Blight, or why semantics matter in urban development

I’ve just returned from a longish trip to the US, so it seems appropriate to talk about an American topic that is near and dear to my heart – blight.

What is blight? Well, Merriam-Webster defines blight as

  1. a disease or injury of plants marked by the formation of lesions, withering, and death of parts (such as leaves and tubers); an organism (such as an insect or a fungus) that causes blight

  2. something that frustrates plans or hopes

  3. something that impairs or destroys

  4. a deteriorated condition

The word originally comes from botany (the first definition in that list) and implies a disease that spreads if not treated. In recent years, and in particular since the collapse of the subprime mortgage market (which set off the global economic crisis of 2007-2008), this term has been used to describe urban situations involving empty buildings.

Those of you who know my work will know that I conducted research on how semantics were used to create consensus in post-Wall Berlin (for example, my dissertation and this recent article). What follows is an examination of how word choice, in this case the word “blight,” frames the situation in a particular way, thus creating a situation that is advantageous for specific actions (and detrimental for others). Put simply: how we talk about empty buildings helps to shape what we do with them, and what it’s possible and acceptable to do with them.

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The abandoned children’s hospital in Berlin’s Weissensee district. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse

The word “blight” frames vacancy as a disease that might spread. It speaks to the visceral fears of every mayor – a downward spiral of property abandonment, foreclosures, poverty, and unattractiveness. Urban blight is an eyesore, a problem, something that needs to be remedied quickly before it spreads. The concept of urban blight dovetails neatly into an existing neoliberal concept known as the “broken windows theory” which was brought forward by Wilson & Kelling in 1982:

Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.

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Broken windows in Magdeburg, Germany. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse

Framing vacant buildings in this way not only implies that one vacant building in a neighborhood is the first in a line of falling dominos, and that any amount of vacancy will inevitably lead to more, it also shuts the door on a more positive narrative, or one which might normalize some amount of vacancy in today’s cities and allow their (temporary) existence. The term is further strengthened by the emotional and organic choice of metaphor – blight implies something that comes from the outside, something that is out of our control.

Talking about vacancy in this way shows the continuation of the focus on growth in urban policies – ones in which any amount of vacancy is immediately described as a disease. As the global competition for a limited number of highly qualified workers, manufacturing jobs, and global headquarters and the national competition, i.e. for infrastructure dollars and tax-paying residents, both increase, it seems only logical that cities are fighting to bill themselves as attractive, prospering, creative, and clean. After all, them that has, gets.

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Vacant housing in Magdeburg, Germany. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse

There are, however, two aspects about the blight debate that trouble me.

First of all, as with the broken windows theory, which was used as a justification for strict policing of minor infractions, blight tends to disproportionally affect parts of the population which are already marginalized. When it refers to vacant, deteriorating housing, the invocation of blight can be used to justify new forms of the same “slum clearing” tactics that drove the bulldozer to become the sign of urban progress in the 1960s. Marginalized communities and the neighborhoods that they live in are often structurally disadvantaged in the job market and with regard to financial services (i.e. “redlining” – the practice of refusing mortgages to residents based on their address). Resident density is typically higher than in other parts of the city because older children and grandparents tend to live in. The housing stock is usually of low quality or in bad need of repair and the residents lack the financial means to rehabilitate it. (I’d like to point out at this point that, under free market conditions, those with the least financial means will, logically enough, always end up in the worst (oldest, lowest quality, most in need of repair) housing stock. “Slum clearing” which does not relocate the inhabitants into newly-constructed or subsidized housing merely moves this group from the current worst housing stock to the next best option, which, after the demolition or rehabilitation of the former slum, then necessarily becomes the worst available housing stock.). And those who manage to become property owners belong to the financially precarious group most vulnerable to changes in market conditions, including funding availability and job markets.

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Abandoned mill in Vernon, Connecticut. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse

Secondly, framing vacancy as “blight” precludes certain actions with regard to the vacant building. In the biological understanding of “blight,” the affected body can only be healed through the removal of the lesion or otherwise diseased part. Much like the positioning of some buildings as belonging to a “collective identity” and others, through omission, as not belonging to that identity, semantic framing creates a situation which favors demolition as opposed to adaptive reuse, even if the building in question belongs to the cultural heritage of the area. Rehabilitation or partial use in new development can lend authenticity to placemaking efforts while incorporating built heritage and conserving the embodied energy contained within the existing buildings.

There is no doubt that demolition will be the most reasonable option in a great number of cases, for example when a building is structurally compromised to the degree that rehabilitation is no longer a viable option or black mold has set in. Framing these buildings as “blight,” however, creates consensus for demolition through semantic positioning – a tactic which I regard with more than a little skepticism. A more neutral term (i.e. vacant buildings) would leave the door open for a variety of possible options, including adaptive reuse, partial reuse or rehabilitation.

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