Locating and Practicing Land’s Social Values Through Collective Inquiries and Problem Solving

Blog 6th December 2023

In this guest post, Dr Mi Shih and Professor Kathe Newman describe their research on the democratisation of land development, which was supported with a Knowledge Mobilisation Awards grant from the USF. 

This project was born out a desire to democratize calculative techniques used by government land officials and private real estate developers to intensify land development in Taiwan. We hope to engage ordinary people, who are most affected by speculative urbanism, in a dialogue to critically examine those techniques’ epistemic assumptions, political effects, and material outcomes. The main ideas were formed when Mi Shih and Yinghui Chaing realized during their research on density bonusing measures in Taiwan how significant an effect technical instruments have on land prices and how little ordinary people know about their workings. The goal is to transform critical urban scholarship to public engagement work.

Originally planned as in-person public engagement events, the surge of COVID cases in mid-May 2022 in Taiwan forced us to switch to a virtual format. The international collaboration with the Ralph W. Voorhees Center for Civic Engagement (Rutgers University), the Lab for Integrated Socio-Spatial Science and Information (National Chengchi University) and OURs (The Organization of Urban Re-s) was still successful. On July 30 and 31, 2022, we organized a series of three events, including a public talk and two panel discussions. Each event attracted more than one hundred participants.

The first event was a public talk entitled Land’s Social Values: What Kinds of Land Markets and Urban Futures Have Density Tools Created?. Mi Shih and Yinghui Chiang used public availably data to unpack how a technocratic approach to density bonusing works to boost real estate property market while driving land prices along the way. They urged the audience to rethink the role of democracy deliberation and participation in policy making regarding use of density, city form, market and society relationship. They also offered a set of short- and long-term policy recommendations. The talk is drawn from their work published in Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space.

The second event was a discussion panel entitled Policy Tools of Urban Land Development: Who Benefits? Who Loses Out? What Reforms and New Practices Do We Need for Land Justice? Four panelists introduced major planning instruments that enable land development, their mechanisms, and the effects on intensifying land markets.

The third, and final event, was also a discussion panel entitled Affordable Urban Housing: How Do We Avoid the Trap of Self-Financing? How Might We Diversify Housing Provisions? What Innovative Design Ideas and Social Imaginations Do We Need for Good Social Housing? Four panelists detailed how social housing development relies on real estate property development, how self-financing mechanisms are designed to work, and why self-financing is a false promise without an inflationary real estate market. The resulting outcome is a worsening of housing affordability, and the “dilemma of land value capture” they create.

Together, the three events offered an important opportunity for dialogue and reckoning around planning, land development, and democratic participation in Taiwan. While Taiwan is an elective democracy, planning still largely remains as a technocratic field cloistered to experts and technocrats. There is a deeper recognition that the co-constitutive and symbiotic relationship between a technocratic land regime and speculative urbanism needs to be pried open through public engagement and action research.

Future Directions and Reflections

This project has further convinced us that a meaningful way to move land development and value capture from a technocratic operation to a public domain is to make explicit what has made existing extractive land development the model of urban development — the epistemic assumptions, practices, mechanisms of regulatory measures, workings of development finance, the relationship between the municipal government and the real estate sectors — to the public for democratic deliberation and participation. These reflections have shaped the direction of our future research and engagement work.

Colour photograph of a street in Xindian with traffic, street signs, the tops of buildings, and new towers being constructed behind
New and old Xindian (source: author’s own)

First, we will continue to engage in scholarly work that contributes to the larger goal of democratizing calculative techniques of land development. Mi Shih, Yinghui Chiang, and Soo Yeon Lim (Rutgers University) are working on a project that aims to tease out the workings of the municipal land development fund (officially called Equalization Land Rights Fund) and how it has financed and financialized the urban. Continuing to focus on New Taipei City as a case study, we examine municipal budgetary reports, comb through monetary traces in project accounts and balance sheets, and analyze them as local land officials’ fiscal, financial and technical “know-how” to embed the state’s developmental ethos in the urban built environment. We presented the preliminary findings at the annual Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning conference in Chicago on October 20, 2023. This is part of a larger research project on land development techniques, the developmental state, and spatial justice.

Second, we will continue international collaboration to engage grounded, ethnographic fieldwork research to empirically inform critical theorization of ideas around land, value, justice, and the state. Yinghui Chiang and Mi Shih have applied for and received an international collaboration research grant from National Chengchi University which will allow us to hire local student research assistants during the summer of 2024 while we conduct interviews and data analysis in Taiwan. We plan to follow up on at least two government-run land development projects of self-financing scheme. One involves farmland urbanization and the other involves upzoning a formerly industrial site with a promise of social housing provision. These two projects will enrich our empirical knowledge of how technical and financial instruments of land development work on the ground. We will also give a public colloquium of our research findings at National Chengchi University in June 2024.

Finally, we will continue to explore diverse forms of knowledge mobilization. We learned from our interactions during this event series that ordinary people, just like students in our classrooms, need to be meaningfully introduced to and made aware of how regulatory and technical instruments work to marketize and financialize land before engaging them in public deliberation and participation. That public engagement process can be done through various formats, such as experiential learning (e.g. site visits), storytelling (e.g. interviews and oral histories), and visualization (e.g. mapping and 3D simulation). While the sudden surge of COVID cases left us no choice but to switch the event series to a virtual format, it also enabled us to reach and engage a much larger audience and a wider array of participants.

We are now in the process of building a website and experimenting with various ways of visualization to continue knowledge mobilization and public engagement. Yu Wang (Rutgers University) worked with us this past summer to brainstorm and try out ideas to transform academic writing, analysis methods, data, and research findings into a format that is more accessible and relatable to the public.