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Land Use and Society, Revised Edition: Geography, Law, and Public Policy

Land Use and Society, Revised Edition: Geography, Law, and Public Policy

by Rutherford H. Platt

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Land Use and Society is a unique and compelling exploration of interactions among law, geography, history, and culture and their joint influence on the evolution of land use and urban form in the United States. Originally published in 1996, this completely revised, expanded, and updated edition retains the strengths of the earlier version while introducing a host of


Land Use and Society is a unique and compelling exploration of interactions among law, geography, history, and culture and their joint influence on the evolution of land use and urban form in the United States. Originally published in 1996, this completely revised, expanded, and updated edition retains the strengths of the earlier version while introducing a host of new topics and insights on the twenty-first century metropolis. This new edition of Land Use and Society devotes greater attention to urban land use and related social issues with two new chapters tracing American city and metropolitan change over the twentieth century. More emphasis is given to social justice and the environmental movement and their respective roles in shaping land use and policy in recent decades. This edition of Land Use and Society by Rutherford H. Platt is updated to reflect the 2000 Census, the most recent Supreme Court decisions, and various topics of current interest such as affordable housing, protecting urban water supplies, urban biodiversity, and "ecological cities." It also includes an updated conclusion that summarizes some positive and negative outcomes of urban land policies to date.

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Land Use and Society, Revised Edition

Geography, Law, and Public Policy

By Rutherford H. Platt


Copyright © 2004 Rutherford H. Platt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-768-7


The Meanings and Uses of Land

For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land. A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil olive, and honey; a land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness, thou shalt not lack any thing in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass.


The Earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on.... It is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land.


It is a comfortable feeling to know that you stand on your own ground. Land is about the only thing that can't fly away.


What Is Land?

From the Old Testament to today, the subject of land arouses emotions: a vision of hope and faith, a source of wealth and social status, a subject of indignant political reform, and so on. It is therefore appropriate at the outset of a book on land use and society to ask, what really is "land"?

Land is one of the key constituents of life on Earth, along with water, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and sunlight. Lacking any of these components would make it unnecessary and in fact impossible for life to exist as we know it. Daniel Hillel (1994, 20) observes that since three-quarters of our planet is covered by oceans, it should be called "Water" rather than "Earth." True, but those who did the naming happened to stand on dry land (terra firma). Water, especially freshwater, is indispensable to the use of land and therefore to terrestrial life. Yet without land capable of benefiting from the application of water, either through natural precipitation or irrigation, life on the planet would be all wet, so to speak.

Unlike water, land cannot be summarized by a convenient chemical formula like H2O. In fact, it is not easily summarized at all; it is many things simultaneously. First, land is the physical material of Earth's crust that supports all life. In this sense, "land" includes soils, vegetation, minerals, groundwater and surface water, oil and gas, sand and gravel, diamonds, coal, gold, silver, lead, and uranium. The concept of land as physical material was reflected in the medieval English practice of representing change of land ownership by a clod of earth handed by the seller to the buyer (known quaintly as livery of seisin). Nowadays, legal documents perform that role. (See Chapter 7.)

Land in the physical sense also includes the produce of the soil. The "pomegranates, oil olive, and honey" were part of the biblical Promised Land. Both natural and cultivated plants physically define the landscape and thus the nature of land, as do, for instance, the giant sequoia of the California coast, the spruce-fir forest of coastal Maine, the yellow pine of Texas and the Southeast, the corn and soybeans of the Midwest, the wheat of the Great Plains, and the grassy sand dunes of coastal shorelines. Vegetation native to or grown on land is part of the land, perceptually, functionally, and often legally. Wildlife, however, is not considered part of "the land," although domesticated livestock raised on land is subject to ownership independently of the land on which it grazes.

Second, land in Anglo-America is legally referred to as real property or real estate. For purposes of ownership and use, land is divided into units known as parcels. Each parcel represents a defined area of land surface set off by boundaries and owned by a particular individual, group, corporation, or government agency. In the rural context, parcels may extend to hundreds or thousands of acres. In urban areas, parcels typically range from a few acres to small fractions of an acre. (One acre equals 43,650 square feet, approximately a square of 200 feet on each side.) Parcels of "land" also extend upward and downward from the land surface (grade level). Portions of the volume above or below the surface may be enclosed with structures that become part of the real property in a legal sense. The conversion of land from essentially resource-based uses, such as agriculture, forestry, or outdoor recreation, to space-enclosing uses, such as homes, offices, shopping centers, and parking garages, is a critical and essentially irreversible step in the process of urbanization. (See Figure 7-1 and further discussion of these concepts in Chapter 7.)

The third concept of land is as an object of capital value capable of being owned and used by its owner to maximize economic return. Land in this sense is a "bundle of rights and obligations" that are defined (often vaguely) and protected (sometimes uncertainly) by the legal system of the country or society in which the land is located. In its most abstract form, land is purely an investment to be bought and sold like government bonds, corn futures, or pork bellies. Billions of dollars are spent on land or structures attached to it with the investors never visiting the site, never getting their shoes muddy, never watching the sunset from its highest point, or never forming any personal attachment to the land whatsoever. In the 1990s, a financial instrument known as a real estate investment trust (REIT) allowed tens of thousands of investors to participate in the building of anonymous shopping malls, office parks, and housing developments, without the slightest idea of how or where their money was changing the landscape of America.

Nearly 60 percent of land in the United States is in private ownership (Figure 1-1). About one-third of the nation's land is held by the federal government under various agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the National Park Service (NPS) (Figure 1-2). States and local governments hold about 6 percent and Indian tribes about 2 percent of the nation's land. Even on public lands, private uses are common under leases for such activities as mining, timber cutting, water development, power generation, grazing, farming, and recreation. (See Chapter 11.) In addition, public lands are like Swiss cheese, with many pockets of private ownership (inholdings) in the form of villages, roadside businesses, tourist attractions, and private homes (Figure 1-3). Construction of spacious new homes on private tracts within forested public lands in the West is an increasing source of "urban-wildland" fire disasters (Platt 1999, Chapter 8), such as those in southern California in October 2003.

Not all land is "owned." Around the world, and in more traditional societies within the United States, land and the resources associated with it are held in some form of common tenure, that is, held by a cluster of families, a tribe, a village, or some other social group, The ways of using such common land—its arable soils, water, forests, wetlands, minerals, and living space—depend more on traditional or customary practices than on formal written laws (Jacobs 1998). This book is largely concerned with land that is owned—privately or publicly—in the capitalist sense, but further reference to common property is found in Chapter 3.

Fourth, land may also have noneconomic value, a sense of place defined by collective or individual experience and values. Ceremonial grounds of native peoples, a New England common, battlefields, burial grounds, England's Stonehenge, and Woodstock, New York, all exemplify places whose cultural meaning or overlay transcends their physical, legal, or locational characteristics. Sense of place was perhaps best expressed by Scarlett O'Hara in the movie Gone with the Wind: After the Union armies have ravaged everything in sight, she gestures to the scorched land of her family's plantation and, as the theme music swells in the background, sighs, "There will always be Tara."

Sense of place is often rooted in the physical form and ecology of a site or region, as overlain by culture, as in the Florida Everglades, Vermont hill towns, the Indiana Dunes, and old mining towns of the Sierra Nevada. Art and literature have often helped define and interpret sense of place. The work of artists such as Thomas Cole and Frederick Church of the nineteenth-century Hudson River School, John James Audubon's bird paintings, Georgia O'Keeffe's images of the Southwest desert, and the writings of Henry David Thoreau (Cape Cod, The Maine Woods), John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat), Marjory Stoneman Douglas (The Everglades: River of Grass), James Michener (Hawaii, Chesapeake, Centennial), and John McPhee (Coming into the Country, The Pine Barrens) all illustrate a sense of place.

Many places with distinct natural and cultural significance have been the object of lengthy, sometimes bitter, efforts to protect them from change or loss of their sense of place. Beginning with John Muir's campaign to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley from a reservoir in the early 1900s, campaigns to protect natural areas of scenic, geologic, or biotic significance have been rife in the United States and throughout the world. And, as Muir proved, passion can be aroused on behalf of a sense of place even among people who have not the slightest prospect ever to visit the site.

These efforts have in turn spread from truly extraordinary sites, such as the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, and the California redwoods, to less famous regional landscapes that harbor endangered species, offer scenic and recreational amenities, or contribute to the biological integrity of a larger ecosystem. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore with its distinctive sand dunes, forests, and wetlands near Chicago resulted from passionate efforts to "Save the Dunes" during the 1950s and 1960s. Local and regional conservation battles have sought to protect desert ecosystems in southern California, the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, and the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey and eastern Long Island (see Chapter 11). All these areas are ultimately related to the character, function, and value of land. A collective sense of stewardship of the planet's remaining natural areas confronts the more traditional resource-based and investment meanings of land. Who really "owns" the land is the question resounding in the legislatures, the courts, and the news media (Jacobs 1998). The debate is as fundamental as land itself.

How Much Land Do We Have?

In the United States there is more land where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is. GERTRUDE STEIN, The Geographical History of America, 1936

In the early 1960s, resource economist Marion Clawson (1963, 1) noted that the total land area of the United States, about 2.1 billion acres, theoretically amounted to a "share" of 12.5 acres for every living American at that time. In 1920, this figure stood at 20 acres per capita; it would further decline, in Clawson's estimate, to 7.5 acres in the year 2000. His prediction was stunning: In 2000, the actual ratio of land to population was 7.42 acres per capita! This ratio was still considerably higher than most other industrialized nations and many times higher than most of the rest of the world.

Acreage per capita, however, is not a very useful statistic. In the first place, it masks regional variation and is a poor measure of social well-being. At a state level, the citizens of Connecticut have 1 acre per capita (dividing its land area by its population) and New Jerseyites have only two-thirds of an acre each, whereas the 642,000 residents of North Dakota "claim" almost 70 acres apiece. Does that mean that the people of North Dakota are better off than those of Connecticut? In economic terms, they clearly are not: in 2000, Connecticut ranked first in income per capita, whereas North Dakota was thirty-eighth among the fifty states. In terms of quality of life, that is a matter of personal judgment: windy grasslands and solitude of the Great Plains versus the crowding and culture of megalopolis.

Second, a large proportion of the nation's wealth of land resources is distant from the everyday habitat of most of us. Four-fifths of the U.S. population (225 million in 2000) lives in the nation's 331 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) designated by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Those metropolitan areas occupy about 19 percent of the nation's land area and have an average density of 2.1 acres per capita. Yet even within MSAs, most of the population that does not live at the urban-rural fringe feels (and is) remote from "the country."

Most metropolitan-area residents live, work, and seek nearby recreation in crowded conditions, particularly on highways and in popular public open spaces like New York's Jones Beach on a warm summer weekend. Around holiday weekends, traffic backs up for miles to and from once-bucolic destinations such as Cape Cod, Maryland's Eastern Shore, the Outer Banks, northern Michigan, and the Colorado Rockies. Much of the urban population is too poor, elderly, ill, or busy to travel to places of natural or cultural beauty outside their immediate surroundings.

Furthermore, two-thirds of land in the United States is owned privately by a relatively small fraction of the total population and is not publicly accessible. A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the late 1970s found that 75 percent of the U.S. private land base was owned by the top 5 percent of the nation's 34 million landowners (Jacobs 1998, 247). Public acquisition at all levels of government has helped promote public access to scenic or cultural sites, but even in parks such as the Cape Cod National Seashore, much of the land is still privately owned and off-limits to the public.

A final limitation of the acres-per-capita measure of land wealth is the diversity of physical capabilities and use categories into which land resources may be classified. Overall totals of land area reveal little about the sufficiency of land for particular purposes such as production of food and fiber, forest products, watershed functions, recreation, natural habitat, and urban uses. Also, the growing importance of the global economy, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), trade deficits, currency exchange rates, and multinational corporate ownership of land vastly complicates the task of appraising the adequacy of land resources in the United States or elsewhere.

With these qualifications in mind, the rest of this chapter briefly reviews the status of land usage in the United States and related issues. Some of these issues are treated in more detail in later chapters.

Classes of Land Use

About three-quarters of the total U.S. land area, including federal lands, is devoted to three primary categories of rural land usage: (1) cropland, (2) grazing land (including pasture and range), and (3) forestland. Each of these categories represents a productive and economically beneficial class of land resource, although the more remote forests and more arid grazing lands may seldom be exploited and are left relatively untouched by human activities. About 40 million acres of federal forestland, desert, and mountainous lands are designated as wilderness areas under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Other portions of undeveloped land resources are managed for specialized purposes, including endangered species habitat, water resource protection, recreation, and scenery. At the opposite end of the development spectrum, about 10 percent of land in the contiguous states is devoted to urban uses such as housing, shopping malls, factories, educational and religious institutions, and transportation. Most of this book is concerned with the last group of land uses, urban and metropolitan areas. First, though, let's look at the big picture with a summary of the rural as well as urban forms of land use.


Cropland is the most sensitive and valuable of the nation's rural land resources. The protection of the cropland base, especially those portions of it deemed prime land, has been the subject of lively discussion and debate since the early 1980s, both among scholars and in the public media (Platt 1985). Both total cropland and harvested cropland fluctuate considerably from year to year (Table 1-1). Observing that total cropland in 2000 was nearly the same as in 1970 and that harvested cropland increased between those years, it cannot be concluded from such data that cropland has been significantly "lost" to urbanization or other conversions. The ups and downs in harvested cropland in particular are functions of weather, market prices, and government subsidies; they are not necessarily related to conversion of cropland to other uses.


Excerpted from Land Use and Society, Revised Edition by Rutherford H. Platt. Copyright © 2004 Rutherford H. Platt. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Meet the Author

RUTHERFORD H. PLATT is professor of geography and planning law in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

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