Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ethical Land Use

One of the very early discussions we have in my interdisciplinary land use and planning law course is a discussion of the students' examples of good and bad land uses and why they think that they are good and bad.  While some of the discussion focuses primarily on preferences and emotional reactions, much of it tends towards a discussion of values and normative principles.  But aside from a passing reference to Aldo Leopold's land ethic or a brief discussion of environmental justice principles of land use, how do we really wrestle with the social ethics of land use?

One of the most valuable resources on the topic is a 1994 book by renowned University of Virginia planning professor Timothy Beatley, Ethical Land Use: Principles of Policy and Planning (Island Press).  This thought-provoking but highly accessible book starts from the premises that land use policies and practices inherently involve ethical choices (Chapter 1) and that the nature of ethical discourse about land use is often derailed by a focus on value preferences instead of wrestling with a variety of moral theories about what is good and right (or bad and wrong) in land use policy (Chapter 2).

Professor Beatley then explores 6 different sets of land-use ethics and obligations in Part II of the book:

a) Utilitarian and market perspectives on land use

b) Culpability and prevention of land-use harms

c) Land-use rights

d) Distributive obligations in land use

e) Ethical duties to the environment

f) Land-use obligations to future generations

In Part III, he discusses the relationships between land-use ethics and individual liberties, tackling paternalism and voluntary risk-taking (Chapter 9), expectations and promises in land-use policy (Chapter 10), and private property, land-use profits, and the takings issue (Chapter 11).

In Part IV, he explores ethics, communities, and politics, including community character and lifestyle (Chapter 12), interjurisdictional land-use ethics and trans-border duties (Chapter 13), and the ethics of land-use politics (Chapter 14).

Chapter 15 synthesizes the material to present Professor Beatley's proposed principles of ethical land use.

While any of us might quibble here and there with specific categorization decisions or particular analytical points that Professor Beatley makes, the book provides an intelligent and useful framework for thinking through the many competing ethical claims, narratives, and perspectives in land-use policy.  Each of us may have our own preferred principles of good and right land-use, but any starting point for acting on those principles necessarily recognizes and understands the ethical pluralism that characterizes land-use policies and practices in the United States (which I discussed in "Structure of the Land Use Regulatory System").

I commend Professor Beatley's book to you.  As law school casebooks got more expensive, I ceased assigning it as supplemental reading in my land use class a number of years ago.  But I still draw upon its framework in guiding class discussion.

Tony Arnold

Environmentalism, Planning, Politics, Property Rights, Property Theory, Scholarship, Sustainability, Teaching | Permalink

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