I feel that there’s a dangerous and incessant tendency among just about everyone to view places (all places, really) as economic commodities. Both the Antihumanist and post-structuralist analyses of land use presume (as an element of their approach) that space has at least some kind of of value, which discuss them in terms of strictly Capitalist or Marxist camps.
The thing is, there’s only two real options with this line of thinking. As a form of property that can be owned by someone, either land (even the whole earth) 1) exists as a tradeable commodity, or 2) exists as non-tradable, so and so all land essentially has the same price (i.e. nothing).
To counterpoint “order and consumption” for the process of planning a city, most people talk about the idea of “terrain vague,” or amorphous, unused city spaces, from a Marxist point-of-view: That we even share equity in the value of public land, like parks or streets. Essentially, the idea that nothing costs nothing. Even though we’re still talking about physical areas of Earth.
On the other side, the act of breaking this mindset, that everything has a price, ignores the essential point: That physical space exists independently of economic structure. A place cannot be seen as post- nor anti-structural. It has nothing to do with humanism. It is very literally astructural. It will exist with or without humans.
So if land exists independently of 1) the human experience and independently of 2) structure, how should we see land? As all public? Or private? Even our own plots of land? It’s almost as if we have no choice except to relate to it wholly as individuals: However we determine its use to be at the very moment we’re using it. Land has no value itself, however one might determines value. All that is important is how land is used in the moment. It is a core component of our experiences in it.
Since the monetary cost of land is (currently) determined by the global marketplace, our viewpoints are almost trapped: When we see empty, desolate, scary lots of land, we were all raised to understand them—essentially—with a form of commodity fetishism.
Its ownership is something we crave and its finite quality is something we desperately long for because we’ve placed a value onto it. Interestingly though—and counter to how Marx approaches commodity fetishism—our society developed a strange belief: That the inherent value of this commodity, “land, actually increases with the infusion of labor. An empty lot is somehow worth less than when a house is built on it. A multi-housing development makes the land even more valuable than a lot with just one house.
Strange, then, to think that we almost need to recontextualize what we mean by “commodity fetishism,” maybe even spray the stink of disdain Marx placed on it. Philosophically, even Marx recognized greater value in social housing than empty public lots, after all. In real life, the field of urban planning’s obsession with the concept of “zoned use” exactly reflects this amoral kind of fetishism. Implementing and executing steadfast rules to categorize (and thereby limit) a space’s use doesn’t determine what a space actually is or how successfully a space will execute its role once it has one (as a house, or restaurant, or farm… whatever).
So all of these rules, at their core, aren’t meant to determine a plot of land’s future use; only adjust for past assumptions about how to best control the development of a space that is–pretty much–entirely out of our control. Even form-based codes, or zoning codes try to “go with the flow as the city grows” but only end up allowing developers to build without any foresight. It’s like there’s really no such thing as preventive measures, value or planning if you’re going to throw the rules so readily out the window anyway.
The very fact that people care so much about “terrain vague” suggests that something must be done with these space, or even that they have a potential, future, useful value.
On the other hand, the concept of reinventing land for spontaneity suffers from paradox of predicting or planning a space for spontaneity! Philosophical dilemmas abound.
As far as I can see, the only way to break free of this cycle of endlessly attributing value to land would, in fact, be to fetishize it as a commodity in a immensely personal way. In other words, only by determining how valuable a lot of land is for you, yourself, will you be able to determine its true value. Only by using a space, one can make it useful.
The future usefulness of land, then, can only be determined by how we use it in the present. Land that is currently used for public discourse will be considered highly valuable to those interested in public discourse. Some environmental characteristics that make spaces unsuitable for development–or turn them into desolate “terrains vague,”–probably won’t trigger or nourish increases in the space’s use either, simply because in its current form it holds no economic or functional value.
Further, the space itself was not conceived with the goal of change in mind: it was developed to be industrial, or nothing at all, and will serve that purpose even while it’s not in use.
So here’s our real problem with redevelopment and revitalization of neighborhoods: Until the “terrain vague” spaces are fetishized and experienced by users in an immensely personal way, they will not increase in useful value. Until we are able to see, with our eyes and hearts, immense inherent value in land that would otherwise be desolate or dangerous, it will just stay that way forever.
You might not expect a wetland or swamp to change its usefulness to human society, and therefore its value to us will not change. Although this helps explain why manufactured public spaces can still be successful—of course, its has a lot of potential for re-industrialization and re-utilization to someone who cares immensely enough about it—this also means that it will be hard as heck to increase or reignite useful value for “terrain vague.”