Crisis-opportunity, liability-asset: vacant land reuse and the politics of urban sustainability in Cleveland, Ohio

This dissertation will undertake a Gramscian analysis of the shift in the material and discursive treatment of vacant land in Cleveland, Ohio from a crisis and an economic liability to an opportunity and an environmental asset. The presence of large amounts of vacant land (7% of the city’s footprint) and vacant property (20.5% of all residences) is regularly seen as a crisis in Cleveland and cities like it. Vacancy often stands to blame for problems faced by the local state and residents in their everyday lives, including lost property tax revenue, crime, blight, plummeting home values, and excessive governmental spending associated with maintaining abandoned property and land. However, I will argue that it must be understood as the confluence of multiple crises related to histories of racialized uneven development and the rise of neoliberalism: long-term economic and population decline, the fiscal crisis of the local state, the 2007-2008 foreclosure crisis, the storm water runoff and aging infrastructure crisis, and an industrial legacy of air, soil, and water contamination.

The vacant urban land crisis represents both a challenge to and an opportunity for urban redevelopment. In one sense, this is an economic crisis resulting from the mobility of capital as it “stalks the whole earth” in search of profit (N. Smith, 1984/2008, p. 78), but it is also fundamentally a political one, as various social groups struggle to remake the city according to their interests and desires. Therefore, my dissertation will trace this social struggle to define the crisis and opportunity of vacant land and analyze the ways in which vacant land is incorporated into urban governance processes. Key to this analysis is situating Cleveland’s turn to green reuse of vacant land within the rise of sustainability planning as an economic development strategy under neoliberal interurban competition, one which often leads to reproducing class, race, and gender inequalities.

To investigate this interaction between logics of austerity and sustainability, I ask two primary research questions, each with two sub-questions:

  1. How is the movement for green reuse of vacant land interacting with processes of neoliberal urban governance?
    • What historical conditions underpin the rise of vacant land in Cleveland?
    • How do efforts to reuse vacant land fit within wider urban governance structures in Cleveland, especially around sustainability planning?
  2. What strategies and tactics do residents use when seeking access to vacant public land, especially when engaging with the local state?
    • How do Cleveland residents construct the crisis and opportunity of vacant land and how does this relate to their understanding of environmental sustainability?
    • What strategies and tactics are used by residents looking to gain access to public land in Cleveland?

Taking methodological guidance from Gramscian political ecology, urban regime theory, and neo-Gramscian state theory, I propose to answer these questions through a quantitative and statistical GIS analysis of factors related to property and land vacancy at the neighborhood level, a Gramscian analysis of the historical political economic factors leading to the crisis of vacant land, and semi-structured in-depth interviews (n ≈ 75) with a variety of actors from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. In addition to describing the governing urban regime in Cleveland, I will investigate how urban elites influence sustainability policy in the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 plan (2009 – present). I will forge a connection between the structural and historical changes at multiple scales that have created the crisis of vacant land and the everyday environmental ideological constructions of vacancy that have resulted. Additionally, I will document and analyze the strategies and tactics used by residents in engaging with the local state to gain access to public land, with a focus on Re-imagining Cleveland (2009 – present), one of the largest vacant land reuse projects in the country. Through my analysis I hope to unpack how changing urban governance structures are selectively incorporating green reuse of vacant land and how this process is struggled over by residents on the ground.

My dissertation will address gaps in both the empirical literature on green reuse of vacant land by examining its relationship with urban governance of sustainability and in the theoretical literature by combining the tools of Gramscian political ecology and neo-Gramscian state theory. It ultimately aims at a praxis approach that will both advance theoretical understandings of contestation over neoliberal hegemony and provide concrete political analysis aimed at advancing access to decommodified land in Rust Belt cities.


Smith, N. (1984/2008). Uneven development: Nature, capital, and the production of space. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.