The Spatial Politics of Land: A Comparative Perspective

This course focuses on the deeply contested and political nature of land-use planning. Some would argue that land-use planning is the bread and butter of what planners do. But the act of allocating different, often competing, uses across urban space is undergirded by normative values, making it rife with trade-offs and conflicts. A central premise of this course is to link land-use planning to property rights. How is land, a spatially fixed resource with unique characteristics in each location, transformed into an asset for private ownership, an instrument of finance, a fungible asset? How are fluid ecologies like wetlands and coastal frontiers made into fixed property, and with what social and ecological consequences? How can planners regulate the resources appurtenant to land: who owns (and normatively, who should own) development or air rights above a plot of land, and subsoil resources like groundwater and minerals?

We will add two layers to deepen our understanding of land use and property. The first is the spatial lens. In this current era of post-1970s globalization, we are confronting new and accentuated forms of exclusion from land in the form of gentrification, land grabs, foreclosures, and financialization. In this sense, land-use planning is becoming increasingly transnational as accelerated networks of capital flow unevenly across space. At the same time, the growing strength of transnational social movements and resistance politics is rendering previously standard land-use planning tools, such as eminent domain, virtually unusable. Bringing in the spatial, we will ask how a spatial lens can both deepen our understanding of how land use mediates the production of unjust built environments while also exploring new planning possibilities for the remaking of more socio-spatially just cities and regions. The second is the comparative lens. By foregrounding context, we will interrogate how the same land-use instrument is deployed in varied institutional contexts. How, for instance, do the planning histories and cultures in the United States, China, and South Africa lead to the same instrument of eminent domain being mobilized differently in each context to produce varied outcomes? Each session will have cases and puzzles to ground discussions in real-life settings.