Property, Planning & Protest Chapter 1

Here are some extracts from Chapter One

The global crisis of housing affordability has brought about an extraordinary mobilisation of social movements concerned with the politics of home and habitation. The spread of rent strikes, tenants’ unions, and eviction blockades has been accompanied by an upsurge in community land trusts and housing cooperatives pioneering alternative models of housing supply and land use regulation across the urban centres of the Global North and South. One of the oldest and most internationally significant of housing social movements is also the most controversial. It is a movement of amenity associations, community groups and environmentalists campaigning for land use planning and the regulation of property rights. As real estate investors acquire land at an unprecedented scale and financial institutions turn residential development into a new asset class, what has been called the amenity movement, and was once known as the town planning movement, now finds itself on the frontline in the contentious politics of housing supply. 

The home voter myth 

Public opposition to housebuilding is internationally regarded as a policy problem and particularly a dilemma for land use planning and the regulation of property development rights. We are told that the wrong public is participating in land use decisions and has too much influence. Amenity groups are characterised as unrepresentative because of their alleged socio-economic advantage. Their concern for the regulation of real estate development is greeted with derogatory jeers and prejudicial acronyms. This injurious name calling lacks any analytic content, but prejudicial caricatures continue to circulate as a governing discourse and any critique of real estate development is rejected out of hand (Wolsink, 2006). The representation of amenity groups as an exclusive lobby for homeowner property interests has been the consistent theme in this orchestration of disparagement. A confabulated narrative of selfish suburban homeowners spread with the global commodification of housing and its transformation into an asset of international investment. The story began in the 1980s in North America where homeowner associations were portrayed as “home voters” pursuing exclusionary ends in their support for zoning (Fischel, 2004). In the suburbs of Australian cities, opposition to demolition and densification was similarly depicted as the self-interested blockade of the delivery of affordable housing. In the United Kingdom, criticism of development was caricatured as the defence of privilege by a rural elite obstructing the housing need of urban populations. All public engagement in land use planning is now denounced as the promotion of socio-economic inequality by affluent homeowners protecting the value of their property (Einstein, Glick, and Palmer, 2019). But the curious thing about this pervasive narrative is that there is not one shred of evidence to support it. 

The home voter narrative has buried all critical analysis of the amenity movement in a “black box;” the same black box that confined our understanding of gentrification before Neil Smith blew it open with his theory of the rent gap. Bringing property rights and land values back home to the study of gentrification, Neil Smith said (1979: 540), To explain gentrification according to the gentrifier’s actions alone, while ignoring the role of builders, developers, landlords, mortgage lenders, government agencies, real estate agents, and tenants, is excessively narrow”. The same point applies to public engagement in development planning. Any collective protest over land use regulation is spuriously dismissed as middle-class self-interest, its connections to other housing social movements and land struggles ignored. Land use planning and real estate development are not just matters of individual choice or personal loss and gain. The owners or renters of single-family homes are not the only private actors in the planning system. As David Harvey (2010:180) said: “Behind all the contingencies and the uncertainties involved in the perpetual making and remaking of capitalism’s geographies there lurks a singular principal power that has yet to be accorded its proper place.” This singular principal power is the landed developer interest. Any serious investigation into amenity groups and the politics of housing supply must begin, not with abstract models and prejudicial acronyms, but with the material conditions of housing and real estate markets and the class interests of landowners and developers.

A struggle over land

Robert W. Lake (1993) invited us to think about the contentions of amenity groups in the context of these continuous cycles of construction and destruction in the real estate circuit. Communities, he said, are expected to stoically accept the upheaval generated by new rounds of property development, the destruction and rebuilding of the built environment, without receiving any return or share in the profits from the collective investment that made such development profitable. Cycles of investment and disinvestment in the built environment are designed to extract the value created by residential communities by exploiting the desirability of a location, the public infrastructure, transport routes, the buzz of economic activity, and capturing it all as profit. Lake contrasted what he saw as a demand by amenity groups for constancy and stability with the desire of institutional investors to continuously extract value from residential communities. Beyond a desire for stability, Lake had little to say about the form of activity of an amenity movement. Subsequent studies have maintained his focus on the psychology of attachment (see for example, Cook, Taylor, and Hurley, 2013; Matthews, Bramley, and Hastings, 2015). In contrast, David Harvey (1974) understood this activity as class struggle – not class as social segmentation, but class as a relationship to the means of production, in this case land, and to the extraction of surplus value, in this case ground rent. The relationship that Lake describes is one in which communities are pitched against real estate developers and landowners. In this antagonistic hierarchy, the social development of communities is a collective investment in land value that is then extracted by urban development as “class monopoly rent” (Harvey, 1974; Harvey and Chatterjee, 1974). Monopoly, because the exclusive ownership of land provides absolute control over space and Class, because landowners and real estate investors demonstrate an “increasing tendency to treat land as a pure financial asset,” so they share a common situation and pursue common interests (Harvey, 2006: 347). The interests of landowners and speculator-developers are to extract the highest rental returns from land in the circuit of real estate capital. The interests of communities – despite the universe of difference the concept of community conceals – are in the productive use of land; its use value as well as its exchange value. “The core socio-spatial contestation at work when owners try to realize class-monopoly rent is the struggle over the control of property and land” (Teresa, 2022: 36). Spatially segregated, divided by race and relation to the means of production, communities are structured into housing sub-markets by the extraction of class monopoly rent. “This extraction generates a species of community conflict which has become widespread with the progress of urbanization,” wrote Harvey (1974: 251). Conflict between communities and real estate capital is a form of class struggle over land and property rights, the costs and quality of housing and the continuous destruction and reconstruction of the built and natural environment. 

Property rights and planning publics

Nick Blomley (2004) asks us to think about the contentions of amenity groups as property claims. Landowners claim the right to develop their property. The public (in the form of the state) regulates these development rights to uphold the rights of everyone else affected by that land use. What one property owner does with their land touches not just neighbouring property owners but everyone living and working within range. The benefits of property development may accrue to landowners, developers, and institutional investors, while the costs fall on nearby residential communities. These costs may include the loss of amenity and environmental resources, pollution, contamination, and disruption resulting from the development and the additional strain on infrastructure and public services it brings about. Communities faced with these costs can be understood to hold a property interest in the use of land that they do not own. They advance a claim on privately owned property to which they have no formal right. Blomley (2004: 73) says: “Residents act as if they have some degree of entitlement to these spaces…They do not claim rights of alienation, but rights of use and access. They also insist that these sites must not be developed in exclusionary ways.”  

Third-party property claims such as these find only limited representation in statutory land use planning or environmental law. In the real estate circuit land is private property, the exclusive possession of a registered owner who acknowledges no other claims to that land and no obligation to anyone living in proximity. Land use is a matter to be agreed between a willing buyer and willing seller who admit no responsibilities for the undesirable outcomes of development. But in the legal definition of property as a bundle of separable rights, the same land may support many uses and beneficiaries. The claims of amenity groups to an interest in land they do not own have a foundation in law. Common property rights enable multiple users to benefit from the same land and community land ownership has enshrined collective property claims in law. Despite this, common property rights continue to be the subject of a bitter ongoing struggle between the use value and exchange value of land; and the land rights of indigenous peoples are the starkest example of this continuing conflict (Porter, 2010). The statutory regime of land use planning recognises only the formally registered rights of exclusive property ownership. But the origins of town planning as a combative social movement lie in the assertion of the common rights of property and a collective beneficiary interest in land and land use.

The town planning movement

In his commanding book, The City and the Grassroots, Manuel Castells (1983: xviii) argued that all major innovations in the built environment and the meaning and structure of society are “the outcome of grassroots mobilisation and demands”. The achievement of statutory town planning was accomplished by the mobilisation of a heterogenous social movement for the popular regulation of property rights. The “town planning movement” in the United States, Western Europe and Australia brought together liberal philanthropists, utopian architects, place-based amenity groups and working-class campaigns for recreation, allied around the need for land reform and land use planning (Cherry, 1979). This social movement was the conscience of town planning, its utopian wing; it promoted the ideal of a society that wanted to be planned for, and that knew what it wanted planning to achieve (Roweis, 1981). 

Town planning and land use regulation were integral to a vision of a society organised around the principle of need rather than the ability to pay. The idealists of public welfare envisaged a landscape where the price mechanism was suspended, and goods and services were available to all on the basis of need. This vision was to be achieved through the public regulation of property rights and land markets, the freezing of property values, the democratic allocation of private land to social needs and the redirection of landed wealth to address public interest goals. In creating the built environment of collective consumption, the town planning movement was seeking to construct and defend a city organised around the use value of land “in contradiction to the notion of the city for profit,” as Castells said (1983: 319). The impact of this voluntary planning movement on the regulation of property rights positions it alongside other social welfare movements in the history of contentious political action that shaped a post-war settlement. Fiona Williams’ (1992: 673) concept of the social welfare movement directs us to the role played by popular mobilisation and grass roots participation in the establishment of New Deal and Welfare State institutions like planning. Williams returns contentious political action to the history of public services in the Global North and points to the active engagement of citizens in the development of statutory services to meet shared needs: the “core concerns of human life” (Hewitt, 1993: 73). 

The early town planning movement was inspired by the power of land use regulation to institute the property rights of a more egalitarian society. “One cannot by permitting random private interests to control the loan of money and the use of land produce a stable and satisfactory modern community,” wrote Lewis Mumford, advocating the public housing programmes of the New Deal in the United States. Town planning was about land reform for the Regional Planning Association of America; “a means for overcoming gross inequalities in the distribution of wealth, for producing more vital kinds of wealth, for restoring the balance between city and country,” as Mumford (1934:15) said. The affordable public housing programme of the New Deal was the culmination of a long campaign against slum landlords by the Settlement House Movement, the nation-wide movement of women’s centres. It was Settlement House activists, Florence Kelley and Mary Simkhovitch who organised the first USA national planning conference in 1909 and founded the Committee on Congestion of Population in New York with its vision of public housing, public land ownership and public land value capture (Peterson, 2009). The town planning movement in Britain was memorably spearheaded by the Garden City Movement, set up in 1899 advocating the reform of private property rights with community land ownership, co-partnership housing and a design template of amenity and urban consolidation. For Raymond Unwin (1909: 2), the purpose of town planning was to put an end to the speculative practices of landowners and developers: “The owner’s main interest, too often his only one, has been to produce the maximum increase in value of ground rent possible for himself by crowding upon the land as much building as it would hold”.  Most of the participants in the town planning movement were not planners. The founders of The City Beautiful movementin the United States were not the luminaries Frederick Law Olmstead Senior and Junior, but the women’s civic groups and suffrage leagues in cities across the States agitating for the public health benefits of urban parks and public spaces (Isenberg, 2004). It was the National Council of Women and the Australian Women’s National League who established the first Voluntary Town Planning Associations in Australia in their campaigns over housing conditions and access to parks and public open space (Freestone, 1995).

The rise of the planning profession was accompanied by a flourishing of voluntary planning and amenity groups whose advocacy and research contributed to an expanding body of land use theory and practice. In the 1960s in Britain local campaigns against urban clearances secured the legislative framework for conservation and heritage planning (Pendlebury and Strange, 2011). In the 1970s, planning practitioners in the Radical Institute Group embraced the cause of land reform while the Town and Country Planning Association launched the Planning Aid advocacy service to champion the struggles of community movements (Haigh, 1984). In the United States, the civil rights movement embraced a passionate vision of popular urbanism and inspired the federal participation programmes, the so-called War on Poverty in 1964 and Model Cities in 1966, and earlier the Community Action or Grey Area projects. Transformed into a national directive for community action, the motto “maximum feasible participation” was seized by the civil rights movement and neighbourhood campaigns to drive an agenda of social reform through urban planning (Piven and Cloward, 1977). The early Community Action projects became a platform for radical visions of self-determination; Huey Newton and Bobby Seale left the War on Poverty mandated participation programme in North Oakland to form the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence and forge a formidable movement for neighbourhood control (Roy, Schrader, and Crane, 2015). For a brief time, the Model Cities programmes came under the majority control of Black communities and urban planning was run by residents engaging their own planning expertise (Mogulof, 1969). 

“Perhaps it is cold comfort,” wrote Cindi Katz (2008:45), “but it is also empowering, to realize that our own political victories lie somewhere underneath the contemporary landscape of meanness and revenge.” Town planning – the statutory regulation of private property rights in the public interest – was not handed down by benevolent paternalists but was fought for and won by a mass public movement. That mass movement – the town planning movement – has been a constant companion to the profession. It is the collective manifestation of public concerns over the rights of property. Those castigated as objecting to housebuilding or opposing development today are participants in the town planning movement and in a contentious struggle over the built and natural environment.