Vacant Land in Cities: An Urban Resource

Ann O’M. Bowman and Michael A. Pagano
Michael A. Pagano Dean Emeritus, College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs - University of Illinois at Chicago, Former Nonresident Senior Fellow - Brookings Metro

January 1, 2001

A recent survey examining vacant land and abandoned structures in 70 cities found that:

  • On average, fifteen percent of a city’s land was deemed vacant. This total includes widely varying types of land, ranging from undisturbed open space to abandoned, contaminated brownfields. 
  • Cities in the South tended to have the most vacant land while cities in the Northeast had the least. Cities in the South reported the highest proportion of vacant land (19.3 percent of total land area). On average, cities in the Northeast reported the lowest amount of vacant land (9.6 percent). 
  • Cities in the Sunbelt, experiencing high levels of growth in population and land area, reported high levels of vacant land. For example, between 1980 and 1995, Phoenix grew its population by 55 percent and its land area by 30 percent; it reported 43 percent of its land as vacant. Similar cities include Charlotte and San Antonio.
  • Cities with low proportions of vacant land tended to have high numbers of abandoned structures. The Northeast region, with the lowest reported percentage of vacant land, reported the highest number of abandoned structures (7.47 per 1000 inhabitants).

This survey was designed to inform urban practitioners and scholars about the supply of vacant land and to help jump-start a conversation about the potential of vacant land and abandoned structures to serve as social and economic assets for cities. It examined cities with varying densities and population growth patterns, and used new data to estimate the amount of vacant land and abandoned structures in U.S. cities. The survey also identified conditions of vacant and abandoned property in these cities. This survey will hopefully serve as a base for further quantitative studies examining the amount and location of both of these resources.