Friday, April 10, 2009

A Plug for Urban Legal History

Lex.layout This semester I taught a seminar on the history of the physical development of Lexington, Kentucky, the town where my law school is nestled.  I stole the idea whole cloth from Bob Ellickson, who has offered a similar course at Yale for the last fifteen years.  In the class, titled Urban Legal History, we began by examining the founding of Lexington in 1779.   Then, we traced the city’s growth from a wilderness trading post to the world capital of bourbon and horses, paying particular attention to local politics and municipal regulations (zoning, building codes, etc).  After wading through the rough drafts of 17 seminar papers, I would say that every PropertyProf looking for a new course should think about crafting a syllabus from the history of their local municipality.  Personally, I’ve learned a ton about the greater Lexington area (balancing the demands of growth versus the desire to preserve the area’s rural heritage creates all kind of thorny land use problems). The students, for their part, have responded well to the opportunity to dig through our local libraries and government records for original source material.  I also think the course provides a nice counter balance to the heavy dose of federal law they receive in the rest of their time here.  And, from a teaching standpoint, it can’t be overlooked that the seminar papers have been (more or less) a joy to read - I've had projects covering everything from postcard to ferries.  For anyone that might be interested, I found a copy of Ellickson's inventive syllabus online.

pic:  The original subdivision of land in Lexington, KY    

Steve Clowney

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Wow. Looks like a great course. Sounds like a lot of work to set up the first time. But I'd guess that your students will come up with a lot of material you can use if you teach it again.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Apr 10, 2009 12:43:19 PM

Steve--I'd like to hear more about what your students wrote about and the sources they used. Sounds like a fantastic course and a great learning experience for everyone.

Posted by: Alfred | Apr 11, 2009 11:44:23 AM

Sounds like a great course not just for law students but interested historians and urban planners!

One thing that is fun to do in these types of investigations is to take the original plats and overlay them with modern imagery (satelitte data such as in Google Earth or digital-orthophotography) to see how current development patterns still conform to patterns laid out hundreds of years ago.

Posted by: Kurt Paulsen | Apr 13, 2009 9:09:24 AM

The course has been a ton of work the first time through. But I think it's been well worth it because the students have really taken the proverbial ball and run. So far, I've received papers on the history of streetcars in Lexington, an analysis of the street grid, a biography of a historic home, a look at the economic benefits of the urban growth boundary, and a takedown of the the city's exclusive golf clubs (hopefully, someone in the future will know something about digital orthophotography). Mostly, the students have been digging through the UK archives and local property records to find sources. Others have focused on doing interviews with local heavyweights.

The best part, as Ben suggested, is that the papers from this years class will generate material for next year. Genius...evil genius...

Posted by: Steve | Apr 20, 2009 6:02:56 PM

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