Shrinking Cities

Alternative uses

This page details strategies for improving community sustainability, with a focus on temporary uses. Many of these uses require, and offer additional justification for, the strategic demolition of abandoned buildings.


"All over Detroit, homeowners are starting to spread out, expanding their property by gradually accumulating lots that others abandoned." - Interboro

Blotting is a strategy that allows adjacent landowners to acquire neighboring property for a nominal cost. This gives the opportunity for lot expansion that can achieve multiple objectives:

  • Makes use of vacant lots that are otherwise a blight to the community.
  • Allows for landowners to bring added value to their property.
  • Creates an updated pattern of use for neighborhoods that no longer justify their density.
  • Attracts landowners by the idea, sometimes called “New Suburbanism”, of suburban amenities in an urban setting that avoids migration to outer suburbs and entices suburban dwellers back into the city.
  • Is in some situations an opportunity to take New Suburbanism to a rural level that embraces less density for uses such as urban agriculture.


Converting a structure from its traditional use to a new incarnation may be particularly attractive for viable neighborhoods looking to incorporate innovative policy and creative urban design while preserving historic building stock and neighborhood culture. Adaptive reuse normally conserves energy and natural resources, when compared to new construction.

Temporary use as open space

The extensive number of vacant lots that make up the urban fabric of shrinking cities present the problem of not only what to do with them but also who will maintain them. The creation of green infrastructure [insert link] such as pocket parks and community gardens offers great use of properties, but also require extensive commitment of maintenance and upkeep.

Temporary uses for open space with minimum maintenance requirements allow for the sustainable reclamation of contaminated sites. These also serve as a mothballing technique that restores sites in the short term, prepares them for future reuse, and offers interim opportunities profit. Tree planting and urban forestry on vacant lots brings a great alternative use that can be either temporary or permanent:

  • Tree planting- The inexpensive and simple approach of planting a row of trees and building a fence along the front edge of a property can have a major positive impact in multiple ways:
    • Improving the aesthetics of the property to improve neighborhood image and reduce the draining appearance of blight, not only lifting morale but also the values of neighboring properties.
    • Serving ecological benefits of urban forestry such as improving infiltration, wildlife habitat and reducing heat island effect.
    • Establishing healthy trees that could serve as an asset to a potential new home on the property.
  • Urban forestry- Take it up a notch and plant urban forests that serve greater ecological benefits while also offering economic potential for harvest if the site is redeveloped in the future.


Mothballing is the idea of preserving buildings and urban infrastructure that are currently not being properly utilized but have the potential for future use. An example would be preserving historic buildings until an alternative use can be found. This keeps historic places in tact and may help soften the blow of the buildings’ closure. While a good idea in theory, mothballing efforts need to be careful not to encourage the problematic expectation of future population growth.