Shareable is partnering with Tufts University on this special series hosted by professor Julian Agyeman (Co-chair of Shareable’s Board) and Cities@Tufts. Initially designed for Tufts students, faculty, and alumni, the colloquium has been opened up to the public with the support of Shareable, The Kresge Foundation, and Barr Foundation.
Cities@Tufts Lectures explores the impact of urban planning on our communities and the opportunities to design for greater equity and justice.
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Below is the audio, video, and full transcript from a presentation on September 29, 2021, “The Commons: Land, Property, Information, and Landscape Agency” with Kofi Boone.
The twin pandemics of 2020 (the racial reckoning, and the COVID 19 epidemic) forced critical reflection on the past and present of built environment professions. Numerous systemic inequities enabled by the design of places and infrastructure were revealed resulting in disparities in public health resources, access to information and technology, and many other areas. In the case of Black communities, these disparities have fueled a renewed focus on mutual aid, cooperation, and collective action to fill gaps in community resources.
This presentation presents the idea of “The Commons” as a framework that could alter ways in which equitable practices landscape architecture and environmental planning, especially with Black communities.
Listen to “The Commons: Land, Property, Information, and Landscape Agency” on the Cities@Tufts Podcast (or on the app of your choice):
Watch the video:
“The Commons: Land, Property, Information, and Landscape Agency” Transcript
Kofi Boone: [00:00:06] A lot of people who don’t know about cooperatives, and a lot of people who didn’t know about Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, their first introduction was the Watchmen. So, if you have HBO, that’s the opening of the first episode of Watchmen is the bombing of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Greenwood District. That was developed through cooperatives, through shared ownership for either producer cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, or others.
Tom Llewellyn: [00:00:31] Could Rio’s favelas offer a sustainable housing model for cities around the world? What are the impacts of overpolicing Black mobility in the U.S.? Are $16 tacos leading to gentrification and the emotional, cultural, economic and physical displacement it produces? These are just a few of the questions we’ll be exploring on this season of Cities@Tufts Lectures, a weekly free event series and podcast where we explore the impact of urban planning on our communities and the opportunities to design for greater equity and justice. I’m your host, Tom Llewellyn. In addition to this audio, you can watch the video and read the full transcript of this lecture and discussion on sharable.net. And while you’re there, get caught up on all of our past lectures. And now here’s Professor Julian Agyeman, who will welcome you to the Cities@Tufts Fall Colloquium and introduce today’s lecturer.
Julian Agyeman: [00:01:31] Welcome to the Cities@Tufts colloquium, along with our partners, Shareable, the Kresge Foundation and now the Barr Foundation, we’re welcoming you to another great lecture in our series. I’m Professor Julian Agyeman and together with my research assistants Perri Sheinbaum and Caitlin McLennan, we organize Cities@Tufts as a cross-disciplinary academic initiative, which recognizes Tufts University as a leader in urban studies, urban planning and sustainability issues. We’d like to acknowledge that such universities Medford campus is located on Colonies Wampanoag and Massachusetts traditional territory.
[00:02:05] Today, we are delighted to welcome my colleague, my friend, Dr. Kofi Boone. Kofi is Joseph D. Moore Distinguished Professor and university faculty scholar in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at North Carolina State University. Kofi is a Detroit native and a graduate of the University of Michigan, and his work is in the overlap between landscape architecture and environmental justice, with specializations in democratic design, digital media and interpreting cultural landscapes. Kofi’s talk today is: The Commons Land, Property Information and Landscape Agency.” Kofi, a Zoom-tastic welcome to the Cities@Tufts colloquium. Over to you.
Kofi Boone: [00:02:50] Thank you so much and thank you, Julian, who is a hero of mine for my entire career, and it’s just been a pleasure to get to know you and work with you on a personal level and particularly on this topic, which is close to both of our hearts. And thank you to Tufts University and everyone for inviting me so. So with that, I’d like to share my screen. Ok, “The Commons: land, property, information and landscape agency.” As Julian indicated, I’m a landscape architect and I teach landscape architecture at NC State, and so it’s a pleasure to talk about this topic from that particular lens. But as we move forward, I do also want to make some acknowledgements. [00:03:28] We are also coming to the land of the chicory and the sapone, the Cherokee and the Lumbee.
[00:03:34] We ask permission to share these words about this, on this land.
[00:03:39] But we also come to you from the American Southeast. The map that’s on the screen is one of the early demographic maps counting enslaved Africans by county in the Confederate United States. The darker colors indicate higher percentages. The details are hard to read, but you can also make out geography here as well. You can see very clearly the Mississippi River Delta as it moves down to Louisiana, as well as concentrations in Virginia and North and South Carolina. So we are faced with the legacy in real time of these two incredible traumatic incidents, the dispossession and removal of indigenous people and culture from the land, the loss of their rights and also enslaved African people to generate profit for colonial settlement.
Kofi Boone: [00:04:26] And so it’s interesting, when I was in many in the students shoes, these are topics that never came up in landscape architecture. But now, because of the reckonings of the current day, these are topics of major discussion. And of course, you’re still faced with the pandemics, the the public health one, of course, gripping the whole world with COVID 19 and its spread and all of its impacts, but which reveal deep inequalities, deep injustices throughout the global population.
[00:04:55] But also the racial reckoning in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, which started to combine social, cultural and equity questions as you start to face these public health pieces. And in the midst of that, the lack of preparedness and governance and agencies, the lack of support in many places, systems of mutual aid kind of came and rushed in to serve the needs of the people, things that weren’t top down, things that were determined and led by local communities, and really matched the capacities of very powerful grassroots activists even to this day to provide the needs that the state did not.
[00:05:29] And it begs a really interesting question, because one standpoint this is reflective of the idea of the commons, and the idea of the commons as an idea that was popularized through an article by Garrett Hardin in 1968, but as a critique, the Tragedy of the Commons, and couched in a broader conversation of environmental sustainability, saying that because of people’s personal self-interest, we tend towards chaos and tend towards over-exploitation and lack of management of shared resources. The fact that we share them in common means that no one is accountable. There’s no structure in order.
[00:06:02] And so he kind of offered this as a critique of the idea of coming together and pooling resources. But of course, that was pushed back against by Elinor Ostrom, for which she won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics, where she really championed the idea of local knowledge and institutional adaptation as ways of mitigating these factors that are doing with self-interest. And this quote is really interesting, “Cracking development, enhancing institutions, is an ongoing process that must directly involve the users. Instead of designing a single blueprint for all places and circumstances, officials need to enhance the capability of social actors to design their own institutions.” And it’s interesting, honorary landscape architects — we believe that wholeheartedly when we deal with issues of community to design, democratic design and the social factors dealing with sustainability. But the idea that it is possible, it is capable for people with the right tools, the right capacities, the right focus to be able to self-govern and self regulate resources.
[00:07:00] And as a personal anecdote, we got into this several years ago through the design studio working in North Carolina. The eastern part of our state is still dealing with very high levels of poverty and a lot of social indicators that we’re trying to improve. And Henderson, North Carolina, is one of those places, and that was my first contact with a cooperative and working with a cooperative, as a landscape architect and as an instructor. And as a part of this work, we were really challenged with the community, a legacy community that had an abundance of public infrastructure that was underutilized, that was currently vacant because of a shrinking population and the desire for this organization, the Green Rural Redevelopment Organization, which has the very catchy tagline, GROW, that’s literally the acronym for their name, finding ways to deal with micro-farming, farmers who are either farming small portions of their property or have very small lots, for example, vacant lots in legacy communities, to pool their resources to bring fresh produce to people in need with cardiovascular disease, other diseases that are tied to nutrition, and their limit, their lack of ability to get to a certain scale serve more people.
[00:08:11] And so with the landscape architecture students in the studio, we did a survey of the whole county. We looked at a lot of these facilities. We started to look at public parks that were under–utilized other public spaces, other resources were available and started to say, “Hey, these are places of opportunity to scale up and to be more effective in your work.” And through the engagement process, went to and spent time, field study with a lot of folks who are really engaged in a lot of this work. And just as a caveat, this is when municipal marijuana and all of its byproducts was starting to bustle in our state. So, I know this is an international call still against the law to grow and sell marijuana federally as a national — so we’re not going to show that part. Although we will say that that was a very important part of their economic strategy was using the profits from the growth of those products for farmers to kind of scale up and work up.
[00:09:02] But what we ended up with was a way of helping this community think of these facilities that were underutilized as a common resource. That the fact that they were not being utilized right now was a that deficit and a drag on the community asset, even though the co-op was not in a position to compensate monetarily, there were other returns on investment in terms of employment, skills transfer, nutrition, prevention from getting into hospitals and other forms of medical institutions — that preventative set of returns on investment constituted a shared common good that actually enabled them to get access to an abandoned school, and they’re currently scaling up and working on their pieces. So, this was my introduction to this whole topic area. But then it dawned on me that years and years and years ago — I have gray hair, but I wasn’t around when Central Park was built, but Central Park is a really interesting case in terms of contested values that deal with land, that deal with property, that deal with people, and deal with what we consider the common good and therefore the commons.
[00:10:05] So Central Park in New York City, of course, pioneered the American Park system that is celebrated all across the world now. And next year is the 200th birthday of Frederick Law Olmstead, rightfully credited for popularizing landscape architecture as an actual field and a profession. And so all praises due for his contribution. But we are negligent if we don’t acknowledge that there were communities in the footprint of Central Park at the time that it was built and developed that were removed and destroyed and for many years not even acknowledged. And this image on the left represents Seneca Village, the self-built African-American community of somewhere between five and seven hundred people that was in the footprint of Central Park.
[00:10:46] Frederick Law Olmstead, there’s a whole story about him in terms of being an abolitionist and having a very strong social justice lens and writing about the atrocities of slavery and what became compiled into the Cotton Kingdom, being offered leadership of the Freedman‘s Bureau based on his success, leadership, sanitation after the Civil War. But on the other hand, a serial displacer. So Central Park and Seneca Village, the Columbian exhibition in Chicago and on and on — this idea of vulnerable communities at that time, African-American communities coming right out of enslavement and through reconstruction era, displaced for open spaces. And, actually, a contemporary conversation where a lot of communities who have not been served well by public space and open space, start to associate landscape changes, the creation of parks, playgrounds as a threat, right? Sort of the early stage of gentrification and displacement and inspires fear.
[00:11:41] And it’s not for no reason. So Mindy Fullilove, who for many of us was an inspiration, is also a good friend, writer of the Root Shock, who examines the psychological impact of losing one’s home place, tracks this pattern of what she calls serial displacement, particularly in the United States, particularly vulnerable people, particularly with African-American communities, due to large scale federal actions. So, there’s sort of this broad, nebulous sense of threat in terms of building wealth and finding place in terms of Black communities in the United States. But there are specific policies that strategically disenfranchise African-Americans for generations. And so, this repeated pattern going back from emancipation all the way through issues of gentrification and displacement with an emphasis on redlining and urban renewal, a lot of her work uncovered a lot of these connections in the Hill District in Pittsburgh and the South Bronx in New York. So these become these shocks to the system that prevent people from being in place and being settled and being able to acquire and build wealth through land and through property over time.
[00:12:51] And the current disparities that we find in the United States. There are more recent studies that really critique it from the standpoint of the extreme wealth held by a very small component, particularly of white people and white communities, skewing the scale. But generally speaking, a lot of middle class, working class American wealth is built based on home equity and the value generated wherever they’re from. And numerous studies from the Brookings Institution to many other places that have talked about those disparities based on race, the inability for African-Americans, Black communities to build and acquire wealth, the value of their place, even if they have an equivalent level of property in issues it’s strictly perception, based on the perception of being inferior because of the color of people’s skin, resulting in one hundred to one wealth gaps that we face now.
[00:13:41] And so coming back around as we are coming out of the summer 2020 and all of the upheaval that occurred around the world directed at this horrible injustice that we saw play out in real time, mostly on social media, and what does that mean for criminal justice system of mass incarceration and all these systems that we’ve kind of looked at uncritically for many, many years? Julian and I were having that whole conversation about, well, what about these long–standing issues, this inability for communities to be in place, to not be displaced, to benefit from growth and development and the building of their capacities at the same scale of other folks? And it led to this article, this idea of, is it time to revisit the idea of a black commons?
[00:14:25] And the Black Commons as an idea we’ll get into towards the end of this was proposed by the Schumacher center. But in terms of a term, one of the founders of the Community Land Trust model — so if you’re familiar with Community Land Trusts, if not, there’s a few slides later that talk about it. That’ a real model that we’ve used for now decades to separate land value and speculation from the ability of people to build assets on that land. And it has its roots in post-civil rights actions, as well as its precedents in other places. But in addition to what the Schumacher Center was talking about, we added the layer, but what about cooperatives, which also have this very deep lineage and history and influence on communities and their ability to accrue and build collective wealth of different types? And what does that mean moving forward? So, moving to the digital age and information? What would that mean as well?
[00:15:17] So that article kind of began that conversation. And just as a point of reflection, Juneteenth is the newest American holiday. There are a lot of politics regarding that, but its origins are in Texas with African-American communities that for years didn’t know that the Emancipation Proclamation was passed and in fact, they were not enslaved. By the letter of the federal law and the celebration that ensued after that, particularly in Galveston, Texas, in response to that.
[00:15:46] And as a tie back to George Floyd, because although George Floyd was brutally murdered in Minneapolis, he went to Jack Yates High School and was from Houston, Texas. And where he is from is a really important place, not just in Black history, but American history and legacy of Reverend Jack Yates is really important. So, he forms this emancipation park sort of association, which is essentially a cooperative, in 1872, and they acquired 12 acres of land in what is now Houston, all owned by Black folks, with the sole purpose of celebrating emancipation on Juneteenth, essentially a theme park for emancipation. It exists today. It’s gone through multiple iterations, and generations and resurgences, but it was the first public park in Houston. It predates the Houston public park system. So, the first impetus for people right out of enslavement trying to figure out what to do next was to acquire and hold property collectively and cooperatively program it and use it for ritual to kind of celebrate so that we don’t forget the significance of this particular event.
[00:16:59] The sad part of the story is that just as many other American cities, the park improvements trigger private real estate forces around its edges that then led to displacement and gentrification even in the face of the great work of Rick Lowe and other people who pioneered incredible strategies to try and keep people in place, it still could not withstand that. But it is important to state that, as we start to talk about today, the absence of vulnerable communities, Black and Brown populations.
[00:17:28] In the ranks, the professional ranks and people who design parks and open spaces and design buildings and do urban planning and other places that really the earliest impetus for a lot of people was to do that work. They didn’t call themselves landscape architects, urban planners or other folks, but they did that. But it was also tied to the economics of ownership and pooling resources. It’s recounted in a really great book, so if you’re interested in cooperatives in particular, Jessica Nembhard’s book, “Collective Courage,” is fantastic. It talks about that critical moment at the end of the Civil War, when you had masses of people that were now citizens of the United States that had many choices about what they wanted to do. They decided to work collectively to build institutions, to invest in businesses, to build new towns, to build campuses, to build parks that we just saw, you know, it was all of the things that we talked about today these communities were doing. And one of my academic heroes wrote extensively about it. W.E.B. Du Bois had a whole campaign about the value of cooperatives that as a mechanism that not only just works at one place, but could be replicated many, many, many places.
[00:18:34] For a lot of people who don’t know about cooperative, and a lot of people who didn’t know about Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, their first introduction was the Watchmen. So if you have HBO, that’s the opening of the first episode of the Watchmen is the bombing of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Greenwood District — that was developed through cooperatives, through shared ownership for either producer cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, or others. And it wasn’t the only Black Wall Street, there were many around the country, including nearby, where I live in Durham, North Carolina. Parrish Street, which was the home of NC Mutual Life Insurance Company and Mechanics and Farmers Bank up until the 1960s, the largest employers of African-Americans in the country. There were centered in Durham, North Carolina. So there’s a whole history of these kinds of objects and these kinds of works right before our eyes.
[00:19:25] With regards to community land trusts, they go way back. And they’re even people who talk about land trusts in the context of people like Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City, in terms of how you consider allotments in terms of that strategy. But in the 20th century, in the post-civil rights era, the late fifties and early sixties, the ascendance of civil rights activists who felt excluded from a lot of the changes that were happening in the country and in the government. And principal among those, Fannie Lou Hamer proposed Mississippi Freedom Farms — this idea of acquiring vast tracts of land in the American South, but not for real estate — to hold for extremely poor Black farmers in Mississippi so that they don’t have to engage in sharecropping. They don’t have to engage in the risk of being displaced, say a crop fails or they’re not able to pay a bill.
[00:20:20] And also introducing the idea of the pig bank, which is what she’s pictured in front of on the right of that picture of, and now it’s more of a well known sort of concept, but a pig has babies and those babies go to families in need, and those babies have babies eventually, and they pay those babies back into the bank to give to the next impoverished family to start to build all of these self-organizing structures to help people with subsistence that have now gone on to the Heifer Foundation and many other things that influence the rest of the world. But that was born out of the sense of necessity. And of course, the [inaudible] other folks in terms of encoding the Community Land Trust as an actual model, and the Schumacher Center is a champion of that.
[00:21:04] So they go from 1967 encoding this to today, in the United States alone, there are 400 community land trusts rapidly growing and moving into international pathways. And it’s a simple idea. So, in commons, the idea that what’s in common with open source is the land. Land is purchased for mutual benefit and interests and is not sold, right? It’s governed by a board made up of local people and also technical experts and others who discern and determine where it should go. And people come in, they were able to build on it to invest in it, anything that they can add to it: a building, a business, a community garden, and they can extract the assets or the value of that. But they have no control of the land. The land has no real estate impact at all.
[00:21:55] And so it was a radical model at the time, but is now becoming a bit more commonplace. And was popularized again near where you are. So the great Mel King, who ran for mayor of Boston but also was one of the pioneers of the Dudley Street Initiative, cataloged extremely well in “Streets of Hope,” an interesting story, because for people who have seen Boston kind of booming and thriving for decades now, there are parts of Boston where that wasn’t true. So, Roxbury, south parts of Boston, where all in the same throes as most American cities grappling with where they’re going next. And so they were able to negotiate with the mayor at that time to put a moratorium on real estate development within this particular community. So they were able to occupy a very critical political decision moment, saying, “Hey, we could employ all these urban renewal policies, we could give it over to a developer and let them do what they want to do,” but the community successfully advocated for no. Moratorium. Let’s form a land trust of that land and hold it. And that became the guts of the of the Dudley Street Initiative.
[00:23:05] And what’s cool about it today is that it started with issues of affordable housing, extended to businesses, but also deals now with greenhouses, consumer cooperatives, producer cooperatives, and in a recent study, has resisted the foreclosure crisis that displaced a lot of folks in the early and mid 2000s with the bank collapse — led to massive foreclosures and that contributed to displacement and gentrification across the country. Not true within the Dudley Village campus in triangle, and they credit that in some parts to removing land and land speculation from the equation, not treating land as a product of real estate, but a land as a common good.
[00:23:49] Moving north, the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Historically, a community that was built by a land trust, there was an image that was associated with the boys a few slides ago of a marketplace. That market was actually in Rondo. And so a place where people were able to move from working class to middle class rapidly through cooperative ownership, but also a community that was targeted for freeway construction. And so it’s been well written, redlining and urban renewal specifically targeted vulnerable populations, particularly Black communities, for massive restructuring. And in the case of St. Paul, it was I-94, the Interstate 94, which ripped right through that historic district.
[00:24:37] What’s interesting is it was born from cooperatives, but then residents of that community advocating for some form of reparations for the damage done started to catalog that history and talk about those narratives and why that place mattered to a lot of people. That grew up into, in the short term, an education center, a community center that is cooperatively-owned by organizations and Rondo that tells that story of what was lost due to that federal highway action. But there are larger proposal is a cap — capping that freeway and creating new open space, new institutions and new versions of the businesses that were lost due to urban renewal directly on the freeways. And part of that is engaging land trusts and cooperative forms of ownership to prevent speculation and allow those real estate factors that are happening in other parts of the country. So this is underway and we’re watching to see what happens.
[00:25:36] And if nothing else, this uncovered for all of us, a layer of information that we never asked when we deal with community groups and planning projects and landscape architecture efforts, is, are there cooperatives? Do you have a history of cooperatives where you are? Are there community land trusts? Are those things that you’re interested in in terms of the toolkit of what can we really keep in common? So this is the beginnings of a map that we’ve been putting together with our students that are documenting Black and Black-serving community land trust and co-ops across the country. We have about forty–two of them right now that all have story maps and linked information. We’re hoping that we can offer this as an asset to other organizations that are interested in this topic.
[00:26:23] And lastly: information. And we take for granted and sometimes discount arts and culture and entertainment enjoy, especially in these trying times. And one of the really most important things that happen, we’re all, just like we are right now on Zoom, is, how do we socialize? How do we find some way to build energy together and create those spaces where we can be positive and to share each other’s company in a virtual kind of way? And that’s a salute to people like the nice Club Quarantine and many of the DJ parties, the versus battles, like those are all things that attracted audiences, used open platforms to share, and that information resulted in sometimes days and weeks of conversation and making ties.
[00:27:11] And although we don’t think about that often because it seems trivial, superficial, it’s really important in terms of the ability now to think about the digital commons, the ability to use information and engagement and new and creative ways. And a colleague and a friend who’s been tying this for a long period of time is Justin Garrett Moore, who for many years was public design director for the City New York now has moved on to the Mellon Foundation. And this is a picture of him in his hometown, he’s from Indianapolis, and particularly his grandfather was a part of an incredible cooperative many years ago that dealt with farming and food security, particularly during The Great Depression. But he’s looking at sort of the conditions of his community in Indianapolis and trying to find ways to sort of connect and mobilize people with scarce resources to pool them together for mutual benefit, sort of honoring that legacy but in a digital way.
[00:28:07] And I came up with this model that’s really interesting, called Urban Patch, which is essentially an online platform, crowdsourced crowdfunding, a la carte for what the community has been asking for and what they’ve been doing. They started small with street trees and signage and volunteers to clear vacant lots and make them inhabitable, but they’ve been scaling up as they started to increase their footprint and their role. This is the return of a local grocery to that particular neighborhood that was done in part due to that crowd sourced work, a bodega and a community garden that [inaudible] produce that’s sold in the bodega. That’s some of his New York influence, I guess. I’m not sure if that bodega is in Indianapolis before he went to New York, but, you know what I’m saying.
[00:28:51] But it’s even gone international, right? So Urban Patch has been funding development of affordable housing in Rwanda. These are some of the most recently finished units. And what’s cool about it is that in addition to building high quality housing for people in need in that part of the world, it’s also seeded the development of skills training and development. So brick masonry, electrical work and water work. All of the skilled trades that are required to not just build but maintain infrastructure are also being funded through this sort of distributed digital model. The people who funded this stuff from that neighborhood in Indianapolis to these new housing units in Rwanda may have never been there. And maybe that doesn’t matter from a certain point of view, if in fact they know the social benefit of what they’re investing in. So this ability to use the digital platform to rapidly expand this idea of the commons is something that I do pay attention to. So with that I’d like to stop and say thank you and I’d be happy to answer any questions you get into any discussion that you have. Thank you.
“The Commons: Land, Property, Information, and Landscape Agency” Discussion
Julian Agyeman: [00:29:55] Thanks, Kofi. Excellent presentation. And yep, we do have some questions coming in. So Tom is asking, do you have a view on the suggestion that the commons are three dimensional? In other words, the commons are not merely common lands and parks, but also the enjoyment of fresh air in light, which can be enclosed by the erection of neighboring large structures that deny light and fresh air to vulnerable communities, for example, heat islands, urban canyons, and so on.
Kofi Boone: [00:30:24] That is a great way of looking at it. I’ve never coined it as three dimensional, but I absolutely agree that all these things in common for our health and, I’ll tip a cap to my good friend Julian, who helped me understand capacities and the need for helping communities build their capacities to determine their own sort of just and sustainable futures. Anything that’s a part of that could be considered a part of the commons. Yes.
Julian Agyeman: [00:30:51] Great question. Kofi, I’m going to ask you, so you know, you’ve come up through landscape architecture. I’ve come up through geography and urban planning. You know, we’re at similar phases in our career and we’ve really come to a point where we’re looking through a racial equity lens at very similar things. And yet the histories of both our professions are steeped in privilege and slavery. I think of the, you know, I grew up in the UK visiting stately homes, we called them stately homes, these places, like Downton Abbey, they’re all over. And nobody really spoke about, where did the money come from? Well, we know where the money came from. How, in a typical degree in landscape design, how do you guys deal with that? Because, you know, we’re really trying to adapt the urban planning curriculum to be cognizant of the, well, what I’ve said, urban planning is the spatial toolkit of white supremacy. And in many ways, our landscapes are imprints of white supremacy. I mean, what’s your take on that? How do you deal with that with students who are coming in, “I just want to do nice designs.“ What do you do?
Kofi Boone: [00:32:01] Yeah, that’s a really good question. I mean, I think — so, just tas a way of backing up, the last time I saw a professional survey from the American Society of Landscape Architects, where licensed landscape architects self-reported the kind of work that they did, still somewhere over 50 percent that did nothing but private residential gardens and yards. And so there’s still a large component of our profession that is specifically tied to the needs of people who can afford our services, who are aware of landscape architecture, who are really looking at ways to improve their private property. But there’s a growing percentage that’s dealing with public realm, right? So the streets, the parks, the neighborhoods, where the food is coming from, how do I protect myself in flood? And so when you start to do that analysis and what we have tried to do is to introduce this idea of social vulnerabilities as part of it. Saying that we’re not all equally exposed to the benefits or the risks, that we’re tied to the environment, and there are real historical reasons why some people are and aren’t.
Kofi Boone: [00:32:59] And it doesn’t always work. I’m to be honest with youo. Some people, they come through the program and they’re just like, whatever, I still want to make pretty things. But there’s an increasing percentage. And what‘s cool about it is that a lot of the pressure to learn and understand that stuff has been coming from the global students, the students from other countries. So for a period of time, people were coming, I would say, to get the prestige of an American degree and go home and practice. But because of particularly climate change, we have really talented students from places like Bangladesh and other places where it’s like, it’s real. If you don’t deal with issues of vulnerability, exposure, tie that to history — it’s a life and death situation for them. And so in some ways, that globalization of the conversation is needed. It doesn’t seem intuitive, but it made it easier to talk about, Oh, well, then let me learn about these vulnerabilities in American context. When you deal with that, you’re confronted with race.
Julian Agyeman: [00:33:53] For some reason or other, I can’t see the question piece. Caitlin or Perri, do we have more questions in that?
Kofi Boone: [00:34:03] I’m seeing some in the chat.
Julian Agyeman: [00:34:04] I just can’t see them. While I’m trying to find the questions. Cherry-pick Kofi. Pick the ones that you want to answer.
Kofi Boone: [00:34:12] All right. Let’s see. How can local and state governments support projects of the Black commons through financial investment? Are there other ways? That’s a really good question. That’s from Johnny. You know what we probably should not do is what just happened with opportunity zones. So if we’re familiar with that whole piece in the United States, it was a way essentially to allow people to use real estate investment to recover losses in capital gains over a 10 year span. So it emerged, I think, with the best of intentions, but has been exploited for the rich. And so, for example, Hudson Yards in New York City, which has per square foot, some of the most expensive real estate in North America, there’s an opportunity zone and people exploited that benefit in order to essentially extract wealth.
[00:35:01] But I think that there are other cases. So for example, where we are, cities are — own a lot of property, right? So either public housing or other things that are really under city purview. This has come up — I’ve mentioned Durham before, Durham, North Carolina, this has come up with the old police station, for example, the old side of the police station. What do you do with it next? So it’s transformed the conversations of who’s included in terms of what the city really needs, and it’s offered a sort of a platform for people to talk about these issues. There are parts of it that will be held in common that won’t be a part of real estate or be part of that kind of sort of cycle of investment. And so I think looking at municipally owned land and property is a great opportunity. In Atlanta, I think, they have decided to do that. To literally cede land over to community land trust over to cooperative organizations.
Julian Agyeman: [00:35:56] Great. Thanks, Kofi. I’m back now. I can see the chat and I’m pleased to see a huge — how many people are at the Brown House watch party? They must be — are there 15 of you in that tent? Great. Excellent. So they’re asking, what are some of the things to consider when looking at the governing structures of community land trusts?
Kofi Boone: [00:36:15] There are a lot of concerns, I think when it was originally conceived — and the Schumacher center is open source, so if you google it, they offer a lot of great resources of how to start one and how does it work, and many other resources online. I think what they brought up, which I think makes people pause a bit, is that you would expect the community land trusts, the governing structure, governing board to be 100 percent local people, 100 percent people who have a direct proximate relationship to that particular land. They said not to do that. That there is a series of rotating chairs and their board that are for outsiders and technical experts. Because even back in the sixties, they saw the benefit of having people have different points of view.
[00:36:57] The majority is almost always local people, right? So if it turns out that there’s a tug of war in terms of what’s most important, they wanted to privilege people who have that lived experience and that connection to the land. But up to 30 percent in some cases are technical experts, like ourselves for people who can build networks and connections to other organizations so they can advocate. And I think that that structure probably makes sense.
Julian Agyeman: [00:37:24] Thank you. We have a question from Chris: what are your thoughts of what’s happening in Germany, our zoning predecessors, in the seizure of corporate land to redistribute it for public goods? And how can we learn from it?
Kofi Boone: [00:37:38] That’s a tough question. I’m going to plead ignorance to the situation in Germany, so I don’t want to misrepresent what’s happening. But I can say where we are in the United States, if there’s any parallels, there’s a whole question about eminent domain and its use here, where if a government can prove that there’s a benefit to the broader community, they can take people’s land for that benefit. What are those benefits? Well, currently in our own backyard, it’s a freeway connection. Our local State Department of Transportation just filed a lawsuit against a private property owner who doesn’t want to sell their property to allow the connection to the huge interstate freeway. And it’s led to this gigantic conversation, do you really need this connection to this large as the state freeway? Is it going to unleash a scale of development that will displace people? And is this person holding out some form of resistance to that particular kind of thing? So I think that the lesson that I might offer from American context is that eminent domain, which would be our parallel, is very difficult because coming to a consensus of what’s the common good and removing that from the growth pressures, the growth imperatives, all of the things we know are tied to real estate is really, really hard. So people in Germany should watch out.
Julian Agyeman: [00:39:00] Great, thank you. Hilary: can you share more about the network of cooperatives and CLTs, and how we might learn more and connect other emerging organizations?
Kofi Boone: [00:39:16] Yeah, there’s — it’s at the tip of my tongue and I can’t remember the name, but there are a number of organizations and that’s really their whole thing, is building this giant database and knowledge base oof who’s doing what. I think that there’s so many situations that I’ve faced, maybe you have as well, where community kind of is starting to build up from the ground up, and they understand that there’s a need and in some cases they feel like they have to reinvent the wheel. You know, they have to start from scratch and don’t benefit from that broader network. And I would say in the early 20th century, it was much more prominent, where leading scholars and folks that were trying to build these communities were very prolific in terms of sharing and connecting and through churches and faith based organizations, through various forms of enterprise, it became a thing.
[00:40:03] So what I would like to do, I think the benefit of that, just to get to the chase, is in a global world where we’re all networked, maybe you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Maybe there are lessons that can be learned and transferred, translated between people peer to peer. You know, maybe there are networks that then build connections to access resources to improve what you do and locally. And way to report right what you’ve been doing to contribute to that broader pool [inaudible]. So there are a lot of benefits, but I will share with folks after the call the links that I referenced. It’s escaping my mind right now, but there’s some really good ones out there.
Julian Agyeman: [00:40:43] When you mentioned networks, and I think of supply chains and I think of my fellow Brits in lines at the gas, or as they call petrol stations, the Brits didn’t seem to understand that we’re in a networked world and they’re pulling out of Europe was not a good idea. But this is just the beginning of the Brits finding out, in very painful ways, the folly of the decisions they make — a political point that folks. We often regard Olmstead in a negative aspect because of displacement. Can you speak to his legacy as an abolitionist? How do we reconcile learning about this historical figure from an honest point of view from both sides?
Kofi Boone: [00:41:20] Yeah, you know, Olmstead’s really complicated. And I’m dating myself, but I was in grad school in landscape architecture in the 90s, and at that time that was when minimalism and sort of a resurgence of modernism was happening in our profession. And which case all those people hated Olmstead, not for these reasons. They saw him as a social engineer. They thought that landscape architecture was not meant to literally engineer social interactions, which now seems kind of crazy. But that was sort of the tenor of things. So people were critical from a totally different point of view at that particular point in time.
[00:41:57] Then a resurgence that’s happened almost as popularity, which I would actually attribute to the great [00:42:03] firm turnscape in China and the rise of John Yoo [00:42:06] and his work on the idea of what’s called the Sponge City concept of using green infrastructure as ways to deal with storm water management at the city and regional scale in these fast growing Chinese cities, as really the beginning of that conversation of the United States, I think abandoned in some ways, the idea of the large, connected, multifaceted, multilayered project that Olmsted was counting for, huge park systems, the Emerald Necklace in Boston, these ideas of landscape that operate at these larger scales and do with these multiple benefits.
[00:42:39] The return of that was these fast–growing places globally and like, Oh man, we got to recover Olmstead’s legacy and figure that out. So, there’s been some definition and re-definition of what Olmstead was really about. But what we do know is that, you know, a son of relatively wealthy family, a man of leisure, traveled a lot, happened to be in Europe when they were opening up royal lands for public use, also traveled through the south and wrote under a pen name for what became the New York Times. Those letters collected in the book Cotton Kingdom, if you want to hear his own observations of it, offered leadership of the Freedman’s Bureau, which sounds crazy looking back, but who refused that based on his success with the sanitation commission. So the idea of how do we deal with the healing process coming out of the Civil War.
[00:43:27] In his own words and abolitionist, but also in his own words, did not believe that Black people and African-Americans had the same intellectual capacities as white people — he said that. Did not hire African-Americans, right? So not only did he displace places like Seneca Village, but didn’t even hire them. So the both sides thing is hard. I think the fair part of it is he deserves his credit for being a key advocate for everything from the National Park Service, to the popularization of American parks in general. The idea that it’s no longer just gardens in people’s backyards, but this entire systems that can deal with sanitation, that can deal with ecology, that can deal with a lot of other things.
[00:44:08] But he also had a very strong social attitude. He and John Dewey and that whole ilk, we’re dealing with this massive influx of European immigration in American cities. And saw what they were doing as a way to kind of civilize, in Olmstead’s words, literally civilize these disparate groups of people to Americanize them. And so it’s unfair sometimes to critique people out of their time, but I think it is fair to say that just because he was an abolitionist didn’t mean that he saw African-Americans and Black people as equals and did not really work to provide opportunities through the landscape to empower black people and Black organizations.
Julian Agyeman: [00:44:48] Thanks, Kofi. Katherine: to me, the idea of shared commons/cooperative movements has radical economic implications and challenges, many of the inherent goals of capitalism. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these spaces within the context of capitalism versus socialism.
Kofi Boone: [00:45:07] That’s a great question. I have a good friend who teaches at Pratt [Institute, Quilian Riano. He’s an architect, and he hosted a session about this exact topic several months ago. I’m going to try and find the link, and I’ll send it along because there’s some really good conversations in there. And in a nutshell, it was really looking at capitalism in terms of our practice, in terms of how we practice as professionals to influence land. We’re in this frame of real estate, right? So we’re already kind of playing catch up there in terms of a lot of what we do being measured by return on financial investment on land. We generally work with clients and those clients pay like a fee for service kind of relationship.
[00:45:51] And as much as people are critical of capitalism, people are still trying to find a way to subsist and to live through the skills that they have, the technical training they receive. There’s some sort of recompense there. So, it’s complicated in that way. I agree that the commons fundamentally challenges those roots of capitalism. I do think that the examples of the Black commons were the attempts to carve out spaces within that capitalist infrastructure, spaces where you could work in common.
[00:46:22] So do I foresee like a complete overthrow of capitalism predicated on commons? Possibly. But I think what’s probably more possible are these pockets, these growing and more connected pockets where space is claimed for things in common. This falls apart, for example, with climate, anything dealing with climate because there’s no boundaries [inaudible] climate. But it does allow for maybe some overlap with more finite things. So food production, mobility, housing, access to health care, even education, open source in terms of getting access to the skills and be able to retool to be able to provide for yourself. So, I unfortunately don’t share the revolutionary lens on it. I don’t see an overthrow of capitalism anytime soon. But I do see growing and more connected pockets where things that are in common can scale up and actually match and maybe even supplant the capitalist model.
Julian Agyeman: [00:47:19] That’s Kofi. Joel says: I’m skeptical of claims for an architecture of the urban commons. Seems all architecture and architects can do is to come into situations where these projects are underway already and augment or facilitate their coming into being in conjunction with other processes and institutions. But I’m curious to know whether designers feel they can do more than piggyback on commoning initiatives and forces that are already latent in the city.
Kofi Boone: [00:47:46] Yeah, I mean, that’s a really good point, and I don’t think it’s one size fits all. So my introduction to the topic in terms of first person was dealing with a really small farming cooperative in eastern North Carolina. And so bringing technical assistance and support to bear to help them scale up, right? Which is different. It’s almost treating them like a client as opposed to adopting some of the cooperative frameworks that they have. So it’s opportunist, like, for sure. But I think that they’re more. And I think that the complexity of some of the challenges that we’re going to be facing moving forward — there are constraints based on how we traditionally, that I think will force us to think about how we practice in some fundamentally different ways.
[00:48:29] You know, as a part of that session that I referenced, that was about capitalism and that kind of thing, there were a number of architects from Barcelona in particular who have managed to develop professional practices on the cooperative model. So horizontal forms of hierarchy and leadership, very careful attention to the network that they use to source and supply the work that they’re doing, the type of engagement that they have and the way that they decide what clients they need to work with. But I think they said that it was at least a city, if not a national mandate, that they do so. Which is to say, to get back to the beginning of the remarks from Ostrom, who rejected sort of top down stuff and said that people can self-organize, and do it. In our case, in terms of professional sort of technical experts in the built environment, we would benefit from some policies and rules that encourage us to do that. And I think that was really integral, to why these firms, particularly in Barcelona, were able to to move forward and be healthy and be prosperous and still reflect a certain cooperative model.
Julian Agyeman: [00:49:34] Great, Kofi. And I think this will probably be the last question from Nathan: You spoke just now about eminent domain as a power wielded by government that has great potential to displace people, especially those in marginalized communities. What are some ways in which eminent domain can be used by community land trusts for public? For example, DSNI (Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative).
Kofi Boone: [00:49:54] Yeah, I mean, that’s an example. I think what I’m seeing more now are easements and overlays. We’re dealing with a project right now in western North Carolina in an area that has very rich cultural heritage that some of the key players that created the heritage here made direct reference to aspects of this landscape as a part of why this landscape matters. They recount the plants that they saw, what was happening in these creeks, and they’re sharing these incredible stories of why this place is valuable. And so we’re concerned about how do we hold that in common, right, for if not in perpetuity, for as long as possible. And we’re lucky that we have a few entities here, The Conservation Trust in North Carolina and other places, they’re like, Oh yeah, well, it’s a different version of a land trust. But these conservation easements are tools that we use. To, say for example, you want to maintain agriculture character in the place where you don’t necessarily have the economics to compete with major farming, they will partner to find the resources to purchase and hold that. So I’ve been skewing more towards the overlay and easement approach as opposed to the eminent domain approach. But DSNI brings up a great counter to that. And where we are in our backyard, one of the other oldest and still running and successful land trusts, is Durham Community Land Trust, that same model as DSNI. So, yeah,
Julian Agyeman: [00:51:22] Well, Kofi, we could go on. This is a topic that is of great interest to us. Please forward any of your links. Can we give a UEP, Cities@Tufts, round of applause for Kofi, please. Thanks, Kofi.
Kofi Boone: [00:51:40] Thank you very much. It was a pleasure. Thank you.
Julian Agyeman: [00:51:42] Absolutely. Next week, folks, we have Melissa Peters — and I see Melissa is in the room. Melissa Peters is a UEP alumna, and she’s now with the city of Cambridge, and she’s going to talk about some interesting new challenges in planning in Cambridge and other places. So until next week, thanks very much, again, Kofi. Mate, it was great. Thank you.
Tom Llewellyn: [00:52:08] We hope you enjoyed this week’s lecture. Join us live for another event tomorrow or listen to the recording right here on the podcast next week. Cities@Tufts Lectures is produced by Tufts University and Shareable with support from the Kresge Foundation and the Barr Foundation. Lectures are moderated by Professor Julian Agyeman, and organized in partnership with research assistants Perri Sheinbaum and Caitlin McLennan. “Light Without Dark” by Cultivate Beats is our theme Song. Robert Raymond is our audio editor. Zanetta Jones manages communications and editorial, and the series is produced and hosted by me,Tom Llewellyn. Please hit subscribe, leave a rating or review wherever you get your podcasts, and share it with others so this knowledge can reach people outside of our collective bubbles. That’s it for this week’s show. Here‘s a final thought:
Kofi Boone: So Mindy Fullilove, who for many of us was an inspiration, is also a good friend, writer of the Root Shock, who examines the psychological impact of losing one’s home place, tracks this pattern of what she calls serial displacement, particularly in the United States, particularly vulnerable people, particularly with African-American communities, due to large scale federal actions.
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