addressed through development, we argue that vacant land is a problem-space with potential for transformation already contained within it.


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pp. 387-415
Launched on MUSE
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