Thinking about vacancy: Conceptual schemes for representing vacant properties in city planning

Barbara Stabin Nesmith, University of Pennsylvania


This study explores how vacant property is conceptualized in American planning, a technical problem that has become salient as declining cities contend with vast inventories of vacant land and buildings. National and regional vacant property studies have found that this ambiguity and lack of agreement hampers comparative analysis among cities, and that the poor quality of municipal records further hampers comparisons and trend analyses. The study begins with a literature review that examines how several planning fields have defined vacant property. Traditional land use classification schemes are not necessarily inclusive in their approach to classifying vacant properties; terms such as blight, abandonment, and brownfields are ambiguous and do not cover the entire spectrum. The literature review suggests that a multidimensional land use classification scheme, originally proposed by Albert Z. Guttenberg, appears promising for classifying vacant properties. Employing multiple methods of analysis, this case study explains how one city (Philadelphia) defines, measures, and represents its vacant property inventory. The study begins by disaggregating the Census definition of vacancy into its different dimensions, diagramming how Census conceptual schemes have changed since the 1940 census. As historical Census data are widely employed by planners to monitor vacancy, this analysis shows how planners might approach a citywide or neighborhood study. The textual analysis then diagrams how local planning and development agencies conceptualize vacancy data, utilizing the Guttenberg classification scheme. This is followed by a closer examination of raw vacancy data from these agencies, utilizing relational database and GIS applications to explore the reliability of the data, how these agencies actually code properties according to their own classification schemes, and how different data sets might correspond or supplement each other. While many agencies monitor vacancy in Philadelphia, this case study finds that Philadelphia lacks a consistent, unambiguous and inclusive conceptual scheme for categorizing vacant properties, and it lacks consistent and accurate vacancy data. These longstanding problems have hampered Philadelphia's ability to plan for vacant property. Philadelphia's current efforts to improve its municipal records and focus on planning for vacant property are promising, but these efforts must be supported by a more coherent conceptual scheme.

Subject Area

Urban planning|Area planning & development

Recommended Citation

Stabin Nesmith, Barbara, "Thinking about vacancy: Conceptual schemes for representing vacant properties in city planning" (2003). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3109223.