We Need to Change How We Think About Urban Vacancy

Kathleen Stokes

Kathleen Stokes is a postdoctoral fellow on the "Rethinking Urban Vacancy" project at Trinity College Dublin. Her research intersects urban and political geographies, with a particular interest in urban space, infrastructures, labour, and citizenships.


Cian O'Callaghan

Cian O’Callaghan is an assistant professor in Urban Geography at Trinity College Dublin. He is an urban and cultural geographer whose research interests include creativity and place, neoliberalism, and political contestations over the re-use of Ireland’s "new ruins". Cian is the principal investigator of the Irish Research Council-funded project "Rethinking Urban Vacancy", and co-editor of the forthcoming volume "The New Urban Ruins: Vacancy, Urban Politics, and International Experiments in the Post-Crisis City".


Vacancy has been an enduring feature of Dublin’s urban landscape, through periods of growth and recession down to the present day. Just last November, economist David McWilliams lamented the lack of work on bringing vacant homes back into use in his column in the Irish Times.

While pleased to see this issue return to public discussion, we were frustrated by the recurrence of simplified ways of framing vacancy in this article. As architect Orla Murphy pointed out in her response to McWilliams’ editorial, vacancy has had considerable public and policy attention over the last five years.

“Utilising Existing Housing”, for instance, is a core pillar of the Rebuilding Ireland strategy while the 2018 National Vacant Housing Reuse Strategy set out policy actions to identify and respond to vacancy.

Thus, it is not that interventions have been absent. Rather – and to rephrase a question that Mr McWilliams poses rhetorically – “what’s stopping us” is that the issue of vacancy is far more complicated than our current understanding captures.

Over the last year, we have been researching urban vacancy in Ireland as part of an ongoing Irish Research Council-funded project. Our broad aims are to investigate how we measure, understand and respond to different forms of urban vacancy, so we can point towards policy solutions that may work.

Our first report outlines the current political context surrounding urban vacancy and ways of measuring it. The big take-away? Any efforts to identify and address vacant sites and properties in Dublin need to start from a deeper and more contextual understanding of how vacancy is politically defined, identified and responded to.

We’ve found three main issues so far.

Firstly, how we measure and identify vacant properties is confusing. Vacancy data has been collected by at least two national agencies and all local authorities in Ireland, along with a handful of interested associations and individuals. Their measures collect different data (vacant housing units or parcels of land, say), and rely on a variety of implicit and explicit definitions and methodologies for identifying it, and measure at different time intervals.

The census provides one of the most robust indicators we have of housing occupancy and certainly one that has strongly informed political debate. The figure of 199,740 vacant buildings in Ireland, which McWilliams equates to 15 percent of housing stock, is data from the 2016 Census.

However, as the Central Statistics Office has made clear in their statements and enumerator notes, this overarching figure needs to be caveated by the fact that the census happens every five years and only measures occupancy on the night.

Therefore, while the census shows an excellent indicator of long-term trends, it cannot accurately capture those more micro-level changes in occupancy related to properties being sold or changes of tenancy.

Indeed, many types of vacancy are notoriously tricky to identify or tend to go unreported. A street-level vacancy survey, for instance, will struggle to capture a cared-for home whose owner now resides in a care home, or an Airbnb apartment.

Beyond government measures, crowdsourcing efforts by Mayo County Council’s VacantHomes.ie and the Peter McVerry Trust and SpaceEngagers’ Reusing Dublin platform have sought to collect public information on long-term empty homes that could be relatively easily brought back into use.

Despite these admirable efforts, and their successes to date, identifying a home as vacant is always more complicated at a granular level.

Just as owners might wish to relieve themselves of a derelict property but do not do so due to emotional attachments, neighbours may know a home is empty but refrain from reporting it for fear of overstepping engrained privacy boundaries. Likewise, the problem of identifying empty apartments remains a challenge for most forms of measurement.

The big picture figure of 199,740 vacant buildings across Ireland, therefore, hides important detail. It tends to assume that properties are long-term vacant, it tells us nothing about hugely significant geographical questions of where these properties are located, or what proportion are in a condition that merit repair and maintenance work.

When local authorities and voluntary housing bodies seek to identify and action these vacant houses and apartments, the number that could feasibly be brought back into use is substantially fewer.

Secondly, how we define vacancy conflates a variety of categories and underplays highly divergent processes impacting different types. It’s frustrating to see again and again the tired trope of suggesting that overall vacancy rates directly equate to habitable housing. This is simply not the case.

Vacancy does not automatically equate to dereliction and vice versa. Instead, vacant and derelict properties are diverse in size, condition, purpose, and location. If anything, both terms tend to conceal more than they reveal.

The normative assumption of putting vacant housing stock to use is that these are properties that are in, or close to, “turnkey” condition. Rather than such simple solutions, the feasibility of bringing vacant stock back into use is highly contingent on the condition of properties, the level of refurbishment needed, the extent of grants and financial incentives available, and market factors relating not least to geographical location.

Actively responding to these challenges requires much more detailed knowledge of the diverse impediments to reuse.

Finally, we need to move away from a view of vacancy as a negative or dysfunctional component of cities. Much of our public discussion on vacancy is based on an understanding of emptiness and dereliction as forms of “blight” that equate to – in McWilliams’ terms – “vandalism” as opposed to “custodianship” of the urban fabric.

What’s missing in this framing is any indication of sites of vacancy being active in urban development strategies. It is more productive to begin to see vacancy as a normal component of how cities function – one that is at once the outcome of neglect, of speculative investment strategies, and the cracks created by policy and market mechanisms.

Instead of seeing cities as something to be continuously worked on, or even wholly manageable spaces, we view urban vacancy as a process that is inevitably part of any human habitation over time. As our needs change, places transform. The issue isn’t that sites and properties lie vacant or become derelict full stop, but how long they are “out of use” when there are clearly other possible uses and pressing needs.

Such an approach requires us to rethink how we see vacancy, how we measure it, define it, and most significantly view it as an active component of making the city.

While addressing vacancy is undoubtedly essential, an overly narrow focus diverts attention from broader questions surrounding property rights, redevelopment, and inequality within the country.

We welcome the issues that have been raised around maintaining properties, ensuring affordable property prices, and aligning property use with community interest. However, identifying vacant properties is simply not enough.

Vacancy and dereliction are symptoms rather than causes of the unequal housing, property and redevelopment regimes within Irish cities. Any effective response will need to address the fundamental tensions between housing and property ownership rights, as well as the capabilities of local government to oversee effective responses.

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Authors:

Kathleen Stokes: Kathleen Stokes is a postdoctoral fellow on the "Rethinking Urban Vacancy" project at Trinity College Dublin. Her research intersects urban and political geographies, with a particular interest in urban space, infrastructures, labour, and citizenships.

Cian O'Callaghan: Cian O’Callaghan is an assistant professor in Urban Geography at Trinity College Dublin. He is an urban and cultural geographer whose research interests include creativity and place, neoliberalism, and political contestations over the re-use of Ireland’s "new ruins". Cian is the principal investigator of the Irish Research Council-funded project "Rethinking Urban Vacancy", and co-editor of the forthcoming volume "The New Urban Ruins: Vacancy, Urban Politics, and International Experiments in the Post-Crisis City".

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