Friday, April 23, 2010
Land use appears to resist easy generalizations. We are often told, for example, that although land use is a formal power of the state, it is a matter of inherently "local" concern, involving fine-grained determinations of how proposed land uses will affect the character of a particular locale. Perhaps for this reason, states universally delegate the land use power to local governments. It is also said that every parcel of land is unique. Thus, as I teach my Property students, courts tend to prefer specific performance as a remedy for breach of real estate contracts, although specific performance is generally disfavored as a remedy for breach of other contracts. Likewise, most states have declined to pass the Uniform Land Transactions Act, perhaps out of deference to the notion that all land is unique. Given the apparent place-specific nature of land use, it is not surprising that many scholars tend to write about their own place -- so Jamie frequently writes about land use conflicts in Georgia, Matt about Houston, and my last several posts, here, here and here, have been mostly about southern California.
When I present my research on southern California's growth politics, I am often faced with a question or comment the gist of which is: "I'm from [Place X.] Why should I care what happens in southern California?" If, as the previous paragraph suggests, generalizations about land use are extremely difficult, how can we even answer this question? I typically answer it by noting that 1) southern California has long been a template for land use trends (and other political and cultural trends) throughout the nation and, 2) it is a fascinating case study in its own right. But both answers have proven unsatisfying. "Southern California as a template" works to an extent, but I quickly find that there are aspects of southern California's urban development that are so idiosyncratic as to greatly limit the usefulness of cross-jurisdictional comparisons. In other words, I run right smack into the problem I identified at the start, that every land use issue is unique and resistant to generalizations. "Southern California as a fascinating case study" solves that problem, but then brings back the "Why should I care?" question.
A palliative, if not a solution, to this problem arrived in the form of a passage from The Deliberative Practitioner, a book by John Forester, a professor of Urban Planning at Cornell. Forester recounts a conversation with a colleague in which the colleague expressed concern about presenting his research on urban planning in Cleveland because he worried that his work would be seen as "too Cleveland," not sufficiently national in scope. Forester's response: "There are no controlled experiments" in land use planning. Every city, every land use dispute, every political environment is unique, and efforts to generalize from one experience are doomed to fail. Thus, Forester argues, we should focus on the particular, on the "stories" planners tell of their own domestic milieus, rather than impressing those stories into the service of some grand scheme.
Forester's insight certainly made me feel better about the "who cares?" question, but didn't exactly answer it. If it is impossible to generalize from the particular, does that mean land use scholarship has value only within whatever local environment it studies? Can we draw no useful general principles from particular case studies?
Perhaps we need to add a bit of the lawyer's skill set to the planner's. After all, we common-law lawyers are trained in the art of distilling general principles from specific cases, of making comparisons between cases by highlighting important factual similarities, as well as distinguishing cases by identifying significant factual differences. Maybe when writing case studies of land use issues, it's a simple matter of making sure to separate those aspects that we think are generalizable from those that are unique to the specific circumstances of the case. Furthermore, it may well be that what makes a particular situation unique is also precisely what makes it an interesting object of study. To apply these principles to my case: I try to articulate that southern California's growth politics are typical of the polarization between developers and NIMBYs that we see in other growth conflicts throughout the nation, but that its politics are also unique because of the historical role of land development in the region's economy, the strong sense of neighborhood identity, and the willingness to resort to the initiative process to resolve issues of public policy. But I also make the case that southern California's uniqueness makes it a particuarly useful case study, because the animosity between developers and NIMBYs there is so acute that we can see it suffusing local politics (especially in public relations campaigns over slow-growth initiatives), where such animosity would perhaps remain latent elsewhere.
This is all well and good, but still leaves some lingering questions. Why must scholarship be "useful" anyway, rather than merely interesting or informative? Do we really need to justify our use of case studies by explaining their broader relevance? Is it sufficient to contribute something of value to the world's store of knowledge?