Land Use Planning and the Contest for the Meaning of Nature

At the heart of land use planning, an unspoken battle has been being waged over the very meaning of nature. And for most of its history, land use planners have unwittingly taken sides and acquiesced around a particular anthropocentric conception of nature that has determined the ways that land gets used. The continued consequences of climate change and ecological erosion, as well as economic inequality and cultural deterioration, require land use planners in particular to examine their fundamental approach and open up to new conceptions of our natural world. A growing global movement for the rights of nature has opened new ground on which how we understand the idea of nature is being challenged, and creates new potential for how land use planning can happen.

Land use planners are in a unique position of mediating representations of nature through making land use decisions.[1] Each decision made actuates the particular conception of nature, as it is realized in space. Inversely, how nature is conceptualized informs how land use decisions are made. At its core, land use planning itself assumes a dichotomous relationship between nature, as land, and society, as use. This is true for the traditional liberal approach to land use planning, which emphasizes property rights and a utilitarian approach to nature. Left un-interrogated is the fact that these conceptions are socially constructed, created to fit the needs of the land owners from the beginning days of this country. Through mediating the contested representation of nature, land use planners are situated in a particular position of power.

When the representations and corresponding discourses are identified, as urban planning professor Jean Hillier does, it becomes clear how they might guide land use decisions. For example, a scientific narrative presents as neutral, and is legitimized through the authority of data and experts. However, the scientific narrative is readily manipulated by political actors in order to support a particular agenda. In opposition to those is an Aboriginal narrative, which suggests that humans live in harmony with the land. When land use planners make decisions based on a particular narrative, that narrative is manifested and determines the outcomes. Understanding this phenomenon creates space for land use planners to be open to new narratives that will inform an environmentally ethical land use.

As an example, consider water governance. In a recent journal article, Julian Yates, Leila Harris and Nicole Wilson ask what the implications are for water governance if multiple conceptions of water were made possible, as opposed to the assumed utilitarian approach.[2] They advocate for an embrace of a plurality of water conceptions, what are described as ontologies, to guide water governance, allowing ontological space for diverse understandings of what water is. In examining alternative water conceptions in British Columbia, they suggest that conflict in water governance is often not solely about disagreements in water management approaches or assertion of rights within a legal framework, but rather rooted in a deeper disjuncture over the very essence of water. When the state, which typically approaches water management from the technical perspective of water as a resource for human consumption, doesn’t acknowledge alternative water ontologies, it can lead to ecological degradation and the neglect of social, cultural and spiritual needs of peoples with differing water ontologies, particularly indigenous peoples. In the case of British Columbia, many First Nations that the research examined consider water as lifeblood, seeing water as a living part of the natural world. From this conception, water is interconnected, boundless and exists in all its forms and functions. This understanding of water is so deep that it requires us to “(re)configure ourselves as bodies of water in order to understand how an uneven hydro-politics affects different bodies in variable ways.” [3] In this way, the separation between humans and nature is dissolved, and the rights of nature and that of humans become one and the same.

Nowhere has the contestation of the meaning of nature progressed with such fervor as in the global movement for the rights of nature. The idea of rights of nature is a legal framework, as well as a cultural shift, which re-conceptualizes nature as a legal subject. As a legal framework, it provides recourse to defend natural places where otherwise environmental protections are insufficient. As a cultural shift, where perhaps it has a more transformational potential, rights of nature challenges popularly held understandings of nature. The rights of nature calls for understanding nature as having intrinsic value, rather than just being valued for its utilization by humans, while also complicating the dichotomy between nature and humans.

Senegal’s abandoned Supreme Court, Dakar, Senegal. Photo Credit: Jeff Attaway/Creative Commons

The rights of nature have been established or exercised to varying extents in New Zealand, Bolivia, India and in some municipalities across the United States. However, it has been most comprehensively incorporated, as well as scrutinized, in Ecuador. In 2008, through a popular referendum, Ecuador adopted a new constitution, which incorporated the concept of sumak kawsay, a Quechua indigenous cosmology of living in harmony with nature. In the constitution, sumak kawsay is portrayed as a tool to guide sustainable development in opposition to the dominance of a neoliberal agenda. While its incorporation has been celebrated by the global movement for the rights of nature, its implementation has been fraught with contradictions and subject to critique. After all, the very idea of “sustainable development” presents inherent contradictions which are challenged by the sumak kawsay way of understanding.

What has possibly been the most consequential implications for the adoption of sumak kawsay is how it has compelled a country to rethink its understanding and relationship to nature. Due to the lack of further legislation to interpret how to apply the rights of nature, its implementation has become contested space, with new meanings and norms being vied for through court cases, cultural shifts, political campaigns and governmental action. Despite large scale, state-sanctioned, extractivist mining projects having been carried out under the banner of sumak kawsay, other sites where natural and indigenous rights have been exercised successfully have begun to develop new national paradigms for the interpretation of sumak kawsay. Land use planners can take inspiration from these new discursive spaces to reimagine nature beyond the tired and destructive liberal conceptions and open up to new possibilities for what nature, and in turn land use, can be.

[1] Hillier, Jean. 1998. “Paradise Proclaimed? Towards a Theoretical Understanding of Representations of Nature in Land Use Planning Decision‐making.” Philosophy & Geography 1 (1):77–91.

[2] Yates, Julian S, Leila M Harris, and Nicole J Wilson. 2017. “Multiple Ontologies of Water: Politics, Conflict and Implications for Governance.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 35 (5):797–815.

[3] Ibid.

Featured Image: Morenci Mine, Arizona, USA. Photo Credit: Tom Blackwell/Creative Commons

About the Author: Andrew Meeker is a rising second year Master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning specializing in Land Use and Environmental Planning at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. As a planner, Andrew is interested in learning lessons from trees, decomposers, and water and applying them to the economy. In his free time, he likes to think about crimes he’ll likely never commit.