Below is the abstract for “Papering Over Place: When Land Becomes Asset Class,” available for download on SSRN.
This forthcoming piece of legal scholarship analyzes the specific ways in which modern property rules are transforming land into an asset class to be monetized, capitalized, and exploited. In fundamental ways, our collective property choices about land calibrate our relationship to physical space—nurturing the creation of human layers of meaning in important places or constructing more anonymous, alien environments of placelessness. In this chapter, I argue that in small and big ways our most basic property rules are moving us toward increasing forms of land estrangement, including absentee ownership, land concentration, commodification, financialization, and dispossession itself. These are all collective choices with real consequences that warrant more pause and consideration.
This piece makes two particularly important contributions to the legal literature: First, I articulate how all of these varied forms of land estrangement undermine the design of private property itself by eliminating the local decision-making about local resources that private property is intended to amplify, particularly through the aggregation of a whole range of small market transactions (which are also lost when land ownership is concentrated and made more exclusive). Second, I argue that increased attention to the relationship between ownership and possession (or other indicators of a personal place attachment) also provides a key to the constantly confounding problem of how to manage ownership scale and distribution. If any individual or entity can own land without ever possessing or physically experiencing it, there is no limit to the concentration and transfer of that asset. But when land ownership is reconnected with local use, benefit, care, and concern—at least in some instances—this local ownership connection can also create a natural check on property’s growing (and inherent) inequality problem.
Finally, I conclude briefly by setting out a series of future questions for an urgent legal research agenda, emphasizing the need for more empirical study of current ownership trends and their effects, as well more attention to the limits, processes, and opportunities of imaging and implementing new forms of land relations.