Human civilization is headed towards a collision between rapidly changing conditions of land under climate change and static institutions governing land and property. Contemporary development models are predicated on Western European land ethics, property rights regimes, and land policies that evolved during a period of relative climatological and geological stability on Earth. Nevertheless, much as there are “varieties of capitalism”, a variety of land governance systems exist around the world.
This talk shares examples of collective land governance that have enabled communities to adapt to economic and environmental shocks. It raises possibilities for expanding collective land ownership to respond to the climate challenge.
We have included the transcript, graphic recording, audio, and video from “Collective land governance for a changing climate” presented by Linda Shi on February 23, 2022.
About the presenter
Linda Shi is Assistant Professor at Cornell University’s Department of City and Regional Planning. Her research concerns how to plan for urban climate adaptation in ways that improve environmental sustainability and social justice. She studies how aspects of urban land governance – including the fiscalization of land use, property rights regimes, and metropolitan regional institutions – shape climate vulnerability and adaptation responses.
Linda comes at these issues having worked on watershed restoration, water and sanitation, and development planning all over the world for AECOM, the World Bank, the Institute for International Urban Development, and Rocky Mountain Institute. She has a PhD in urban and regional planning from MIT.
Shareable is partnering with Tufts University on this special series hosted by professor Julian Agyeman (Co-chair of Shareable’s Board) and Cities@Tufts. Initially designed for Tufts students, faculty, and alumni, the colloquium has been opened up to the public with the support of Shareable, and The Kresge Foundation.
Cities@Tufts Lectures explores the impact of urban planning on our communities and the opportunities to design for greater equity and justice.
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“Collective land governance for a changing climate” Transcript
Linda Shi: [00:00:06] What capitalism does — the organization of capital — is it scrapes off all of the stuff that in Keynesian economics spreads across the land like butter, you’re spreading people and infrastructure across the land. The urbanization of capital is really trying to consolidate and squeeze people into ever smaller parts of urbanization. So if you think about all the people who are urbanizing, it’s not only about the concentration of people in cities, but it’s also about the population of people from every other part of the world, where historically people would have lived close to the land and had a different set of relationships with the land.
Tom Llewellyn: [00:00:44] Can a Cooperative Cities framework address the unequal impact of automated traffic fines in Black and Brown communities? How can alternative land governance models help us respond to our climate challenge? And is there an equity measurement scheme that can bring clean energy programs and investments to frontline communities? These are just a few of the questions we’re exploring this season on Cities@Tufts Lectures, a free live event and podcast series where we explore the impact of urban planning on our communities and the opportunities to design for greater equity and justice. I’m your host, Tom Llewellyn.
[00:01:15] Today on the show, we’re featuring Linda Shi’s lecture: Collective Land Governance for a Changing Climate. In addition to this audio version, you can watch the video, check out the graphic recording and read the full transcript on Sharable.net. And while you’re there, please take some time to get caught up on all of our past lectures and our ever-expanding library of stories, podcasts, how-to guides and other resources. And now here’s Professor Julian Agyeman. We’ll welcome you to the Cities@Tufts Spring Colloquium and introduce today’s lecturer.
Julian Agyeman: [00:01:55] Welcome to the Cities@Tufts colloquium, along with our partners Sharable and the Kresge Foundation and the Barr Foundation. I’m Professor Julian Agyeman and together with my research assistants Perri Sheinbaum and Caitlin McLennan, we organize Cities@Tufts as a cross-disciplinary initiative, which recognizes Tufts as a leader in urban studies, urban planning and sustainability issues. We’d like to acknowledge that Tufts University’s Medford campus is located on colonized Wampanoag and Massachusetts traditional territory.
[00:02:27] Today, we are delighted to welcome Dr. Linda Shi to be our colloquium speaker. Linda is an assistant professor at Cornell University’s Department of City and Regional Planning and her research concerns how to plan for climate adaptation in cities in ways that improve both environmental sustainability and social justice — what I would call just sustainabilities. She studies how aspects of human land governance, including the fiscalization of land use, property rights regimes and metropolitan regional institutions, shape climate vulnerability and adaptation responses. She’s got a very strong, practical background, having worked on watershed restoration, water and sanitation and development planning all over the world for AECOM, the World Bank and the International Institute for Urban Development and the Rocky Mountain Institute. Linda’s talk today is: Collective Land Governance for a Changing Climate. Linda, a Zoom-tastic welcome to Cities2Tufts colloquium, as usual, please, microphones off and send any questions through the chat function. Linda, over to you.
Linda Shi: [00:03:36] Thank you so much, Julian. It’s such a pleasure to be with you virtually in Tufts and wherever else you may find yourselves, I’m really delighted to be here. So today I am speaking from Cornell University, which is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’, the Cayuga nation. I acknowledge the painful history of Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’ dispossession and honor the ongoing connection of people past and present to these lands and waters.
[00:04:04] As Julian noted, I study things about climate change, vulnerability and issues of inequality. So I’m motivated as a planner, as an environmental planner by, how cities are adapting to climate change, what are the ways in which they’re doing so, and how often I find the things cities are doing on adaptation end up worsening inequality. So increasingly, early on, when I did my research, I think most cities were just talking about trying to get cities to adapt with the assumption that any adaptation would necessarily be good and progressive and forward thinking. And then as you began to track how cities were adapting, it was a surprise, perhaps to academics and proponents of adaptation, but really not surprising, that a unequal sausage-maker, when you push an adaptation sausage meat through it continues to make an unequal sausage.
[00:04:58] So all of our adaptation efforts that you see repeatedly around the world, they continue to exacerbate, they stem from and they originate from unequal societies, and they end up exacerbating oftentimes the vulnerability of the most worse off rather than elevating their adaptation needs. So, this is a quite stereotypical, I suppose, type of presentation. Here in Southeast Florida, you have new flood resilient, climate resilient housing. This is built by Jean Nouvel, the monad terrace, and it can withstand hurricane category five. It’s elevated above sea level rise, and it’s affordable only to the very elite who can buy a condo there.
[00:05:41] And many times people now are investing in property not on Miami beaches, but on inland territories. The particular configuration of Southeast Florida is that the inland ridge high — about twenty-five feet above sea level is actually where lower income communities live, straddled by two north south highways, while the rich live on the coast. And now this long disinvested community is becoming very hot property and increasingly seeing people buying low and hoping in the future to sell high. And so there are concerns of climate gentrification. And at the same time, we’re starting to see AI and other kinds of smart data, big data firms beginning to answer the questions that lots of real estate Asset Corp firms globally are asking, which is if we have to reveal, to disclose the climate vulnerabilities of our investment portfolios, where then might we invest in order to reduce our liabilities and maximize our profits? So you see firms like Climate Oases popping up and they are able to map and say, according to various indicators that our particular specialization allows us to say, these are the sites that are ripe for accumulation and for profit.
[00:06:55] So these are the kinds of concerns that we see. Or if I look at places like Boston, you look at places here — this is familiar territory to you since I did my PhD at MIT. I know this area well is also. And so all of these small cities around Boston, all of them have done a climate vulnerability assessment, even ahead of when the state required every city to do a municipal vulnerability plan. And all of their studies point out these different sites that are vulnerable and then all of them cite their new upcoming largest investments in places that are in the one-hundred-year flood plain, the five-hundred-year flood plain, the six feet of sea level rise. And so even in the face of lots of information, we see that municipalities acting on the imperative of a demand for property taxes of revenue for local governments — you know, it’s a very hard thing to let go of that.
[00:07:50] So for instance, I talked with a planner of Chelsea who said, you know, Chelsea is a city of two square miles that’s very working class, very diverse, and it has a once in a lifetime opportunity to redevelop its post-industrial waterfront. And the planner asks, You know, all of that entire waterfront is in the floodplain or is in the areas that could be inundated by sea level rise. What should I do? Should I not provide development there? How are we going to generate funding for affordable housing? All the other things that our low-income residents demand? Of course, we’re going to develop on it. And if I then develop and say you have to elevate above the sea level rise floodplain, how likely is it that that developer, instead of spending the millions of extra dollars of elevating the site, how likely then for them to just say, Well, why don’t I move to some other city nearby where there is not that requirement or that need and I can go elsewhere? So there’s a huge amount of pressure for local governments to do what we think they should do. But we’re really asking municipalities to do something, to make a different choice when every institutional driver is really forcing them towards the same kinds of decisions that got us here in the first place.
[00:09:06] And then if we were to want cities to move residents away, we’re really talking about things like buyouts as a form of managed retreat. The chief way in which we’re thinking about if you don’t provide infrastructure that will allow people to live there permanently despite increasing flood risks is to move them away. And the only mechanism we really have in this country right now is a floodplain buyout where the federal government usually will give some funding after a disaster and a homeowner will take that money and then move somewhere else. So sites like in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, this is the kind of landscape that results where some people choose to go and then some people choose to stay. Or in North Carolina, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, what you’re seeing on the right, in an ideal situation where the best functioning buyout programs operate, you could perhaps restore these sites to a place that can store floodwaters that can become restored and then provide ecological value. And it’s a site for recreation.
[00:10:05] And I think that as I did this kind of research, these are all reflections of the things that I work on, I was increasingly struck by the fact that they are all issues related to land, but we don’t talk about land. We talk about land use. We talk about land use fiscalalization, we talk about land value, we talk about process and gentrification. But we do not fundamentally talk about land. And in particular, we do not talk about land ownership — of who owns land, how we own land and what that ownership of land is for.
[00:10:40] And so today’s talk is very early ideas of a project that colleagues and I are working on to explore this question of property rights, which is beginning to be talked about increasingly in legal circles. And I think also very much so in practice circles, because people on the ground, cities are getting sued, homeowners are suing and they are very concerned about these issues. But these are not necessarily very central at all to the debates of climate adaptation planning, sustainability planners or even in some cases, of housing and climate justice people — of advocacy movements. So I think that this is underlying all of this, right? If we’re talking about transforming a society for climate change, can we actually transform our built environment or our equity and justice outcomes without contemplating the underlying drivers of those inequality, which are all fundamentally rooted in land ownership?
[00:11:40] So here is a chart, and I don’t expect you to read all of this, but something that a PhD student and I developed in a book chapter that’s coming out, to think about the relationship of land and climate change and how climate change is derivative of climate vulnerability derives from these land dynamics and that how climate change destabilizes these institutions as well. So if I try to give a verbal summary without even necessarily reading this, I would say that what capitalism does, the urbanization of capital, is what Neil Brenner says is, it scrapes off all of the stuff that in Keynesian economic spreads across the land, like butter or spreading people in infrastructure across the land. The urbanization of capital is really trying to consolidate and squeeze people into ever smaller parts of urbanization. So if you think about all the people who are urbanizing, it’s not only about the concentration of people in cities, but it’s also about the population of people from every other part of the world, where historically people would have lived close to the land and had a different set of relationships with the land.
[00:12:50] So we’re consolidating people and all the natural resources into smaller pieces of land, and then we territorially fragment that land into smaller fiefdoms. In the United States, on average, every metropolitan region has about one hundred municipalities, so that makes for places like Chelsea, which is two square miles, or a comparatively larger city like Boston, which was able to keep annexing land before places like Brookline objected and started a whole trend is to say no. Even Boston is only twenty-two square miles. In some parts of the world, these cities are much larger. They might be a thousand square kilometers. You know, you get governorates or cities in Egypt or in China, or even in South Africa. They can be quite jurisdictionally large.
[00:13:36] But even there, where you have sprawling metro regions, it always spills whatever geographic boundary you put on it, it always spills over it. And that always then means you have jurisdictional issues where you have borders and what is the purpose of a border, except to say some are in and some are out. And that ability to exclude operates at the municipal level, as well as at a individual property parcel level where a fundamental tenant of private property rights is the right to exclude.
[00:14:09] On top of that, then, in places like the United States or where Julian’s from in the UK, many Commonwealth countries across the world have highly fiscalized land. And by this, I mean that the function of a local government is highly based on its land property value, its ability to tax. And so property taxes comprise, on average, about 30 to 40 percent of local government revenue for those in the United States and parts of the Commonwealth, that can rise to be about 60 percent of local government revenues. And so we know implicitly that if you are Detroit or you’re some part of the Rust Belt that your local property values are falling apart, your whole city is going to become poorer. Whereas if you are fast, upcoming hot property markets, all of that money is rolling in not only to developers, but also to municipalities through property taxes. And this is a fund that local governments control.
[00:15:07] Even if you’re not in the U.S. with property taxes in places like China — you have, well, China doesn’t currently have property taxes, nevertheless, land use is fiscalized because its ability of government to sell the land that then generates the revenue for them to, in that case, they are not selling the land or leasing the land, but the lease value of that land is what has basically funded all of China’s expansion of infrastructure and urban development.
[00:15:33] So then for a municipality, the one making the choices about what to develop and where to develop, there are extreme incentives to maximize the land use value in order to do all the things not necessarily even regressive, but progressively that you want a city to do to provide free Wifi to provide affordable housing, open space — like all of these things that we increasingly want in a good city that has to come from someplace. And if a population is growing but your revenues are not, that means your per capita expenditures are going to fall. So the desire to raise those revenues are high. And then finally, we have significantly privatized our lands. There are, across the world historically, all sorts of diverse, plural and usually collective, communal, cooperative land use rights. But increasingly, in order to create a market economy, we have had to privatize those rights so that those rights can be traded on the market.
[00:16:32] All right. So these different dynamics, I would say, really characterize the dynamics that undergird our property relations. So for each of these types of relations, then they have contributed to our vulnerability because there is unsustainable natural resource extraction. We’ve concentrated a lot of people in vulnerable places. Cities are very built, and it’s not easy to unbuild them or to move them. There’s all sorts of uneven capacity, once you have drawn up these borders, necessarily, then in a market type of style, the purpose of creating these different jurisdictions is also to create evenness in order to create market competitiveness. And another way to say that is that the capacity and abilities among those cities are very uneven. And yet we exist as a total system with integrated water, market housing, road infrastructure, and it matters to us if our neighbor is not able to keep up their roads, because then you won’t be able to drive across that city to where you work.
[00:17:35] And then, of course, with that kind of uneven capacity also translating across fiscal lines to having cities having different qualities of services that can lead to worse and unequal vulnerabilities. And then fundamentally, the ability to constrain boundaries also means that you’re able to constrain impacts. So for instance, if a municipality becomes worse and worse off under climate change, people can leave and move and they can go somewhere else if you are upwardly mobile enough. But then the property is still there. So then who is able to move back into this place? People who can’t afford to live in places that are becoming gentrified or climate resilient, and then you begin to lock in the poverty into certain other jurisdictions. So these boundaries serve multiple different purposes, and that’s true again at the household and the municipal levels.
[00:18:27] And so climate change begins to destabilize all of these expectations that are based on a system where the land is fundamentally stable. And so migration challenges, the fact that climate change is changing, the fact that municipal fiscal risks are going to expand. So all of these different challenges exist and they begin to question — or they begin to raise the question if you’re willing to ask it – how should we think about the system of property rights under a future of climate change?
[00:18:57] And so the other thing I would say is that we also don’t talk about property rights fundamentally. If we’re going to talk about gentrification, we talk about, well, how do we design a park so that it doesn’t tend to gentrify, as if the design of the park itself, whether we make it small or whether we make it big, is the thing that’s going to drive gentrification or not. And I would say fundamentally, it’s not about the design of the park. It’s not that we don’t want poor or low income or BIPOC people to have access to green space. It’s about what are the conditions institutionally that shape their ability to stay and live in a place that have nice access to good amenities. And that’s related to the issues of property rights.
[00:19:41] So Donald Krueckeberg asked in 1995 in a paper, The Difficult Character of Property, he talks about how planners talk a lot about land use. But he says to asks, “Where do things belong? Simply sanitizes the essential query to whom do things belong? Where these things belong cannot be answered justly until we know whose things we are talking about.” So I see that my colleague and friend Zach Lamb has joined the call. And so Zach, along with Robert Olshansky and I are working on a paper that builds on Donald Krueckeberg’s question and says, What is the typical character of property for climate change? And so we outline three components and I’m going to share today in the Q&A. I’m sure Zach can chime in if he has additional things to say. We are very much still hashing this out. This is early work in progress, so my hope here is that we’re going to start a conversation, and we can go from that.
[00:20:39] So one of the fundamental challenges of property for climate adaptation is that it is static. It assumes, for the most part, that things stay where they are. And we have been fortunate for most of human history to live in a period of climate stability because during the Earth’s entire history, there has been a lot of volatility and changes from prehistoric times to where future times are. But most property rights assumes that land and the weather pretty much say the same.
[00:21:11] There are places where we know, for instance, rivers meander and they change. So there are laws, for instance, that the basic premises here are two things called avulsion and accretion So the principle of avulsion is that if something — if an impulsive event happens like a massive flood and the river blows through and it creates a whole new meander and your property line begins to shift, that in that kind of sudden event, you retain your property boundaries. They do not shift with the land. And so if your boundary was where it was after half of it falls off in an earthquake or in the changing of a river, or something else happens, your line, stay where they are, even if part of it is now in the middle of a river.
[00:22:00] On the other hand, if change is happening slower, like if you’re accreting land. So a few years ago, pre-COVID we had a family vacation to North Carolina’s beaches. And you think mostly on the beaches, people are losing sand, but in this particular property, they showed an old photo in the house and the house used to be right next to the beach, but over the last several decades, they have accreted — all the sand wash off other parts of the shore have piled onto this place, which has gained four hundred feet of beach. And now you have to walk quite a distance in order to get to the beach.
[00:22:32] So if this land is changing slowly over time, through erosion or through accretion, your boundaries will travel slowly over time. So if that land is eroding, you just lose that land slowly and no one’s going to compensate you. That’s just kind of how it is. So those two premises really govern our entire set of law, and there’s a lot of case law that shapes us about this. And this begins to raise really weird questions like, well, it’s sea level rise happening fast or slowly? If we’re looking at geologic time, these issues don’t really make very much sense. And so if you have a beach renourishment where a city — like this has happened in Florida — where the city says this beach is eroding, we’re going to dump a lot of sand or we’re going to create a dune. And in the process of that public investment, they say this means that the homeowners right on the beach will lose their frontal rights. Is that proper and good? Who should have rights to those things, right? Is that an avulsion because you suddenly dump sand there? Or is that accretion because it’s eroded over time?
[00:23:41] And fundamental to that question is that there is these public trust doctrines that govern who has the right. And so historically, since Roman times for the western part of the world, that there’s this notion that the waters belong to the public domain. And so people always have the right to go clamming or oyster hunting or fishing in these waters, and they follow the mean high water mark. And so if the water is changing, the public Right is also going to change with the travel of the water.
[00:24:17] But this raises these questions of if you’re going to hold firm, like if you just do nothing, right? If you say landowner, I do not care about you and I’ve had somebody in Massachusetts to do this — if we just do nothing and their house eventually falls into the ocean, they go away and we didn’t have to pay anything. And it’s just not our problem. Nobody pays you back, and that’s just how it is. You chose to buy property in a vulnerable place, to bad. Even if you took that kind of an approach, that means as the water goes up, you lose the beach, you lose, the natural habitat — the environment loses that natural habitat. Because behind that might be another property that doesn’t have any public access whatsoever. There is no beach there. And so the public domain begins to become smaller and smaller. Or if you allow the rights of the landowner to stay, then they begin to erect different kinds of barriers that also begin to push out, right?
[00:25:19] So whose rights are going to come and go? And when we look at it, only in this possibility of it can only be private, and if you want it to be public, you better compensate the landowner by buying them out. It becomes really challenging to imagine any kind of situation where now at this very massive scope of coastal sea level rise that 13 million properties sit in the six feet Sea-Level Rise line, that all of those properties will have to be brought out in some way, and beaches are going to be reversed in some way for us to have a semblance of a public water system.
[00:25:55] And so this kind of issue where now we have such large scale environmental change, it is very challenging for the existing legal system to cope with that. And we’re beginning to see increasing amounts of court cases. And many of them are supported by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is a very conservative, pro-individual private property rights foundation that goes around supporting landowners. And they, along with the increasingly conservatively nominated judges, are ruling frequently in favor of stronger private individual property rights. That is going to have acutely major implications for municipalities and anybody trying to create any semblance of a public or collective water system. So this is one domain where we think that we really need a lot more debate and planning can contribute in terms of if this is not the outcome, we want to see what alternatives spatially, legally, public policy wise, could we anticipate.
[00:26:56] Some of the interesting things that are happening in this domain include Norfolk’s resilient quotient zoning, they passed this in 2018. Norfolk, Virginia, is one of the most vulnerable places to sea level rise. And they decided to say, the red places, we have designated places where we want to begin to move away from. We don’t want to keep developing because they are so highly vulnerable. And then we’re going to want to have places in yellow that maybe we begin to retrench or migrate away from, places in green where we want to invest in. And they’ve created kind of like a LEED metric where developers can buy points or create points or amass points based on where they’re building and what they’re doing in their design planning in these different areas.
[00:27:41] More perhaps radically, you can look at Julia Watson’s low tech design for radical Indigenism, where she canvassed all of these examples of how Indigenous groups across the world have lived in places with rapid ecological change. And interestingly, in these places, she says that they are not systems, as we think of them, you either protect, you accommodate or you retreat. That instead, all of their landscapes are places that do all three of those things at the same time, and that has a really different legal and physical and social institutional system behind that.
[00:28:20] The second difficult character of property that we highlight is that it’s really atomizing. As I was noting before, that we have fragmented jurisdictions into municipalities and from that into private properties. So one might be to say, look at this integrated landscape, this water and land that is a whole integrated place, right? But on top of this, they are actually separated into different municipalities, and that has really different legal implications. And it certainly matters within these municipalities which property in which boundary you’re sitting on.
[00:28:58] And so when we look at this, it has an individual relationship. So when we do a buyout, for instance, it means that we have an individual relationship between the single property owner who’s going to sell that property to the government and with that government. And we have a relationship that’s set basically only in monetary terms. You have a house. I give you money, you take the money, I get the house, you go somewhere. I don’t really care where, and you go away. And this is okay for people of means, but for low income households, this is actually really quite a problematic approach because as one study by James Elliott at Rice University and others found after Houston, those households who did move, who took a buyout after Hurricane Harvey, the wealthier people who took the buyout, they were able to afford a comparable house closer by, more of them together.
[00:29:54] So if everybody in your sort of social network is moving pretty close by, that means you’re also able to sustain your social ties and your sense of community with them in a nearby place. Lower income people were less able to buy housing that was affordable in the nearby area. They tended to move farther away and become more dispersed from one another. So not only are they losing the physical proximity to the neighborhood itself, but they’re also losing their proximity to their neighbors and their social networks. And that’s especially devastating for low income groups have always relied on a communal and a collective, cooperative sense in order to survive, because that’s how they have the resources and the power and the negotiating forces to survive.
[00:30:40] So Julian and Kofi, I gather, has also spoken here, they have written previously that the history of Black emancipation also has very strong roots in the Black Commons collective ownership. So the first community land trust in the United States was actually formed by Black farmers who created a cooperative — a land trust — in order to sustain their land rights, to create food security, to create land security for their community. And that has become completely flipped where today only two percent of all agricultural land in the United States is owned by African-Americans, who were the first farmers since colonization of this land. And so now they only own two percent.
[00:31:25] And even if you look at white population, that land is disproportionately owned by corporate farms, where just a few landowners owned disproportionate amounts of land, and individual small family farms own a shrinking slice of that. And so some have argued, for instance, that a Green New Deal cannot just be urban or about energy, but it has to deal with the issues of land reform more broadly about ownership in rural America.
[00:31:50] So Zach and I, along with colleagues. Just last week, we did another study that has just come out about these mobile home parks or manufactured housing community, more commonly known as mobile home parks or trailer parks. They actually have — more people live, I’ll just show this map here — more people, the light gray here, f you can see, that we’re showing where all the manufactured housing communities are in the United States. And they comprise one of the largest sources of affordable housing in the United States. Even though we never talk about this source of housing as an affordable housing source, we’re much more likely to talk about it as HUD supported low income tax credits, public housing, all of those things, where hope sits. But we don’t talk about mobile home parks.
[00:32:39] And these mobile home parks are extremely vulnerable for a variety of reasons. Two of them that are mentioned here is that they’re becoming increasingly financialized and seen as an investment opportunity. So a mobile home park, the land is owned by the park owner and the building, the mobile home, is dropped onto that land and that’s owned by the individual house. But when the park owner says, I’m going to flip this property as soon as that kind of — they’re often relegated to places and cities that are less valuable because many cities say this is ugly, this is not what I think about as being like good housing conditions or the kind of people that we want to attract. They get relegated into less desirable sites. Often they’re considered a transportation use.
[00:33:27] And then when that site becomes any more profitable than it was as a mobile home park, often landowners might say, I’m going to sell it to somebody else or I might flip it. And at that moment, it’s impossible actually to move the mobile home because they’re really intended to be moved in the first place, but once they’re installed, it becomes very likely that you’re structurally damaging the building and it’s very expensive to move it.
[00:33:50] So it becomes a very vulnerable situation for the resident. They can’t leave. They can’t abandon their asset. They can’t recoup their costs. So you can raise the rent. You can do whatever you want. Basically, you can neglect the infrastructure and there is very little recourse for those residents. And so many different entities and are trying to invest in these properties and buy them up because they are so vulnerable and exploitable. At the same time, they’re extremely vulnerable to climate impacts because they are located in these more vulnerable sites. Some of the older ones that were built before HUD implemented their standards tend to be lower quality. The newer ones tend to be built with higher standards and can be higher quality than site built houses.
[00:34:31] So in this face of vulnerability and the fact that nobody pays attention to what’s happening with mobile homes and how we can protect them, this can actually be a site of a lot of innovation. And so what we studied was ROC USA, which is a leading network of helping manufactured housing communities by the land from their landlords and own it as a cooperative. They provide very low cost interest rates of one percent loans so that these residents can buy that land. And in states that have enabling legislation that says residents have the right of first refusal, they’re able to buy this property and ROC USA helps them develop. They provide technical assistance to help them develop governing institutions so they can have conversations about how to run it themselves.
[00:35:17] And when we looked at some of these places, there’s just a few of them that have already been experiencing climate impacts, we see that people who live in the place, who own that land, they have the investment ability and the desire to fix the things that are important to them, to develop disaster risk resilience, to create shelters, to fix the roads, upgrade the roads, to elevate homes, to do things that will keep them and their families safe.
[00:35:42] And so this is just one example — I’ll go to another example quickly, of in ENLACE, in the Caño de Martín Peña, in San Juan, in Puerto Rico, you’ll see this is in the heart of San Juan, and this community has fought long and hard to obtain control over two hundred eighty acres of this area, and they own it together as a collective, as a community land trust. They took the community land trust model from the United States, and they developed it here and the land cannot be bought or sold. But you can buy and sell the rights of the houses above there, and they, have over time, this canal has become extremely polluted to become a dumping ground — there was no sewage, not just for this community, that is, twenty-five thousand low-income residents live here, but the dumping ground of the entire city where there’s a lot of illegal dumping that comes here.
[00:36:34] And so they have been fighting for the ability to improve this community. And actually, last month, Congress finally allocated one $167 million for the dredging and improvement of this canal. And that’s due to the long years of hard work and advocacy by these community groups here and they make decisions together when they move houses and step back from flood prone areas along the canal, they’re able to buy another site within the community and to retain the sense of community here.
[00:37:06] All right. And the last thing we’ll say is that we think that the typical character of property in this western sense is really reduce the plural, the environmental and human relationships that we see around the world. There are so many different ways of understanding what land serves, what the value of that is, and how humans relate to that land in food, in water, in spirituality, in social and mental well-being. And we have, in this western notion, reduced it to a single value that can be exchanged on the market through the notion of commodities. And so that we — I would say that in the ones that Zach and I have explored, collectivization is by no means a panacea. To have collective decision-making power, we can look at the example of Surfside in Florida, that was a cooperatively owned condo building, and their inability to make decisions meant that that building could not invest in the necessary fixes that could have prevented that building from collapsing.
[00:38:07] So cooperative relations can complicate for sure, and in the examples we showed in ROC USA, there are also additional complications, but having the plurality at least would allow us to examine what are different alternatives. To what extent do they meet different needs under changing circumstances? What can we learn about the validity of different ones in solving particular crises, even as they create new challenges?
[00:38:35] So I’ll just conclude with an example here. This is one that — it is a live conversation in East Boston, where there are these designated port areas shown in blue, and there’s a question about what should we do with them, right? Should we designate them as port area, should we convert them into development sites? And so the question that folks in these spots want to ask, well, what should we do with these port areas? And if we develop them, how can we slow gentrification? But I think the question here is not how do we slow gentrification, but how do we maximize the number of people who can live and work in places that enable poor people, working class people to thrive and even get rich under climate change? And that’s a question of who owns land and profits from it and who controls the decision making.
[00:39:19] So typically then we’re forced with these difficult choices, right? Either you build something like Fan Pier, you get high end waterfront resilient design, and you’re going to certainly make rich people live here, but you’re very likely going to gentrify the neighborhoods that are along it. Maybe because you’re going to have some inclusionary housing, you can build some affordable units, but for short, it won’t be that many. And then you have a question like, how long is it going to be protected for because the sea level rise is going to be exponentially growing in the future?
[00:39:48] An alternative, you say, I support the community organizations like NOAH in East Boston. There’s going to be severe floods, but we’re going to have control over the site. We’re going to build and preserve affordable housing. We’re going to keep the community where it is. We’re not going to build additional new housing — we don’t have the money, but we’re going to demand public infrastructure and investment, which the new progressive government is likely to deliver on. But overall, this is not going to return new investments on the tax world, right? And so have to have a progressive government to support the ability to secure federal aid to keep that community there. And the same thing still applies, like how are we going to keep this community safe as sea levels continue to rise?
[00:40:32] So I want to throw out some alternative options. What if this Fan Pier have been resident-owned by lower income communities? What if a community group like NOAH have been given the rights to develop and build what was on Fan Pier? What if the revenues that accrued there was able to come to a community and benefit those groups instead of particular developers? Is that a model that we are willing to consider? So even if people are so vulnerable, at least poor people are able to benefit from the wealth accumulation that happens on the coast. Or what if we transfer those development rights or engage in what’s called land readjustment, where you say we own this land as a whole and we develop it and we all have shareholder rights to this area. But maybe we increase the density, but we set it back in some distance so that we are able to accommodate more housing, right? Could we think of those kinds of alternative models.
[00:41:31] Or can we think of totally different land relations where the value of a property is not either it’s economically productive or it is recreational in purpose. Because historically all over the world, people have had much more diverse relations to land and often that land provides livelihood benefits. It has value for food sustenance, and those kinds of other relations are really lost when we think about what we do with a land after buyout where they’re usually considered either you’re storing floodwater or you’re generating a recreational value that has no actual livelihood or food security benefit.
[00:42:08] So in short, I’ll just close by saying that we think that there is a real need for us to really debate and evaluate these issues of property rights and climate change. How do different property rights regimes around the world? How have they adapted to rapid environmental change, whether that’s a disaster or a slower event? How do different regimes remedy the inequitable land loss or access to land? Are there cooperative models that we should be learning from? And under what circumstances really can American property rights regimes enable more plural property systems to flourish? I’m not advocating — I should be clear — I’m not advocating for the socialization or the collectivization of land, the way that China or Kenya or other places did them. But I think that a plural approach would perhaps be something that adds to the sets of choices and adaptation options that we have that are fundamental to address adaptation moving forward. All right. With that, let me conclude, and I will be very happy to engage with you in a discussion.
“Collective land governance for a changing climate” Discussion
Julian Agyeman: [00:43:09] Linda, thanks so much for a fantastic presentation. I’m still processing so much that you’re talking about here. We’ve got a lot of questions coming up. I’m just going to go through them in order — probably won’t be able to get through them all. But the first one was, if you’re familiar with Henry George and the single land tax concept, wondering whether you see any role for that tax in the future or is that an historic idea that doesn’t seem to apply anymore?
Linda Shi: [00:43:36] Are you from the Lincoln Institute? I ask because Henry George, that is their biggest motto that they support. But I think that this is a model very much that needs to be considered and I don’t know it well enough to say whether countries have actually endorsed it or do we have an example where a place operates this way? I think that it’s something that we should definitely consider because if you’re, for instance, just for adaptation, you’re making all these investments, should they accrue only to the household or should they accrue to others.
[00:44:11] And so to some extent, I think that tax improvement districts or financing districts or bids or other things, they do something like that where they take some of the surplus value and they try to reinvest it in the city or at least in that site. I think that there’s certainly a lot more scope for that. I’m not sure that it would totally address some of the things that we are talking about in terms of inequitable ownership to land because it’s just redistributing the private and the public notion, but not necessarily the inequality between individuals. But I think that’s the kind of plurality that we would like to see more of.
Julian Agyeman: [00:44:47] Great. We got a question from Alec Martinez. Currently, the progressive face of development pedagogy focuses on green bonds. Can you share your thoughts on whether these are useful or simply greenwashing?
Linda Shi: [00:45:00] Again, I don’t know them enough to be an expert on weighing a definitive assessment of them. I think that of the bonds that I have seen very often, they try to financialize things that are highly at risk. And so sometimes they can consign us or commit us to continued reliance on places that may not in the long term be viable places to live. So I don’t know that all green bonds share this particular dilemma. But for a city to have a municipal bond, for instance, in some form of infrastructure to elevate a road or a bridge or something, you’re basically saying, I’m going to be able to pay this back because there will still be people remaining here to live here and pay it back, or there will be wealthier people who can pay more money back in the long run.
[00:45:50] So in order to fund your adaptation, you’re actually taking a loan to say, I’m going to get more development and more people living here to pay back the loan. And so I think that, depending on who is owning these green bonds and what the green bonds are for, it could face those challenges. On the other hand, if it’s a low-income community that owns a bond that can allow them to reap the benefits of some of this, perhaps it has equitable dimensions. I think I need to know more to really judge.
Julian Agyeman: [00:46:20] Great, thanks Linda. Karl McKinney asks, Have you studied the value of preservation of natural spaces to the dual priorities in your research? Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has a long history of preserving farms and natural spaces. How does land preservation preparers to respond to climate migration that is underway?
Linda Shi: [00:46:49] That’s a really interesting question. I think that preservation of natural space is definitely a priority because land that is not developed — I mean, there is a question of whether farms, first all, are not as natural as natural spaces, but they are better than, say, developed land. And so preservation of less developed land to provide the services that they do for food or for natural habitat is essential. And climate migration, I think, what we’re trying to see and COVID is a big demonstration of that fact, is that people who are able to move, many of them who are upwardly mobile are right now choosing to move to smaller places.
[00:47:34] So in a lot of the northeast, including places like Ithaca, we’re seeing major housing affordability challenges because of people from Silicon Valley or New York or other places are leaving cities because of COVID, because of wildfires, because of disasters, and they’re choosing to settle someplace where they can move remotely and have a great lifestyle. And that’s beginning to drive up housing affordability challenges. Sometimes they move to more rural areas. Sometimes it’s driving more greenfield development in order to meet the housing demands.
[00:48:05] So trying to preserve anticipate that is becoming a major issue. If you talk to people in the Northeast, many cities recognize that they will become the climate refugees of the future, and they don’t know at all how to anticipate climate migration, because when will it happen? How many people are going to come, what kinds of people? How do you plan for that? Do I build out my wastewater infrastructure right now, or do I not? So I think these are really big questions, and I don’t have an answer, but that’s a really important question to ask.
Julian Agyeman: [00:48:38] All right. Thank you, Tiffany Y’vonne asks, well, says, yes to visualizing the issue of land ownership and its relation to social ecological well-being. I was first exposed to this inquiring way of thinking in intentional communities traditional ecological knowledge community development, permaculture community development spaces and the land rights movement occurring in the UK. Californian tribes have some interesting challenges, experiments happening around these relations. Have you explored work such as the Sogorea Te’Land Trust?
Linda Shi: [00:49:11] I am so excited to be sharing this with this community because you guys are raising all these examples and issues that are ones that I don’t know and that we should absolutely explore. So I don’t know this particular land trust. I think that we are very much interested in the Indigenous land rights because as you no doubt know that traditional Indigenous land rights don’t have a notion of private property. And private property was forced upon Indigenous communities so that settlers could then pick off land that was given in reservations and buy extremely cheaply and then make it non-reservation land. So I think that understanding the traditional ecological knowledge and notions and property regimes from Indigenous communities is really key, and I’m very interested in looking into that.
Julian Agyeman: [00:50:10] Thanks, Linda. We have a question from Jane Engel in Montreal, as for alternative ownership regimes, you gave collective examples. What about land as self-sovereign, consistent with rights of nature and many indigenous legal systems?
Linda Shi: [00:50:26] So cool. There are new movements about that, right? So places like Ecuador, there are those rights in New Zealand. Rivers and other places have those rights. And I’m curious to see how that happens in the United States and how that rolls out.
[00:50:47] I think that that is one way to offer a set of protections because the historic social environmental relations have become so severed. But when we look at most landscapes. that are preserved or what you consider preserved, there’s really very few places in the world that is not touched by human kind. There’s always been people who live there. And the people and you know — Bill Cronin writes about New England, when the settlers arrived, they found this incredible landscape that they thought was ideal, but it had been completely created by the Native peoples who lived here, who manage the landscapes in a way that provided for the abundance in a way that also met the needs of Indigenous peoples here.
[00:51:37] So when the I think the human and the environmental relations are really close knit in this way — and land rights and the Elinor Ostrom approach supports and encourages the sustainment of that relationship. That’s where you have people who are there to also advocate and protect that land. It can be actually sort of like a very powerful government, even if you protected land. How do you make sure that loggers aren’t there or miners are not there, right? So giving the legal rights is one thing, but having the protections of it — sometimes I’m not sure that a conservation idea is the only way to to reach that I guess. So I guess I’m not against the rights. I’m saying that more than the rights is needed, and I suppose that’s actually a theme for the broader conversation. It’s not enough to have cooperative or dynamic rights. Other things build upon those land use institutions.
Julian Agyeman: [00:52:30] Thank you, RuthAnn has made several statements and have several questions. RuthAnn, I see your hand’s up. Can you solidify all of your points into one quick question? This will be the last question for Linda.
RuthAnn: [00:52:45] Thank you so much. My biggest question is, what are your best practices in facilitating decision making processes? Are you using sociocracy or dynamic governance? Or what best practices are you seeing where people in these collaboratives are developing new strategies for more egalitarian decision making processes? That’s my biggest question, but I just never want to lose you. I’m so glad I hear you. Thank you.
Linda Shi: [00:53:41] Thank you so much, and that’s so lovely of you to say, I’m glad that we’ve met. I hope we keep in contact. As an academic, I can’t say that I have those practices that you speak of. And Zach and I and others right now are submitting a grant to look at New York City, the heart of the capitalist beast itself, and ask, in that context, what might cooperative land regimes do for the low-income communities there who struggle with issues of adaptation, affordability and many other crises?
[00:54:17] And even as we begin to contemplate the design of that, who do we talk to? How do you talk to them? Just the asking of the question can really raise people’s concerns that you’re going to take away their property, take away the ability for low-income groups to accumulate wealth the way that everybody else in this country seems to have done so through land. And so I think that we’re headed for a steep learning curve about how to do that. I would look to groups like ENLACE who have created incredible democratic processes of community engagement. In that community they have what’s called a G8, where a number of eight community organizations, they came together — because community groups can also be extremely competitive and have territorial issues. But they came together and all decisions are made democratically through them as a collective.
[00:55:11] And so perhaps, I would say, it’s not for us to invent those, but to learn from the groups who have long been working in these fields and already have developed these processes. What do they say?
Julian Agyeman: [00:55:22] Well, fantastic. Great timing. Can we give a very warm thank you to Linda Shi from Cornell for this amazing presentation? And on March the 9th, our next colloquium speaker is Stacey Sutton, who is going to speak on Punitive and Cooperative cities from Wampanoag and Massachusetts territory. Thank you, and we’ll see you again.
Linda Shi: [00:55:52] Thank you, everyone.
Tom Llewellyn: [00:55:56] We hope you enjoyed this week’s lecture. You can access the video transcript and graphic recordings of Linda Ski’s presentation on sharable.net. There’s a direct link in the show notes. As Julian mentioned, our next live online event is Wednesday, March 9th, when we’ll feature Stacey Sutton’s lecture: Punitive and Cooperative Cities. Click the link in the episode notes to register for a free ticket. If you can’t be there next week, you can always find the recording right here on the podcast.
[00:56:23] Cities@Tufts Lectures is produced by Tufts University and shareable with support from the Kresge Bar and Shift Foundations. Lectures are moderated by Professor Julian Ackerman and organized in partnership with research assistants Perri Sheinbaum and Caitlin McLennan. “Light Without Dark” by Cultivate Beats is our theme song. Robert Raymond is our audio editor. Zanetta Jones manages communications. Allison Huff manages operations. And Anke Dregnat for the graphic recording. Caitlin McLennan created the original portrait of Linda Ski, and the series is produced and hosted by me, Tom Llewellyn.
[00:56:56] Please hit Subscribe, leave a rating review wherever you get your podcasts, and share with others so this knowledge can reach people outside of our collective bubbles. That’s it for this week’s show. Here’s a final thought.
Linda Shi: [00:57:08] All of our adaptation efforts that you see repeatedly around the world. They continue to exacerbate. They stem from and they originate from unequal societies, and they end up exacerbating oftentimes the vulnerability of the most worse off rather than elevating their adaptation needs.