Land Ownership – Basis for Land Use

Published in The Freeman (Philippine Star), Dec. 29, 2011

I was in a conference last year in Ho Chi Minh City, on transportation planning, but in one of our site visits, we went to an urban renewal project. Many of the participants were amazed when told that the relocation process of the project took only 6 months! The Vietnamese officials were more confused why we were amazed … it seemed normal to them. I explained to my friend – “the thing is, this is a communist country, things are different here.” Not wrong, mind you, but different.

Digging deeper, we arrive at a conclusion that the basis for land use planning in a city (or country), is the concept of land ownership in that country. We say that land use, and zoning assumptions, are different for each country since each have their own constitution, and therefore, basis for land ownership. Many countries have similar laws, however, because majority of the hundred odd nations in the world were colonies of last centuries’ superpowers and empires, and usually retain the legal systems of the mother countries. Thus, we see similarities especially in those formerly under Britain, Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and the centralized economies (communist countries).

It’s all in how we look at land ownership. Almost all countries have the same basic tenet – all land belong to the state. It’s their distribution, and allowance for private ownership which differs. It started during the monarchial/feudal Europe and even the samurai-era Japan where kings and lords, and Japanese daimyos, have absolute ownership of land and give them freely as they please, ultimately consolidated in the countries we have now. In communist countries, land is more or less retained by the state, while in socialist countries, there’s a bit of land release. It’s in democracies where citizens enjoy private land ownership the most.

The question is, how absolute is land ownership? Real estate practioners will tell you about a “bundle of rights” associated with it. But how far does one go in enjoying his land? It’s not as one pleases. A person still has to follow laws and regulations in using his land, the first of which is land use and zoning. It’s not as if, as absolute owner, you can do whatever you want. The question is, how is the land use and zoning function exercised by the state (or city)? The dilimma – private interest versus the common good. An age-long debate, still raging, and will continue for the rest of human history. Where do we draw the line between them? All persons have the right to use the land they own for their own profit, but … try building a piggery in the middle of a residential subdivision … Land use and zoning actually “limits” and control one’s use of his land, from the kind of activity you can do with it, even to the height of the buildings that you can build. Thus, land ownership is actually not absolute.

Land use planning is always assumed to be for the common good, or most specifically, giving the most benefit to the greater number of people. Easier said than done, and whether this is really exercised is another matter altogether. But assuming it is, take note that on the assumption that there was a previous land use and zoning, making a new one, presumably to improve the city, will always entail changes. And inevitably, some landowners are bound to benefit while others are bound to be disadvantaged. The question is, shall we stop the process because there are people negatively affected? Or do we proceed because ultimately, its for the common good? Tough choice. Unfortunately, we have to make it.

Private interest versus the common good. This is the basic question that needs to be addressed, whether you’re talking about building skyscrapers, the transportation system of a city, or human habitation of an otherwise disaster-risk area, and countless other urban issues.

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