Growing Land, Growing Law: Race, Urban Politics, and the Governance of Vacant Land in Boston from 1950

Authors: Brenna Keatinge*, University of Toronto
Topics: Ethnicity and Race, Urban Geography, Land Use
Keywords: race; vacant land; sustainability
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: Jefferson, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Drawing on archival research, document analysis, stakeholder interviews, and ethnographic work, this study takes an historical approach to analyze the governance of vacant land in the era of neoliberal urban governance in Boston. Previous academic and bureaucratic scholarship has established a well-worn narrative about vacant land as a critical urban problem and the importance of municipal interventions to return it to its “highest and best use.” This study investigates the physical production and ideological construction of vacant land located primarily in several historically low income racialized neighbourhoods in Boston, as well as two programmatic fixes designed by the municipality to address it: community gardening in the 1970s, and urban farming beginning around 2010. I contend that the identification of land as vacant is a social and administrative process that signals vacancy as an object of governance constructed alongside ideologies of the “waste” of racialized populations and their spaces. Vacancy extends the power of “blight” used to justify eminent domain takings of racialized neighbourhoods under urban renewal, while simultaneously fitting the conditions of urban development under neoliberalism and seeming, like other tools of urban planning, impartial to race. This paper suggests that constructing vacant land in racialized neighbourhoods as an urban problem actuates particular kinds of neoliberal governance assemblages designed to yield its “highest and best use,” and to govern racialized populations via the rollout of "green", sustainable and seemingly community-friendly programmatic fixes (i.e. community gardening and urban farming).

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