Negotiating Social Futures: the politics of land development and value capture during and after the COVID pandemic

Blog 24th May 2023

In this guest post Dr Mi Shih and Dr Kathe Newman write about their seminar series, Negotiating Social Futures: The Politics of Land Development and Value Capture. Shih and Newman were supported by the USF with funding from the Seminar Series Awards.

The Negotiating Social Futures: The Politics of Land Development and Value Capture During and After the COVID Pandemic seminar series was born out of a need to critically rethink the relationships between the politics of land development, conceptualizations of value, and practices of value capture. Many urban communities face a set of tensions. The ever-increasing dependence on land development as a means to provide local communities with social benefits has all too often employed a constricted frame of value only commensurable with monetary terms, that stifles the very social life of land. There is a strong desire from community planners to capture value differently so that land development is re-embedded within the social. Our goal was to engage both critical urban scholars and practitioners in dialogue about substantive issues related to land development and value. We employed a case study approach to pry open the actually existing relationship between various land value capture instruments and the city’s social futures.

The seminar series involved three major events: a virtual paper conference (September 23-24, 2021), a virtual mini-workshop on case study methodologies (January 7, 2022), and an in-person case study conference at Rutgers University (September 22-23, 2022). Together, these events networked a group of international scholars and planners for more than two years who investigated and juxtaposed the relationship between land and value through research papers and a set of case studies across diverse geographic and political economic contexts.

Multi-story building on a busy street in New Taipei City, Taiwan
Density bonusing measures have drastically transformed cityscapes and neighborhoods, often leading to ruptures of social fabric and economic livelihoods. New Taipei City, Taiwan. Source: Mi Shih

The first conference investigated how land value capture works and how capture mechanisms are shaped by, and also shape, the politics of land development. It included three panels of ten papers with discussants, a keynote address by Professor Emeritus Robert W. Lake, co-author of Land Fictions: The Commodification of Land in City and Country (2021) and early career scholar training. The conference kicked off with Laura Wolf-Powers (Hunter College, USA) tracing how Henry George’s radical anti-capitalist idea became transfigured over the course of the 20th century into a tool of the state that bolstered the commodification of real estate. Identified in her account are several political, ideological, technocratic forces—such as conflation of land with capital, the unwavering belief in techno-regulatory solutions, effects of neoliberalization—that ultimately equated the concept of land value to land price and away from political contestation.

The historical reengagement of value capture in the US context was joined by a set of critical investigations of contemporary practices both in the Global North and Global South. These included value making of public land by state-led housing projects in London, UK (Aretousa Bloom, Uppsala University, Sweden), public transport finance and urban air rights densification (Hung-Ying Chen, National Chengchi University, Taiwan), spatial patterns of health, captured land wealth, and residential segregation in Santiago, Chile (Ernesto López-Morales, San Sebastian University, Chile), reconceptualizing value and care through the lens of reparative budgeting (Emily Barrett and Sara Safransky, Vanderbilt University, USA), contestations and conflicts over rules of land value capture in Toronto, Canada (André Sorensen, University of Toronto), the co-constitutive relationship between density techniques, their depoliticization effects, and heightened land commodification in New Taipei City, Taiwan (Mi Shih, Rutgers University, USA and Ying-Hui Chiang, National Chengchi University, Taiwan), contestation of value in resettlement-induced development in Limpopo National Park, Mozambique (Kei Otsuki, Utrecht University, The Netherlands), and the simultaneous processes of value creation, capture and destruction in New York City’s Hudson Yards project (Bridget Fisher, The New School and Rachel Weber, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA).

These diverse manifestations of urban interventions and struggles around land development were Robert Lake’s entry point to pry open why value holds such coercive power over urban life. In his keynote talk titled Value Magic, Lake challenged the foundational, axiomatic assumptions of value as either intrinsic or extrinsic. Rather, he argued for a transactional, pragmatic approach that pluralizes value assumptions so that open-ended, deliberative, political contestations determine whose value(s) prevail in a given situation. Negotiating the politics of land is then to open up a social process of collective inquiries into questions such as who decides, through what process, for whose value, at whose cost, and to what end in land development. The two-day virtual conference was joined by more than 70 participants over 10 countries.

Treasure Hill in Taipei, Taiwan: a community settlement built on public land above a river, with waterfront stairs to the right and a bridge to the left of the picture.
Treasure Hill is a community incrementally built by the urban poor on public land. The local authority’s attempt to demolish it in the late 1990s was intricately entangled with the city’s entrepreneurial push for urban redevelopment. Part of the settlement was already demolished and replaced by waterfront stairs in the 1990s. Taipei, Taiwan. Source: Mi Shih.

The second event was a half-day remote case study mini-workshop that provided training in case study design. It sought to ensure that the group of case study authors conceptualized the organization, format, and depth of case study content similarly and engaged the group in working together to create a rich set of case studies to present at the in-person case study conference in September 2022. To expand opportunities for early career development, we invited early career scholars, and doctoral and advanced master’s students to join us. The event launched with a talk by Karen O’Neill (Rutgers University, USA), a sociologist and specialist in case study research. Mi Shih (Rutgers University, USA) presented her preliminary work about the Treasure Hill squatter settlement in Taipei, Taiwan to illustrate how the social life of land is enacted through ordinary people’s everyday practices and lived experienced and how we might organize and narrate our case studies. This illustrative case study also shows how dominant and entrepreneurial modes of urban governance can significantly narrow and even foreclose opportunities for deliberative democracy and alternative urbanisms that can pluralize concepts of value.

Greyscale graphic land readjustment plans for Tainan, Taiwan, in four layers.
Land readjustment is a practice that planners in Asia often use to assemble farmlands for intensified urban land development. It is often touted as a self-financing tool. The question of how to rein in the real estate sector so as to ensure that enough and meaningful benefits are returned to the public still remains. Tainan, Taiwan. Source: Lap-I Oscar Kuok and Hsiutzu Betty Chang

The third event was a two-day case study conference that took place at the Edward J. Bloustein School at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Organized in three panels of nine case studies, it included a keynote address by Professor Sai Balakrishnan at the University of California Berkeley, author of Shareholder Cities: Land Transformation Along Urban Corridors in India (2019). This conference engaged activists, students, and scholars in conversation to unpack and pluralize the concept of value even more by examining how different value practices came into being in the process of land development, whether resulting outcomes are more socially desirable, and with what implications are for land politics and democratic participation. For example, in Betty Chang and Lap-I Kuok’s (National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan) work on land readjustment in a former fishing area, called Jui-Fen-Zi, in Taiwan, they found that the relatively easy work of value creation was no match for the highly contested negotiation process in which even municipal planners questioned who actually captured the benefits, the real estate sector or the community. Similarly, Leslie Shieh (Tomo Spaces, Canada) examined a co-housing project in Vancouver where capturing value was not what was really at stake. Rather, she argued that transforming the captured value into a de-commodified form, i.e., a commonly shared co-housing complex acceptable for all residents, was the real challenge. Enrique Silva (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, USA) discussed the public engagement and political maneuvering that local planners undertook in order to establish a regulatory value capture tool based on a universal, basic FAR (floor area ratio) in Sao Paulo, Brazil. His case study lays bare that the conventional technical-regulatory lens of value capture often fails to fully consider political and ideological aspects of value distribution. Lauren Nolan’s (University of Illinois at Chicago, USA) of case study of Markham, Chicago shows that small municipalities are often in a structurally disadvantaged position and need to make sure they are “value capture-ready” for corporate capital interest, even at the risk of the welfare of local communities. The juxtaposition of a set of empirically rich and locally idiosyncratic cases became a basis that the group later developed into a general framework that tied all common themes together. The group identified five key value practices in land development: value contestation, value creation, value capture, value negotiation, and value transformation.

Street corner in Taipei, Taiwan. Two mopeds on the left, below two trees, next to urban dwellings.
Since an anti-demolition movement stopped the bulldozer, the relationship between the social meaning of land, alternative housing, and urban governance has still remained a highly political and contested debate. Taipei, Taiwan. Source: Mi Shih.

Together, the three-event series generated important insights into the relationship between the politics of land development, value concepts, and tools of value capture. It has become clear to us that it is far more generative, politically, normatively, and intellectually when value in land development is treated as something open-ended, socially produced through collective engagement in practice, and not as a fixed, monist concept equivalent to land rent or land price. A plurality of value concepts also has the utility to direct our investigation to other often overlooked value practices, such as value contestation, value negotiation, and value transformation that are more conducive to a more benign politics of land. The three events were tremendously instrumental to building a network among a group of interdisciplinary, international scholars and planners who are devoted to deliberative democracy and participatory planning. Key participants are now working toward a journal special theme issue and an edited book volume.