The City as an Ecological Space: Social Capital and Urban Land Use

56 Pages Posted: 1 May 2006


The notion that certain uses of public and private property can have negative effects beyond legally defined property boundaries is firmly embedded in land use law. We are now comfortable regulating land use to prevent and control for impacts to our natural resources, environmental quality, and nuisances to third parties. This idea is partly rooted in economic theory - i.e., the existence of negative externalities - but also in the theory of ecology - i.e., the notion that property is inextricably part of a network of social and economic relationships and that its impacts traverse legally defined property boundaries. But not all impacts, or costs, of land use are properly accounted for in land use regulation. This Article highlights a category of social costs that remain largely exogenous to the norms underlying our system of land use controls. Scholars from a variety of disciplines recognize the importance of social capital to, and the deleterious impacts from its loss on, urban communities. Yet legal scholars have not taken seriously social capital when normatively evaluating urban land use regulation and policy. This Article argues that the failure to account seriously for the ways that land use decisions interact with social capital, particularly in the most socially vulnerable communities, underlies many contemporary disputes involving the persistent fragmentation and social inequities of urban metropolitan space. The Article concludes by suggesting that only through a rethinking of the city commons can we begin to take social capital seriously in land use policy and law. Instead of conceptualizing the city as an aggregation of private property rights, we should instead seek to identify and protect common resources and interests in the city commons through limited access rights and collaborative governance strategies that preserve and draw upon existing social networks to manage common city resources.

Suggested Citation

Foster, Sheila, The City as an Ecological Space: Social Capital and Urban Land Use. Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 82, No. 2, December 2006, Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 899617, Available at SSRN:

Sheila Foster (Contact Author)

Georgetown University ( email )

Washington, DC 20001
United States

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