Dissertation: The Land Fix: Experiments with Property, Land, and Welfare in Chicago, 1895-2017.

My dissertation, which I am currently revising as a book manuscript for submission to university presses, examines how and why urban agriculture has periodically emerged and disappeared as a strategy for addressing unemployment and poverty. It compares historic and contemporary projects to use vacant land for farms and gardens in Chicago, and explains how these represent instances of a longstanding form of redistributive social policy that, having recently reemerged, is again remaking the social, institutional, and physical terrain of the city.

The first part of the dissertation traces historical experiments with property, land, and welfare provision. Following the enclosure of common lands, European and American social reformers strove to connect the unemployed poor with unused land. They often posed this “land fix” strategy—a reallocation of rights to use but not to own land—as an alternative or a complement to redistribution via tax and transfer. The land fix came to Chicago during the Progressive Era, and reappeared during the Great Depression. Efforts to entrench this form of social policy by creating permanent gardens and farms ultimately fell to opposition from people invested in treating land and food as commodities.

Since the 1990s, Chicago’s reformers have turned once again to the land fix. The dissertation’s second part analyzes how nonprofit farms and urban land trusts have spring up to broker access to land, support job creation, and address poverty. Compared to past periods, these organizations have seen more success in removing land from the market and committing it to long-term, large-scale agricultural use. African-American neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side, with many vacant lots and high rates of unemployment and poverty, have become a focus for urban farming. Some local organizers are skeptical of white-led projects to remake property relations so that African-Americans might work the land, but not own it. Yet rather than fostering legal cynicism—a lack of faith that property reforms can solve local problems—this has inspired the founding of a new community land trust, as a way to demonstrate that residents can manage their own resources. These ongoing experiments with reallocating rights to use vacant land may be rooting the land fix as an enduring institutional feature of Chicago’s landscape.

My dissertation research has received support from the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, and the Community and Regional Food Systems Project (USDA grant 2011-68004-30044).

Next Project: Regulating the Resilient City

My next major project asks how and why resilience has come to be a key scientific and normative object for contemporary urban studies, planning, and policy—and how this way of thinking about cities is spurring an ongoing global effort to refashion urban governance. In Regulating the Resilient City, I am again combining historical and ethnographic methods, to explore how thinking about cities as ecologies and as systems emerged in the U.S. over the past century, and to understand how these modes of conceptualizing the city have informed projects to reshape urban law and policy in the U.S. and beyond. In addition to developing grant proposals for this research, I have begun work on a paper, “Properties of Urban Resilience,” that will extend my current thinking about urban property in the direction of this next project.

Previous Project: The Dilemmas of Human Rights Litigation

In “Litigation Dilemmas: Lessons from the Marcos Human Rights Class Action,” I examine how litigating a human rights case in a U.S. court can pose a series of strategic dilemmas for transnational activists.  For this research, I interviewed Philippine social movement activists and Philippine and U.S. attorneys who sued former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos following his ouster and flight to the U.S. in 1986. The article examines how the procedural features of the human rights class action creates a sequence of dilemmas that can pit members of a movement against one another.