Saturday, April 28, 2018

In Praise of Vacant Land

Growing up in Portland, Oregon in the 1960s and 1970s, I spent my lonely childhood exploring the forests, fields, and vacant lots around our neighborhood. Maybe it was the time period, maybe it was the culture, but I was allowed to roam freely for the most part. Not today. Our vacant parcels of land, whatever their size, have gone from implicit invitations to traverse them to extreme possessiveness and a clearly uninviting nature full of fences and other explicit boundaries and "no tresspassing" postings. I long for the good ol' days.

It would be an interesting exercise to plot a timeline of American land use over the centuries, from the frontier to current efforts to shrink public lands. Some things stand out from my own education, both formal and subsequently informed by "alternative media." We clearly usurped indigenous peoples in our effort to conquer the wild landscape and settle what were apparently chaotic ecosystems prior to our arrival as European colonists. Resource extraction went from individual mining claims during the Gold Rush to mountaintop removal for coal, to fracking done by faceless corporations. We tamed forests through logging and fire suppression.

If you believe that to have value, a given parcel of land must provide an economic return, then you are starting with the wrong premise.

Eventually, individuals with great foresight and appreciation of wilderness brought us the concept of parks, wildlife refuges, and roadless wilderness. Then came Aldo Leopold's land ethic, and Garrett Hardin's The Tragedy of the Commons. Our population boomed in post war celebration, and prosperity seemed boundless. The interstate highway system replaced the railroad as the way to move freely about the country, unfettered by fears of peak oil. Everyone could have everything, including their own piece of real estate. We could feed ourselves, recreate, work, and live, all in different locations. Sprawl was not the name for subdivisions back then.

Where once land was appreciated on several levels, today there is but one consideration: financial gain. If you believe that to have value, a given parcel of land must provide an economic return, then you are starting with the wrong premise. Land already has value as the ecosystem engine that keeps us breathing, keeps us grounded, keeps our minds resilient and stokes our creativity, awe, and curiosity. The idea that human activities enhance the value of land is a corruption of economics that ignores biology. I have personally never seen a natural landscape improved by the addition of a strip mall or suburban housing project. Indeed, such projects diminish the value of land at best.

Undeveloped acreage is protected the way ranchers protect their cattle before they take them to the slaughterhouse. The average lot is merely reserved for something "better" at some future date.

Today, the vacant lands of my youth are protected from children, and all other innocent and worthwhile interests. Undeveloped acreage is protected the way ranchers protect their cattle before they take them to the slaughterhouse. The average lot is merely reserved for something "better" at some future date. I ask what could be better than wildflowers, the hum of bees and songs of birds? What could be better than an unofficial playground for our wonderfully wild, exuberant children? I never got curious about illicit drugs because I was curious about insects and reptiles and other wildlife. I was able to satisfy my inquisitive nature precisely because I had places I could go, safe or not, where I could find and observe other organisms. This is saying something considering that I am an only child who was raised mostly by an overprotective single mother.

Vacant lots are only as much of a blight as we allow them to be, at least in urban settings. Why not take that weedy block and turn it into a butterfly and bird garden, or even a community garden that feeds people as well as wild things? Grow something other than another concrete and steel building. Density and infill are not dirty words. Apply them humanely and shrink your city's sprawl. Leave the larger pieces alone or manage them for all the biological services they provide us. Leave them for the kids.


  1. I'm fortunate to have grown up in a remote area with good size lots, friendly neighbors, and friendly parents who got us permission to roam freely.

    Not so easy to find anymore. At least not being within an hour of a major metro area, and that's a cryin' shame indeed.

  2. One of the greatest of evils is property tax. The plowing of grandpa's last 40 acres of saved land and turned into hell-holes of crop production or "development" was to pay the property taxes and make the county commissioners happy, the realtors turn a profit, the "waste land" become productive. It all comes down to the misguidance of capitalism, the grand hatred of nature. Taxes are more than burdens on the worker, they are a leading cause of environmental destruction.

  3. Super essay - especially love those last two paragraphs.

  4. Exploring sunflower-filled vacant lots and catching gartersnakes on the outskirts of Denver were experiences that kickstarted who I am. Eric, you nailed it!

  5. Growing up in Security/Widefield, I can definitely relate to this post. Behind my elementary school was "Deadman's Hill" as the kids called it, where kids had made an impromptu dirt-biking course with hills, also used for sledding. It is now houses. Behind my junior high, there was ranch land with social trails we walked our dogs on, a pond we snuck onto to slide in our tennis shoes when it was frozen, and just miles of open expanse beyond. Across from it was a tree where kids carved initials with their juvenile romantic flings. Now those are houses and shopping centers. When I was in high school, I ran cross country, and the elderly coach would send us out on loops through dirt trails and rural roads behind the school that could easily make up the distance of a future competition we were training for. Again, now, that is all houses. Kids can only play on the playground at my elementary school now, At the junior high they can only go to Seven Eleven or Kum and Go for treats and have to be careful about walking across busy streets, and the high school runners get to spend nearly all their time running on hard pavement along suburban streets. Kids do not have the backdoor wilderness to explore anymore, and if they did, they'd probably be ticketed for trespassing on developer's land. Unstructured time in general for kids has vastly disappeared, as has time in unstructured (by man) natural world. It is no wonder people lack in understanding and appreciation for the bigger world outside - they so rarely experience and see it.

  6. It has been a battle to keep space open in and around Chicago. For the number of people that live here there should be more not less. A children's museum, a Star Wars museum, a Presidential Library, there is always something that is so important that the lakefront or park just must have. Luckily many Chicagoan's are wise enough to recognize the value of open land even if some of our politician's don't always agree. Let's hope more come over to enlightenment.

  7. Check out the book,"Last Child in the Woods." Time spent in contact with the natural world at an early age cannot be as undervalued as it has become,for the sake of healthy childhood development. I was just discussing with my mom about how we'd make poultices of mashed up magnolia flowers for our hurry knees and shins, when we lived in Whitestone, just over the bridge from the Bronx. I am over 60 now and I can still feel the coolness. I appreciate your thoughts on this subject...speaks to my heart.