June 25, 2024

Free the Land

By Audrea Lim
Review by
Audrea Lim’s magnificent, provocative Free the Land illuminates how American ideas about land ownership contribute to social injustice.
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Audrea Lim’s spirited Free the Land: How We Can Fight Poverty and Climate Chaos nudges readers to reconsider our deeply ingrained ideas about land ownership. Private property, especially the commodification of land, has been a fundamental component of the American project, even though, by design, it has never been available to all. But as issues of social justice become more pressing and climate change looms as an existential threat to our species and immediate threat to others, it is doubtless time to reexamine many of our foundational principles.

In the contemporary United States, “private property mirrors our core social value, individualism,” Lim writes in the magnificent opening section of her book. Yet the concept of owning land is not wired into our genes, but rather an idea that came out of Europe in the Middle Ages. Indigenous cultures had different principles of land tenure. “In none of these tenure systems were individual land rights perpetual—lasting forever—or unconditional,” writes Lim. European settlers mistook Native concepts for an absence of Native ownership and assumed the land was theirs for the taking.

This is just one of dozens of insights that begin to illuminate the way that private land ownership relates to dispossession, inequality, racial and economic discrimination and environmental collapse. Lim has been thinking long and deeply about these issues, and her research has taken her to Native reservations, Puerto Rico, crumbling New York City neighborhoods and aspirational communities in Minnesota and Georgia. Her meetings and interviews with people exploring alternative ways of thinking about land ownership make for fascinating reading.

In her view, community and commercial land trusts, usually held by a nonprofit and stakeholders, offer potential antidotes to some of our land-related ills. One of the earliest of these was established in Burlington, Vermont, with the help of then-Mayor Bernie Sanders. These trusts allow people to buy, sell and pass on houses while the land itself remains in trust. This provided a path for poorer people to be homeowners and build family wealth.

Land trusts are not perfect mechanisms, Lim readily acknowledges. Neither are any of the other alternatives she explores. “There is no pure, single-shot solution,” she writes. But she is optimistic, and that optimism radiates throughout this provocative, enticing call for a changed relationship to land.


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Free the Land

Free the Land

By Audrea Lim
St. Martin’s
ISBN 9781250275189

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