As a relatively recent human phenomenon, cities are the physical culmination of many pre-existing psychological, social and cognitive capacities. The persistent presence of deliberately empty spaces in urban areas both past and present signals the conscious creation and maintenance of those locales at various levels: household, neighbourhood and civic/centralizing. Domestic empty space, in particular the space between and among habitations, was likely to have been curated and managed at the household level. However, neighbourhood-level and urban-level empty spaces were subject to multiple demands and levels of oversight; as a result, this publicly available emptiness was flexible in its use but also potentially ‘expensive’ to govern. The presence of empty spaces in an urban setting may serve as a proxy for understanding the relationship between different levels of urban interaction, from the relative autonomy of the household that used its nearby spaces idiosyncratically, to the larger impositions of authority through urban design in the form of streets and open plazas. Specific examples of empty space are assessed for the ancient city of Sisupalgarh in eastern India, where geophysical surveys and excavations have enabled us to discuss the multiple meanings of nothingness at the household, neighbourhood and urban scales.