Shrinking Cities

Real Property Information System

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.


Often, this is the least costly alternative to eliminate blight. This course of action may be particularly appropriate for functionally obsolete buildings or structures beyond repair. The resulting vacant lot lends itself to green infrastructure or urban agriculture. Demolition may also be appropriate in neighborhoods where ‘blotting’ might be an attractive policy.


"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.


Rather than destroying building materials and sending them to a landfill, communities may choose to deconstruct homes piece by piece. These materials may be recycled or reused as building materials in new structures. Although more costly than demolition, deconstruction aids in historic preservation and helps create green collar jobs in the local community.


When moving a physical structure and the residents therein proves significantly less costly and less stressful than building a new home, relocation may be an appropriate choice. In this case, the physical structure is moved to an empty lot in a different neighborhood. This approach may facilitate neighborhood clustering. Because many cities already have an oversupply of housing stock, such a strategy should be treated with some caution.


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.


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.


A technique that is currently being explored to extract useable resources such as lumber and stone from historic buildings that may not be feasible to preserve.

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.