Dissertation Project: City in a Garden: Land, Welfare, and Property Experiments in Chicago, 1895-2015.

Over the past decade, as urban farms and gardens have cropped up in the vacant lots of U.S. cities, social scientists and some growers have suggested they are sites of a nascent urban commons. This dissertation questions this new conventional wisdom. If commons governance is emerging, it is not in the sense proposed by Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, in which growers self-organize rules for managing land, divorced from public ownership and market exchange. Instead, I argue that cities are seeing the return of a longstanding but unfamiliar type of welfare provision, in which institutions emerge to reallocate rights to use and benefit from vacant land.

This mode of redistribution has long been linked to efforts to reclaim the commons. By tracing a genealogy from the mid 1600s to the late 1800s, the dissertation reveals that social thinkers and reformers have repeatedly sought to reclaim the commons by giving the poor and unemployed access to unused land. Meanwhile, other thinkers and reformers argued for reclaiming the commons by taxing land and transferring proceeds to the needy. These two modes of redistribution have been understood both as complements, and as possible alternatives.

This genealogy theoretically frames a comparative-historical and ethnographic case study of how use-rights to vacant land have been allocated to growers in Chicago during three periods since the 1890s. Social reformers, businesses, and municipal officials have repeatedly sought to solve enduring urban problems—poverty and unemployment—while drawing lessons from previous episodes. The case study compares how they have experimented with the norms, rules, and forms of property law in order to make land use available, and explains how and why past efforts to transform the urban landscape by making such reforms permanent were blocked.

In the years before World War One, residents of the Hull House social settlement, a key site in the founding of American social work, brokered rights to grow gardens on land owned by private firms and city agencies. The dissertation explains how this contributed to developing the notion that a norm of social obligation bound owners to let the poor use their otherwise idle resources. Attempts to convert this emergent norm into a new property rule during and after WWI were scuttled by business interests. During the Great Depression, state agencies took care to ensure that gardening programs remained temporary projects; with the creation of income supports in the form of food stamps, support for use-based welfare programs ended.

The dissertation argues that land trusts and social enterprise farms are the latest effort to make use-based welfare a permanent part of the urban landscape. In Chicago, a land trust created in 1996 by government partners to conserve garden land has progressively expanded its mission. Its piecemeal strategy is permanently removing land from the market, for use by nonprofit farms that offer job training and stipends to the unemployed, at-risk youth, and ex-offenders.

This fine-grained examination of how and why urban agriculture has emerged and disappeared from Chicago’s landscape contributes to understanding how urban residents and institutions respond to socio-economic shocks. Although a city’s resilience is often conceived as a function of its infrastructure or social capital, the dissertation demonstrates how adjustments to property law, and private law generally, also affect residents’ ability to bounce back from a crisis. Attending to redistribution via experiments with the rules of private ordering points toward new directions for interdisciplinary research on policies that support urban resilience.

This project 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).

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.

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.