Community land trusts could help heal segregated cities

Efforts to build wealth for Black Americans could focus on property ownership.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Mark Roseland, Arizona State University and Christopher Boone, Arizona State University

American cities represent part of the nation’s long and grim history of discrimination and oppression against Black people. They can also be part of the recovery from all that harm.

Some cities’ work can be symbolically important, such as removing public monuments that honor oppression. But as professors of urban sustainability and community development at Arizona State University, we see that cities can do much more to address inequality, starting with an area that was key to past discrimination: how land is used.

Zoning rules, including requirements that prohibit duplexes or anything other than single-family homes on residential lots, have helped maintain class and racial segregation. Lending practices like redlining that discriminate mostly against people of color in specific urban neighborhoods have entrenched poverty and inequality in U.S. cities.

One result is that the average Black family with children in the U.S. has just one cent of wealth for every dollar held by the average white family with children.

Some calls to resolve these inequalities have raised an idea with century-old roots: community land trusts to assemble land for the benefit of Black Americans.

Cities consider compensation

Some cities are already looking at ways to promote racial equality. In July, the Asheville, North Carolina, city council unanimously passed a resolution directing the city manager “to boost economic mobility and opportunity in the Black community.”

Also in July, the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island issued an executive order “committing the City to a process of truth, reconciliation and municipal reparations for Black, Indigenous (Indian) People, and People of Color in Providence.”

To carry out these lofty goals, they could take a page from history.

A new kind of land ownership

In the 1960s, civil rights organizers recognized that denying property rights was a key method of reinforcing white supremacy in the U.S., blocking people from putting down roots in a community, limiting their political power as well as wealth.

They devised a system called a “community land trust” as a way for African American farmers to work rural land for their own benefit. This was in stark contrast to the sharecropping system prevalent after the Civil War, where black families would rent small plots of land, or shares, to work themselves and in return give a portion of their crop to the landowner at the end of the year.

The first community land trust in rural Georgia in 1970 was established on land purchased by a small group of individuals with some federal grant assistance and became the largest single piece of land in the country owned by African Americans, who got to keep all the proceeds from their labor. Although the trust, New Communities Inc., was beset by drought and discrimination from the start and was forced to close by the late 1980s, it helped inspire people to create similar organizations across the country.

Community land trusts today are more often focused on housing. They are community-run, nonprofit landholding organizations that aim to help low-income buyers obtain homes. Trust land can be purchased or donated. The model allows community ownership of the land with individual ownership of houses.

With this model, a buyer can get into a home for less money than elsewhere in the local market, because they aren’t paying for the land – just the building. This makes homes more affordable, especially for low-income families who often can get down-payment assistance and low-interest mortgages from the trust as well.

The residents, who become members of the trust, elect board members to govern the organization and guide its development and investments to meet community needs and priorities.

Community land trusts are a form of permanently affordable housing based on shared equity. The trust retains ownership of the land and maintains it for the benefit of homeowners present and future and the community as a whole. The homeowner leases the land but owns the building and pays for improvements.

The land lease sets out terms for any future sale of the property, letting the homeowner build equity through appreciation in value, while ensuring the home remains affordable for future limited-income buyers. This sort of shared-equity model may not appeal to people who can afford open-market housing. But for those otherwise priced out of the housing market, it is an opportunity to build equity and wealth, and establish credit and financial stability.

These trusts also serve renters by providing long-term leases with limits on rent prices, as well as by investing in housing in communities where others won’t. They also can give a more formal voice to tenants, who otherwise are often ignored by local officials.

There are now between 225 and 280 community land trusts in the U.S., which together have around 15,000 home ownership units and 20,000 rental units.

To encourage more of this type of development, New York City passed a bill in 2017 exempting community land trusts from certain taxes. Houston in 2019 announced a plan to use a community land trust to develop 1,000 affordable units.

Seattle's Fire Station 6
This decommissioned fire station in central Seattle is slated to be turned over to a community land trust to benefit people of African descent in the area.
Joe Mabel/City of Seattle

A history of working together

Local governments have formed several kinds of partnerships with community land trusts. In June, the city of Seattle announced it would transfer a decommissioned fire station to the Africatown Community Land Trust, saying “we understand the urgency behind making bold investments in the Black community and increasing community ownership of land.” Community members hope the site will play a key role in a city development plan that highlights Black entrepreneurs. It’s one of several proposals in the region for Black-led community organizations to acquire underutilized public property.

Cities have also used municipal zoning powers to require larger developers to donate a portion of new development to community land trusts or related entities such as housing trust funds for permanently affordable housing.

Partnerships between cities and community land trusts are a promising way to provide affordable housing and help low-income and minority families. As cities reflect on their roles in perpetuating institutional racism and what they can do to relieve it, they can use their zoning laws and negotiating power to support community land trusts, as one way to keep housing affordable and benefit minority communities.

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Mark Roseland, Professor of Community Resources and Development, Arizona State University and Christopher Boone, Dean and Professor of Sustainability, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A note to the alumni of the College of Global Futures (new!)

I hope this message finds you well. Exciting news from our part of the world is the creation of the ASU College of Global Futures (CGF). As ASU’s newest college, CGF brings together the School of Sustainability, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and a new School of Complex Adaptive Systems. Together, these schools will explore the dynamics of complex, integrated social-ecological-technical systems in order to build a just, equitable future on a thriving, healthy planet. The new college will be home to 1,300 students in bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees offered on campus and hybrid and online formats.  The more than 100 faculty and 85 staff of the college will deliver an excellent learning and discovery environment for students and expand partnerships across ASU and around the world.  CGF will become the intellectual heart of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, an ambitious undertaking that spans all colleges at ASU and works with partners around the world to ensure a habitable planet and well-being for all. The creation of the college and laboratory allows ASU to scale its existing efforts to make more profound impacts than ever before.


This is where you come in. My main point of pride is the amazing alumni who have graduated from our degree programs and gone on to do impactful, extraordinary things. You are making a difference. In the coming months, we will be reaching out to you to gather more of your stories. From talking with students, I know that hearing from alumni is incredibly inspiring for them because they can begin to envision their own possible futures. Many of you have volunteered for our job shadowing program and offered internships to our students. I will be enhancing these services with staffing in the College of Global Futures and thank you in advance for anything you can to do to help advance the careers of students and graduates.


Once or twice a year, the School of Sustainability has hosted alumni events in cities around the country. With the launch of CGF, I look forward to hosting college alumni events that will bring together alumni from SFIS and SOS (and eventually SCAS). These are great opportunities for you to reconnect with fellow alumni, for me to catch up on what’s new with you and for you to hear about what’s new with the schools and college, and to develop new ideas of what we can do together to advance the mission of the College of Global Futures, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, and ASU. It may be a while before we can travel again, but in the meantime, I look forward to connecting with you by zoom, email, letter, or any other form of communication!




Christopher Boone

Dean, College of Global Futures

Professor and Director, School of Sustainability




Black Lives Matter

Sustainability is grounded in principles of justice for present and future generations. It is about being careful and respectful stewards of the planet while improving well-being, and neither is possible without social justice.  As a core principle of sustainability, social justice is something we must continuously strive and struggle for, with vigilance and dedication. A long history of racism and discrimination in the United States continues to have deadly consequences. We must do all in our power to stand up to racism and stop discrimination. Recent protests in cities across the country, including here in Phoenix, show that people are willing to take great risks to fight for and demand social justice. We should draw inspiration from their courage and bravery.

I stand in solidarity with #blacklivesmatter and the ASU Black African Coalition to redress the endemic racism and discrimination that undermines the ability of marginalized people to achieve their full potential. In the School of Sustainability and the new College of Global Futures, I will convene students, staff, faculty, and partners to formulate ideas and action plans for how we can use the power of ASU to work toward a more socially just tomorrow.  I hope you can join us.

Anticipating Possible Futures

Comprehending the present is incredibly challenging. Predicting the future is nearly impossible. Yet the current pandemic crisis means people are looking for answers, not just about what is happening today, but why we didn’t properly predict the magnitude of the virus, and how we could do a better job of predicting future pandemics.

As graduates from the School of Sustainability, one of the five core competencies you have learned is futures-thinking.  All of you know that futures-thinking is not about predicting the future, but anticipating possible and plausible futures, creating scenarios for a brighter future, and then developing strategies to achieve those futures.

In a hyper-connected world, people can travel to just about anywhere in a single day, potentially transmitting disease far and wide. On an urban planet, high-density living permits quick spread of illness (witness New York). Increasing global temperatures may give rise to new viruses and bacteria harmful to human health. Destruction of wildlife habitat will bring species into greater contact with people and increase the potential for lethal diseases that jump species. Enduring poverty will put the most vulnerable at great risk of disease, threatening communities everywhere.

In other words, the pandemic crisis is a sustainability crisis. Anticipating future crises and being ready for them will require a systems approach that integrates the social-ecological-technical factors and dynamics that you learned about in SOS.

The infrastructure that connects us can be a force for readiness and resilience. We cannot turn back the clock on globalization, on urbanization, or on the telecommunications revolution. These are powerful forces that can do harm, but they can also be harnessed to do great good. How to align these and other forces to achieve the future we want will require a great deal of care, imagination, creativity, and energy. My hope is that we have equipped you with the skills, knowledge, competencies, and—most  importantly—the mindset to anticipate not only possible futures, but desired futures that minimize suffering, maximize well-being, and take care of the environment on which we all depend.

Now more than ever, the world needs this kind of thinking and these kind of thinkers. It needs you. Congratulations Class of 2020!

The Gift of Responsibility

The Gift of Responsibility for the Future

As graduates from the School of Sustainability, each of you is equipped with the ability to envision a better future and to develop the tools and strategies to make it happen. All of you can probably recite word-for-word the Brundtland Commission’s definition, which in many ways launched the modern sustainability movement—“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is a very powerful message because it speaks to the obligations we have for future generations, which we must keep in mind when thinking about our present-day actions. In essence, sustainability asks us to be responsible stewards of and for the future.

The idea of caring for future generations is, of course, not entirely new. In 1916, then President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent conservationist alarmed by the rampant destruction of nature he saw happening around him, wrote that:

“Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations.”

He went on to say that this should be a core purpose of our democracy:

“The movement for the conservation of wildlife and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.”

Thinking in the long-term is by no means easy. Some of you may have foggy memories of great grandparents while great-great grandparents are at best black-and white photographs on a wall or the occasional story passed down.  Thinking about needs of great-great grandchildren, who most of us will never meet, is equally difficult. The challenge is to try.

Oren Lyons, a Faithkeeper for the Onandaga Nation in upstate New York, compels us to think seven generations ahead:

“The Peacemaker taught us about the Seven Generations. He said, when you sit in council for the welfare of the people, you must not think of yourself or of your family, not even of your generation. He said, make your decisions on behalf of the seven generations coming, so that they may enjoy what you have today.”

If we can think about the well-being of generations to follow, that should change the way we behave. Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist from Sweden, has been urging decision makers to think about fairness for people from her generation (and generations that follow). In a speech she gave a couple of years ago, she thought about what she might say to her own children far into the future:

“The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”

We tend to think of responsibility as a burden. I urge you to think of it as a gift. As graduates from this excellent university and even more excellent School of Sustainability, you will be in positions of authority where you can make a difference.  Use that authority to make decisions that will have meaningful, positive impact on your generation and the generations that follow. I guarantee that thinking and acting in this way will bring you happiness and joy—a true gift indeed.

Congratulations to the Class of 2019!


Sustainability and Innovation

For the 5th year in a row, ASU was ranked as #1 in Innovation by US News & World Report. ASU has created a culture and environment that allows the innovative School of Sustainability to flourish. I offer my thanks and gratitude to all the students, staff, faculty, alumni, friends, and partners who have made the ASU School of Sustainability such an exciting and fulfilling endeavor in higher education.

Welcome to new and returning students

It is my pleasure to welcome new and returning students to the School of Sustainability. We continue to increase the number of students (up 17% from last year) and number of faculty in the school to meet the growing the demand for sustainability education at ASU. It is my great honor to be the dean of the world’s leading program in sustainability. Ultimately, though, the success of the school depends on the success of our students. I encourage all of you to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities, beyond your courses, available in the School of Sustainability and at ASU.


Sustainability as Opportunity: Spring 2019 Convocation Address

I am happy and grateful that sustainability is finally widely regarded as an opportunity rather than a burden or obligation. When the School of Sustainability began nearly 13 years ago, the majority of people I met thought sustainability was a long list of what not to do–don’t use up resources, don’t pollute rivers and streams or the air, don’t fly in airplanes, don’t eat meat, don’t, don’t, don’t. In other cases, people saw sustainability as a begrudging obligation to behave in certain ways dictated or regulated by others. In the business world, sustainability was often found in offices of corporate social responsibility, motivated to adopt sustainability as proper behavior, which sometimes devolved into nothing more than ‘greenwashing.’  

For sustainability to succeed, we need to find ways to motivate, excite, and inspire people to build a future where we don’t just survive, but thrive. This begs the question: what motivates? Sometimes the answer is bad things, such as fear, hate, sadness, greed or attaining power only for power’s sake. These can certainly drive people’s decisions and actions, but they also have a tendency to corrupt, destroy, gnaw at the core of our being, ultimately undermining the ability of people and communities to thrive, or even survive.   

People can also be motivated by love, compassion, seeking happiness and joy. Our commencement speaker David Brooks reminded us that Happiness usually involves a victory for the self. Joy tends to involve the transcendence of self. Happiness comes from accomplishments. Joy comes when your heart is in another.” Joy comes from selfless acts of love and kindness that fill the hearts and minds of those who give.   

We can also be motivated by doing what’s right–the satisfaction from living life with integrity, a deep sense of fairness, treating others with respect and dignity. David Brooks wrote several years ago that we should lead our lives thinking not about what we want on our resume (usually a long list of professional accomplishments), but what we want our friends and loved ones to say about us in a eulogy or obituary.

These are all profound and important virtues that should help us navigate our lives so they have meaning and fulfillment. But we also need to earn a living, pay the bills, provide for our families. Your decisions will also hinge on the motivation of profit, which is not just about money, but by getting more out of something than what you put in–positive, not diminishing, returns on efforts and investment.

At the heart of sustainability as opportunity is the notion that working towards a more sustainable future should be smart, just, fair, innovative, and joyous, but that it can also be profitable. Take the Sustainable Development Goals, for example. These 17 ambitious goals are truly transformative in scope – eradicating poverty, achieving gender equity, eliminating hunger, ensuring clean water and sanitation for everyone.

The United Nations also estimates that achieving the SDGs is a $12 trillion dollar opportunity–not measured as a cost but as an addition to the global economy. Imagine what is possible if all girls in the world are educated to the level same as boys. That would unleash huge amounts of human potential that would open up new economic opportunities while systematically addressing the goals of the SDGs.

These are not pie-in-the-sky ideas. School of Sustainability alumni are already ‘doing well to do good.’

Ryan Delaney (class of 2011), started his own biochar company in Haiti, taking what was otherwise waste from sugar cane farms and turning it into charcoal briquettes, reducing stress on Haiti’s forests, providing jobs, creating income opportunities for women and children as resellers, and all for less or equal to the price of regular charcoal with similar or better performance. He became so successful that he recently sold the company to a rum manufacturer in Haiti.

Natalie Fleming (class of 2012) worked for several start-up companies focused on sustainable food systems, including Just. Inc., which sells plant-based foods all around the world. She is now Head of Operations at a sustainable venture company called Susa that matches resources to innovative, sustainable companies.

Sean McGraw (class of 2011), after taking classes on sustainable energy and doing a capstone project with GlobalResolve in Ghana, built an energy auditing and home improvement company called FOR energy. It is one of the fastest growing companies in the United States, with offices in Arizona and Nevada and a planned opening in the Midwest.

These are just a few examples of where students have taken the ingenuity of sustainability thinking and applied it to build profitable ventures. And we are only scratching the surface of possibilities.  

So, to the graduates here today, I look forward to seeing the sustainability opportunities you design, create, and implement. And if you do that while abiding by the convictions and principles of sustainability, I am confident you will do so in ways that will also bring you joy in the service of others, the planet we depend on, and the well-being and care of future generations. Congratulations Class of 2019!    

Thank you for making Sun Devil Giving Day a Success

A heartfelt THANK YOU to all the staff, faculty, students, parents, and friends of the School of Sustainability for making this year’s Sun Devil Giving Day a resounding success! We blew past our goal and raised $6,200 from 62 gifts. Kristen Wolfe and Kelly Crow teamed up with the ASU Foundation to highlight the School of Sustainability with interactive events outside Wrigley Hall. President Crow stopped by to vote for Sustainability at the ‘what matters to you’ wall. All in all, it was a positive, upbeat day that showcased the generosity of people who believe in the mission and goals of SOS.

The Conversation

Why some counties are powerhouses for innovation

File 20190220 148539 1uibfnn.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Santa Clara County produced more patents than any other U.S. county in recent history.

Christopher Boone, Arizona State University

By the time the application window closed, Amazon had received 238 proposals from cities and regions throughout North America looking to become the second headquarters of the behemoth tech company.

Amazon invited proposals especially from places that looked a lot like its native Seattle: metro areas with more than a million people; a stable and business-friendly environment; communities that could “think big and creatively” about real estate options; and a location that would attract and retain technical talent.

In the race to attract high-tech companies, what can cities and regions do to become centers of innovation? At the moment, some places are clearly in the lead.

By my analysis of data from the U.S. Patent Office, Santa Clara County, California, is sprinting ahead of the country. Between 2000 and 2015, more than 140,000 patents were granted in Santa Clara County. That’s triple the number for second-ranked San Diego County.

Four other counties in California – Los Angeles, San Mateo, Alameda and Orange – make the top 10. Washington’s King County, Massachusetts’s Middlesex County, Michigan’s Oakland County and Arizona’s Maricopa County round out the list.

These counties are in large metropolitan areas that are known as technology and innovation centers, including San Francisco, San Diego, Boston and Seattle. The other metro areas in the top 10, not the usual tech-hub suspects, are Greater Los Angeles, Detroit and Phoenix.

Higher education

Besides large concentrated populations, these metro areas share two other ingredients that support innovation. All of them have one or more leading research universities and a large proportion of college-educated people.

Santa Clara County is home to Stanford University, an institution that has become synonymous with the high-tech and innovation economy of Silicon Valley.

Stanford’s rise as a world-class research university coincided with a rapid increase in federal and military spending during the Cold War. The university’s suburban location gave it an advantage, too, by providing land for expansion and for burgeoning high-tech companies. Stanford’s leadership aggressively courted research opportunities aligned with the priorities of the military-industrial complex, including electronics, computing and aerospace.

As a leader in patents, Santa Clara County benefits from a well-educated population, with more than half a million adults over 25 years of age holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, the 10th-highest figure in the country.

Nationally, there is a strong relationship between the number of college-educated adults and the number of patents filed in those counties. I found that, for every increase of 1,000 college-educated people, one can expect 33 more patents to be granted in those counties.

For counties that contain one or more of the country’s “131 Doctoral Universities with Very High Research Activity,” as ranked by Indiana University’s Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, the average number of patents filed was 6,686, compared to only 371 for counties lacking one of these research institutes.

Cost of living

Another common trait about most of these centers of innovation is the jaw-dropping cost of housing.

The median sale price for houses in San Jose in Santa Clara County exceeded US$1 million for every month in 2018. Between 2000 and 2017, house prices more than doubled in the California and Washington state counties with the highest number of patents.

Competition for higher-wage talent pushes up housing and other costs in these innovation centers. Although housing prices increased in greater Boston, Phoenix and Detroit, they remained relative bargains compared to the West Coast.

The threat of rising housing costs and gentrification was one of many reasons why residents protested the planned building of Amazon’s second headquarters in the New York City borough of Queens. The company has now decided to pull out.

Facing rising rents in San Francisco, many residents are leaving for surrounding suburbs or farther afield. Gentrification in high-tech cities coincides with homelessness and growing inequalities, hitting minority communities hardest.

Sparking innovation

Rising living costs in these tech centers can create innovation opportunities for communities inland where living costs are lower. There are more than 4,600 degree-granting institutions located across the U.S. in communities large and small.

In my view, one way to unleash innovation would be to tap into the rich diversity of students, faculty and communities at two- and four-year colleges beyond the typical top 100 research institutes.

For example, universities might invest in inquiry-based programs, where learning is guided by questions, research and discovery rather than simply receiving knowledge. Or, they could focus on lifelong learning and entrepreneurship training.

In this way, it may be possible for smaller colleges and universities and the communities they serve to provide alternative pathways to innovation. If this happens, the technology giants of the future may be fighting to locate in the middle of the U.S., rather than the coasts.

Christopher Boone, Dean and Professor of Sustainability, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.