A Story of Vacant Land (Part 2): The Evolution

Have you ever wondered why or how the vacant lot next to your home got there?  Obviously, a series of events had to happen to create that neglected space. Vacancy didn’t show up overnight.  A combination of macro forces and micro decisions, each of which is interrelated led to what you see in so many of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods today.  With over 27,000 vacant lots in the City of Pittsburgh, something has happened at a massive scale. Understanding the history and evolution of vacancy in Pittsburgh is crucial for practitioners, city officials, and residents to take effective action moving forward.  At this critical and dynamic time in Pittsburgh’s history, there has never been a better opportunity to respond to this emergency.

Allegheny County had 1.6 million people in 1950, now it has 1.2 million people.  That’s an exodus of 400,000 people. The current population of Pittsburgh is a little over 300,000 – more people left the County in the last 70 years than there currently are in Pittsburgh. Why did this happen?  Mainly because industries like coal and steel collapsed, so the labor force exited along with it or not long afterward. That outward migration resulted in vacant residencies and land without a comprehensive system of accountability to prevent tax delinquency. Such negative externalities are a vicious cycle: vacancy begets vacancy because those who can and do choose to move away from vacancy further depress the real estate market.  

Pittsburgh is deemed by many a legacy city.  These are cities that have the same history of deindustrialization.  Each city is different, but the primary challenges are mostly the same, which illustrates the regional and national implications of vacancy.  The exacerbating factor for municipalities when the industry shuts down is the loss of tax revenue when residents leave their homes. The city is either forced to acquire these lots or they let the properties remain private and tax delinquent, which causes some of the problems discussed in Part 1 of this blog series.  As this happens, the quality of the lots deteriorates. Therein lies the big problem and why vacancy afflicts so many of our city’s neighborhoods. The cost of repairing or maintaining these lots far outweighs the available funding due to the lost tax revenue.

Financing the public good is one of the most complex challenges of our time.  However, no individual city leader or policy practitioner can accurately predict economic recession or other depressing macroeconomic forces.  With renewed investment and innovation in our city, Pittsburgh has an opportunity to tackle this problem as long as it’s accomplished in an equitable way.  Considering these social challenges and the nature of the multiple co-benefits of greening interventions, it is clear revitalizing our vacant land in a sustainable way is the only way forward.

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