Understanding Place reflection #4

Over the last two weeks, we’ve explored place in light of temporal time scales and land use, for example through GIS exercises and readings from Foley et al., Matson et al., and Wendell Berry’s ‘Let the Farm Judge’. For this week’s reflection (due Wednesday at noon) please choose a place and describe its dominant historical and current land use(s). Based on local and global land-use trends, what do you think the future of land use in that place might be over the next 100 years (e.g., suburban development, agriculture, urbanization, industry, conservation, etc.)? What do you suggest might be the most suitable future land use(s) in that place in light of ecology, society, and economy?


  1. Jennifer Damian says:

    I will talk about Navy Pier which is located on the Chicago shoreline of Lake Michigan. Historically, the pier was made in 1909 for shipping and recreational purposes for the city. Chicago originally planned on building five piers but only built one. In 1916, it was opened to the public when shipping was combined with entertainment. It was originally named Municipal Pier before being renamed Navy Pier as a tribute to a navy personnel. In 1977, it was designated a Chicago landmark. Nowadays, the pier hosts events, shows, exhibits, and events. Throughout time, updates and renovations have been made to attract more people. It keeps adding new signed performers, and in September 2015, the ferris wheel will be upgraded. I definitely am confident that the future of this area’s land use will continue to be for entertainment purposes as that location is one of the highlights of the city.

    If water levels fluctuate in Lake Michigan because of precipitation changes exacerbated by climate change, this can pose threats to infrastructure and the safety of the future of Navy Pier’s existence because it might face water threats. Dangerous storms have been persistent each summer in the Chicago area, with some mini tornados hitting south of Chicago’s suburbs and causing floods in the Chicago area. This mix of increased flooding and strong waves can cause constant shutdowns of Navy Pier’s rides and can cause instability in terms of the jobs they provide. If the thunderstorms get worse, I don’t see Navy Pier thriving or existing in the next 100 years because the city might need to find ways to prevent waves from reaching the city. I certainly believe that high walls to keep waves away are necessary and further thinking in this realm should be considered by the city especially since Navy Pier. Especially since a lot of renovations are made with taxpayer money, we need to protect the infrastructure already payed for in order to avoid major losses due to environmental costs.

    Source: https://navypier.com/about-us/

  2. Laura Berry says:

    The city of Nashville, Tennessee has undergone many changes in the past few decades. A relatively small capital city centrally located between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River in the Central Basin of the Cumberland Plateau, the land on which Nashville exists was first inhabited by mainly Cherokee Nation people. By the late 1700s, settlers had begun to delineate parcels of agricultural land and North Carolina designated Davidson County as a political unit in 1784. Around the same time, the streets of Nashville began to be laid out around the central physical feature of the Cumberland River, which would become the city’s major commercial artery to transport cotton and tobacco flowing north from the Deep South. The population of the city began to increase significantly in 1800 with the advent of the steamship and locomotive, but Nashville by and large remained minimally developed beyond the transportation infrastructure required to support a regional agrarian economy until after the Civil War and a subsequent boom in manufacturing, wholesale, and finance.

    From then until after WWII, land use in Nashville changed dramatically with the establishment of zoning procedures to deal with increasing population and economic activity, much of which was done inequitably with regards to ethnic minority groups and low income communities. Similarly, Nashville has experienced uncontrolled growth of suburban neighborhoods beyond the city, which are physically delineated from lower income neighborhoods by the construction of four separate interstates – as well as urban sprawl. As one of the country’s top 10 fastest growing cities, land use in Nashville will once again have to change dramatically in response to this urbanization. According to a recent study, if Tennessee continues along the predicted uncontrolled growth path, Nashville will rank in the top 30 EAs in the country for land conversion – for every 595,314 units of land developed (residential and nonresidential), the Nashville EA will convert 459,878 acres of land from other uses, mainly agricultural. Over the 13 years I have lived in Nashville, I have personally witnessed the gentrification of historic neighborhoods and construction of huge, unnecessary development projects in both downtown (towering high-rise apartment buildings and a giant convention center) and the surrounding suburbs (more and more McMansion style houses and the subdivision of parcels to fit more houses on lot.) I was also in the city during the flood of 2010, when half of downtown was underwater, and watched as people came to the realization that the city would inevitably have to change in order to be more resilient to the effects of climate change.

    But despite the realities of these current changes and those predicted for the future – over 1 million people are predicted to move to the Cumberland River region by 2040 –, there is reason to have hope for the future of land use in Nashville. Most recently inspired by the ideas of “new urbanism,” planners in Nashville have recognized the need to work towards social equity in city planning, and have been working on long-term projects for affordable housing, mixed use residential and commercial space, and biophilic design and green space. Nashville’s parks, greenways, waterways, and other open space make up over 13,000 acres within the city limits, and it has also been recognized as a “Tree City, USA” by Arbor Day Foundation for the past 20 years. Although there are many challenges for city planners to overcome, it seems as though Nashville is attempting to address land use in a more socially and environmentally responsible manner. The promises of new urbanism and biophilic design give me hope for the future of the city, and are especially critical land use changes in the context of climate change and urbanization.

  3. Molly O'Neil says:

    One of the most explicit examples of land use change is the drainage and development of the Everglades. The Florida Everglades, which evolved over thousands of years, once covered most of the southern portion of the state of Florida. 11,000 square miles of slow moving water represented a complex, interconnected ecosystem consisting of ponds, wetlands, forested uplands, and more. Early settlers in the area did not see the value of the Everglades, largely because it could not be farmed. The settlers were not aware of the dynamics of the ecosystem and devalued the many ecosystem services that it could provide. Among these services, as with any wetland, are fish for food, materials for building and thatching, medicinal plants, water purification, and flood protection.

    The idea of draining the Everglades came about in the mid-1800s. By the end of the century, settlers were constructing canals to drain small parts of the wetland. It wasn’t until 1905 that large pieces of the wetland were drained to grow crops such as corn, sugar, rice, cotton, and tobacco. The settlers were aware that by draining the land, they would be accessing a very rich soil that would be incredibly productive. Urbanization took over when a number of projects were instituted in the area including roads, canals, railroads, and buildings. The draining resulted in a land boom in the 1920’s, and the concept of Florida as a tourist destination began to take hold. Up until the middle of the 20th century, wetland draining was not questioned and the land continued to be drained for agriculture and development.

    Several hurricanes in the late 1920’s, fires in the 1930’s, and floods in the 1940’s proved just how difficult it is for humans to manage such complex land use changes. Although a large portion of the land was established as a national park in 1947, a massive governmental project called the Central and Southern Florida Project for Flood Control and Other Purposes authorized the continuation of development in areas outside of the national park. Now, a massive levee blocks the flow of water into urban areas such as Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. Today, 50% of the original Everglades no longer exist. Native species that once thrived in the area, such as wading birds and American Alligators, are constantly under threat.

    Over the next 100 years, parts of the Everglades will continue to be protected under the national park system. However, the damage that has been done to the area is irreversible and urban sprawl continues to exacerbate the issues. Although the persisting physicality of the Everglades should remain the same within the next 100 years, the way it is influenced by the urban environments along its perimeter will change drastically. Runoff from agriculture and urban centers will continue to be a problem and overload the remainder of the Everglades with nutrients and pollutants. Although the system is a natural water purification system, humans have pushed it to the brink of collapse. In order to prevent these issues from continuing to unfold, urban sprawl should be halted immediately and agriculture should be heavily monitored. Ideally, portions of the Everglades should be returned to their natural state where possible. Everglades National Park hosts just over one million visitors every year. It is essential that the park be maintained for its ecological benefits, and placing more land under the conservation umbrella should be a high priority goal. The Everglades is responsible for providing ecosystem services that positively impact socio-economic systems. By reducing urban sprawl and pollutants entering the system, the Everglades may be able to regain and maintain its natural beauty and functioning.

  4. Sage Taber says:

    Seattle is nestled between the salt waters of Puget Sound and the fresh waters of Lake Washington. The Olympic mountain ranges are to the west and the Cascades to the east – each evoking a sense of grandeur in the landscape. Seattle is a city of hills, water and abundant natural resources. First settled in 1851, Seattle was named in honor of a Duwamish Indian leader named Sealth. Upon settlement, the town’s principal economic support was Henry Yesler’s lumber mill that supplied mill to San Francisco and the Puget Sound region. In 1869, the Seattle population was 2,000 and didn’t see a drastic increase until after Tacoma became the transcontinental railroad western terminus in 1883. Lumber, coal, growth of fishing, wholesale trade, and shipbuilding industries contributed to Seattle’s economic and population growth. A devastating fire in 1889 served as a catalyst for significant municipal improvements and the use of new materials like brick and steel for construction. Growth continued into the 1900s as two more transcontinental railroads reached Seattle and reinforced its stake in international trade and shipping. During the early 1900s Seattle became a diversified city as more people migrated to the growing economic center. By the 20s, the population reached 240,000 and saw another pocket of population growth in the 50s. It was in 1962 that Seattle sponsored the Century 21 World’s Fair Exposition and left a legacy of Seattle as a center for performance, sports and entertainment halls. The fair also gave birth to the Pacific Science Center, Monorail and the iconic Space Needle. Until recently, the city population remained stable around 500,000.

    Today, Seattle is experiencing explosive growth. In 2013, Seattle grew faster than any other major American city and in 2014, added nearly 18,000 residents bringing the population to 652,000. Part of Seattle’s population growth can be credited to the burgeoning tech scene, which has attracted companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, eBay and Amazon, all of which have set up offices in the region. Seattle is 90% urban and I don’t anticipate it becoming suburban any time soon. When I was there in May, it seemed as though high-rises were going up everyday. Rent prices are soaring throughout all neighborhoods and gentrification is becoming heavily visible. Land-use over the next decades will be interesting to follow in a place that prides itself on the beauty of its surroundings.

    In response to growing urbanization, and a need to preserve its ecological richness, I see Seattle adopting future land-use plans much like the current Waterfront Project. In 2012, plans for the replacement of the Alaskan way viaduct (elevated highway near waterfront street) were proposed by the City of Seattle. What emerged was a vision for the waterfront as a public promenade that would engage the entire city and emphasize pedestrian and bicycle paths as well as increased green space. Elements of the plan include improving the natural shoreline ecology and enhancing the maritime activities central to the Waterfront. Importantly, Seattle’s commitment to sustainability, innovation and response to climate change is within the mission of the project. The Waterfront Project gives me hope that future land-use in Seattle will be centered on adaptable designs that address a type of holistic revitalization necessary in urban environments.

  5. Aidan McLaughlin says:

    In Maine’s northwest corner, buried deep in the wilderness just miles from Canada, lies the Rangeley Lakes region. Today, thousands of acres of coldwater and forest habitats thrive with minimal human impact. This area is rare in the United States; it has remained more or less wild. The region was first settled by white people in the early 1800s, when a handful of families trekked in and set up settlements on Rangeley Lake. Until the 1860s, settlers survived off of fish, game, and small-scale farming. The main reason that people came to the reason was to work harvesting and processing lumber. Come the ’60s, however, the tourist and sportsman industries had taken root. From this point until today, the Rangeley Lakes region has been a very popular hunting and fishing destination for wealthy city dwellers as well as locals and, later on, car-borne tourists.

    In the earlier days of the sportsman boom, Rangeley and the surrounding lakes were home to many lodges and private estates. Enormous Brook Trout, Land-Locked Salmon, moose and deer, coupled with the vast and remote wilderness at its doorstep brought people from far and wide to spend their summers in the Rangeley area. For this reason, the conservation mentality has long been the dominant frame of thinking for those who spend time in the area. Just north, close to Canada, are vast expanses of lakes, ponds, rivers, and forests. Until recently, fairly large swaths of this land was clear-cut. In recent years, however, lumber companies (which own most of the land in this area) have begun to follow more responsible selective cutting practices. Even when the companies were clear-cutting, the forests were so huge and the road systems so minuscule that it hardly seemed to make a difference.

    Beginning in the 1990s, Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust began conserving lands in the area. Thus far, they control or conserve roughly 13,500 acres of forested land, rivers, and lakes. Considering the ecological value that this area has, especially to the pressured wild eastern Brook Trout, I expect that this number will only increase. That being said, much of this land is fully undeveloped and nearly pristine. That will undoubtedly draw more and more tourists and more development as this upcoming century unfolds. Unfortunately, I would not be surprised to see large amounts of development for the sake of eco-tourism. While this most likely will not entail enormous strip malls and four-lane highways, it could drastically change the rustic nature of thousands and thousands of acres of wilderness that have been somewhat overlooked by human development.

  6. Hernán Gallo says:

    Claremont, California, home to the Claremont Colleges is located in the greater Los Angeles area. This area was inhabited by native peoples before the 1700s. The Santa Fe Railroad was implemented in the area and lead to the founding of the town of Claremont. Pomona College was founded in 1888 and the other Claremont Colleges were founded afterwards, expanding the amount of land used for the colleges. At the same time, more and more land was being used for citrus farming in the foothills of Claremont. There were four citrus packing houses in Claremont, along with an ice house and a precooling plant along the railroad tracks. Citrus was grown in the area until World War 2. Citrus growers received a lot of pressure to sell their land for housing development. The San Bernardino freeway was completed in 1954, attracting more people to move to Claremont. Over the next 100 years, I project that the city of Claremont and the surrounding area will continue to be used as residential areas due to the increase in urban sprawl and urbanization of the Los Angeles area. There are several housing developments currently happening in the area and there is a lot of open land that has the potential to become residential areas.

    In terms of what the city of Claremont and the surrounding cities should do with the land, I suggest they transform a lot of it into urban gardens or reallocate space for business and housing. A lot of the land is used for parking lots that are not fully used due to their size and it simply ends up being wasted space. Businesses and stores could be pushed up closer to the road, decreasing the amount of space used for concrete parking lots and freeing up space that could be used for housing development. Instead of building new structures and housing on empty lots, the space could be reallocated to maximize the use of space.

  7. Caitlin Haedrich says:

    After spending the last few weeks thinking about place and often in the context of Middlebury, I thought it would be interesting to examine both Middlebury and Hanover, New Hampshire over the next 100 years. I grew up a mile and a half from Hanover, the town that Dartmouth is in but across the river in Norwich, Vermont. Although I lived in Vermont, Hanover was often central to my day to day living. That’s where the grocery stores are, my high school, and my athletics, shopping, and recreation often took place. Hanover and Middlebury actually are very similar environments in my mind. Both towns are relatively small and are economically and socially centered around the college. The colleges are both very wealthy and attract wealthy people to live around them. The land around the schools is also mostly college owned and even the downtown facades are mostly college-owned. Surrounded both schools is a mixed use, rural landscape. Middlebury’s surroundings is dominated by agriculture, wilderness and small towns while Hanover’s is mostly wilderness and small towns with some agriculture. Because the colleges own the majority of the land around the schools and are so influential in the local economy in both towns, I think they will evolve similarly over the next 100 years.

    The towns also share similar agrarian pasts. Hanover and Norwich used to be surrounded by farms, especially on the Vermont side of the river where the rolling hills are slightly more fertile. The success of the college and hospital brought an influx wealthier people to the area who bought out the farms and the land was returned to mostly wilderness. It’s my understanding that the increase of wealth in the community brought up taxes, which made many farmers move to neighboring towns. Middlebury’s past is also agrarian and the landscape has been dominated by farming since it was settled in the colonial period. I’m not sure why, but the presence of the college (and Porter Hospital) has not changed landscape the same way it has in Norwich and Hanover. The land around the town is still primarily agricultural.

    I think these towns are interesting to imagine in the future because of the complexity of forces that are acting in the community and differing interests of people. For example, the college makes the quality of living in the towns higher than surrounding towns and makes it a desirable place to live. Therefore, there is a large pressure for the town to grow and house more people. At the same time, the colleges both have vested interest in keeping the towns small and surrounded by farms or wilderness; they are trying to avoid urban sprawl and the suburban landscape. There is also tension between recreational/aesthetic land use and agricultural land. Middlebury and Hanover residents both place high value on wilderness, parks and recreational areas but farming also brings essential food to region and is the large economic player. I think the colleges will have the most power and control over land use in these towns over the next 100 years so I would not be surprised if there is little land use change. If anything, the colleges will continue to buy more land and lease it to people under the agreement that the land use doesn’t change.

  8. Hannah Root says:

    Out on Mine Road in South Strafford, Vermont, there is a 1,400 acre abandoned copper mine. The mine was in use for about 150 years, beginning in 1808 when copper ore was discovered and a group of investors got together to open a small copperas factory at the bottom of a hill. In 1827, the company expanded its operations, building a dam on the Ompompinoosik river to power a smelting plant. The copper mine expanded again in the early twentieth century as demand for copper during WWI drove the prices up. By 1958, when the copper mines closed, there were two open cut mines, two tailing piles (the largest spreading across 45 acres), underground tunnels and shafts, and several abandoned ore processing buildings. The land sat untouched for almost 50 years, leaking acid runoff into the west branch of the Ompompinoosik river. Every time it rained, the tailing piles would leach sulfuric acid and metals including cadmium, cobalt, copper, and zinc. Finally, in 2000, the abandoned mine was identified as a superfund site by the EPA, and thirteen years of major construction ensued. The EPA’s approach to cleaning up the site was to consolidate all of the mine waste into one place, cover it with a plastic membrane and two feet of soil, and to turn it into a field. There were over 356 thousand cubic yards of consolidated mine waste, taken from the open cuts, the tunnels and shafts, the Mine Road, the abandoned factories. The end result is a 1,400-acre grassy field with very restricted land use because it is classified as a brownfield.

    Wolfe Energy, a local Strafford energy company, has partnered with Brightfields Development to propose a 4.9-megawatt solar project on the Elizabeth Copper Mine land. It would power about 1,200 homes with clean energy. I think that it is the most sustainable future land use possible for this piece of land. Given its classification of a brownfield, the options for future land use are very limited. Brightfields Development specializes in solar field development on brownfields, and it is one of the most productive ways to repurpose a brownfield. The Elizabeth Copper Mine has such a painful history of land exploitation, but was also, undeniable, the backbone of Strafford’s economy for most of its history. Developing a solar field would not only symbolically make right the wrongs that the copper mining industry did to the land by making it a site for clean, renewable energy, but also provide economic opportunities to our community.

  9. Timothy Harper says:

    The area I would like to focus on for this reflection is the town of State College, where I go to school. The area is situated within Nittany Valley and is covered with fertile soils from limestone bedrocks and agriculture in the lowlands and poor soils and forest cover in the uplands surrounding the valley. The valley floor is also covered with substantial infrastructure from the town and the school though this is a relatively small amount of land given the size of the agricultural zones in the area. This land use has been pretty consistent at least since the school was founded in 1855, prior to that it was purely agricultural land in the lowlands and in the uplands the forest had been recovering from clear cut during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
    The agriculture is fairly intensive, but smaller in scale here as opposed to the many places because of the the topography that narrows the range in which agriculture is viable. The agricultural zone is sinking as farmers move away from farming on the valley walls. The town and school are not growing at high rates and development is generally slow. The school has said it is not trying to grow its student body at any rate, so it can be expected that the town will remain its current size. This puts this area in an interesting place, where growth is not necessarily required for health, and the school is able to bring money into the area at a fairly consistent rate. Because of this I would like to see the school take on an active role in the transformation of the agriculture of the area into a more sustainable model. The school is a land-grant school, so its historical mission is to develop agricultural systems and make them better, and I see an opportunity for Penn State to take on some leadership in this role. We are already seeing the growth of no-till and permaculture agriculture in the area, but through funding and extensional services, this could be expanded greatly. There is research going on at the school investigating pesticide reduction, soil conservation, biomass crop sources, and cow power methane among other things that are simply not being transferred to the community as a whole.
    I do not want to see a transformation of the land from one type to the other, the northern hardwood forests must remain and the agriculture must remain, but I would like to see land use change in a transformative way to a more sustainable model. The university through its position in the governance and economics of the area has the unique ability to stimulate this transformation through knowledge and funding and education. The agricultural community is old and well established, much in the way many Vermont farmers are situated, and a change in land use is simply not feasible, but a transformation in the methods and outputs of the farms is very much within reach.

  10. Darrell Davis says:

    San Francisco is the heart of the Bay Area, regarded as a hub for many cultural, technological, and spiritual advances, it has a truly special place in my hear as home. San Francisco, has gone through many changes in the last hundred years but it has remained the concrete jungle of Northern California. The problems that San Francisco faces today are gentrification, economic inequality, and a major housing crisis. One very interesting thing about San Francisco is that it builds vertically than horizontally. That means that instead on expanding the city’s landmass, buildings get larger. The next 100 years, I think that San Francisco can go into two directions. It can go in a neo-liberal direction, where the city becomes a bubble for rich, mostly white, techies and professionals, or it can go in a socially conscience direction that prioritizes equity, camaraderie, and environmental/ecological justice. The ladder would look like a San Francisco where worker cooperatives are the dominant model, where housing prices are kept fair (low), and that puts an express focus on Urban Agriculture. San Francisco, and the Bay Area as a whole, has a large problem with gang violence. The advent of an institutional(government-level), top-down push for Urban Agriculture would ameliorate that issue.

  11. Ali Surdoval says:

    Lake Bomoseen as a place has changed significantly from uses such as mining and tourism to a prominent vacation spot for out-of-stators and locals. The geological history of the lake includes slate formation (from clay and shale) and glacial movement, forming a deep, fjord lake. The slate was used in the local region to develop railways (by the West Castleton Railroad and Slate Company), and one can still see many of the old quarries around the lake today. Since the quarries are no longer in industrial use, they have become destinations for cliff jumpers and hikers, providing a unique water experience (super deep, clear water!). The main slate quarry on the lake is visible from the water– it is an entire mountainside covered in loose slate (we call it “slate hill”). This hill has become a popular hiking spot because, at the top, it looks out over the lake. Many of the pieces of slate on slate hill have become canvases for local artists (aka graffiti). In a strange way, the place has become a community connector– young people drive by in their boats and want to contribute to the litany of names and phrases tumbling down the mountain.

    Besides the slate industry, Lake Bomoseen was also a hip weekend destination for New York City folk in the 1920’s-1940’s. Neshobe Island in particular (a large island in the middle of the lake) was the summer retreat for famous actors, writers, and politicians. (Of course, Neshobe Island was an exclusive place for secret societies and elite gatherings.) The main shore contained other hotels and resorts in this time period, along with lively activities that included dining and dancing. Over the years, however, resorts and private clubs on the lake were replaced with private summer homes and public beaches. Today, the lake is a summer destination for many people in the region as well as a draw for the local community (it is free to put your boat in the water and there are two state parks!).

    I worry about the future of Lake Bomoseen. Current land use in the area (i.e. summer homes) has lead to environmental issues such as eutrophication of the lake and the introduction of a variety of invasive species. Many camps along the lakeshore do not have septic systems, and there is no comprehensive sewage system, so waste often flows into the lake, depositing excess minerals and chemicals into the water. Excess phosphorus, in particular, intensifies the process of eutrophication (in my narrow understanding of the issue). Water quality treatment of the lake today includes using a harvester (basically a lawn mower for the lake) to cut the Eurasian Water Milfoil (an invasive seaweed that contributes to eutrophication). Unfortunately, cutting milfoil only helps it to spread (that is how the plant naturally propagates). If people continue to treat the lake the way it is currently, the use of the area will have to change because the waters will no longer be boat-able, swimmable, and fishable. I do not imagine that people will want to stop vacationing at Lake Bomoseen over the next 100 years (economically, it’s a pretty great spot for summer tourists), so the lake needs to become a place of environmental conservation and care. Residents need to consider the complete ecosystem of the lake, not just how the weeds impact their fishing and waterskiing.
    (note: I learned most of the info on lake history from my mother)

  12. Benjamin Harris says:

    Sorry, I uploaded this before class but it didn’t go through

    How do you allocate land when there’s barely any to begin with? Therein lies the conundrum that the Maldives confronts, and it’s a challenge that becomes increasingly exigent in the context of climate change and rising sea levels. Situated in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is a nation of 1,190 coral islands clustered into 26 atolls, which altogether, average a mere one to three meters above sea level. In short, it’s the lowest-lying country in the world. Whereas the Maldives’ current plight has become very emblematic of the long-term consequences of global warming, the nation’s historical land use remains, for the most part, shrouded in mystery. Historians surmise that when the Maldives was just a rest stop for Arab traders en-route to the Orient in the 2nd century A.D.. In light of its ideal location—right in the thick of Indian Ocean trading lanes—the Maldives’ historic value stemmed more from its centrality to marine commerce than from any land-based resources. A succession of colonial powers—Portugal, Netherlands, and Britain—intervened in the island nation’s affairs from the 16th century onwards, but some scholars assert that the archipelago was never a fully established colony, only a trading post. Thus, much of the Maldives’ history suggests that the island was merely a launching pad for profitable sea trade, and that by itself, its land lacked intrinsic value.

    Although the Maldives achieved independence in 1965, it was not until the 1990s when the nation underwent modernization (new telecommunications, internet access, etc.) and finally entered the international forum. The Maldives’ contemporary land use statistics are strikingly skewed in several respects. For starters, only 200 of the 1,190 islands are inhabited; and of the 200, eighty are dedicated exclusively to tourism. Aside from its uneven demographic distribution along its 550-mile extent, the Maldives boasts a unique set of land uses…because land is practically nonexistent. Only 13% of the Maldives could be called arable: the white sand, derived from coral rock, has low water-holding capacity, so soil fertility is poor and freshwater is a constant uncertainty. To compound these obstacles to domestic food production, the entire Maldives classifies as coastal area, meaning that saltwater intrusion occurs everywhere. As a result, freshwater becomes non-potable, and the salinity of soils increases, further inhibiting agricultural growth. These inherent limitations of land in the Maldives carry significant implications for food security and political relations: since the country can only grow a small number of subsistence crops, it leans heavily on other countries to supply even staple provisions. Also, the tiny size of Maldives’ islands—most are only 0.1 to 5 square kilometers—dictates the type of farming. Due to the scarcity of large landmasses, the Maldives has to concentrate its cultivation in relatively few locations, and moreover, use conventional rather than subsistence methods in order to make farming economically viable. Thus, spatial constraints force the Maldives to embrace agricultural intensification—and all of its attendant negative ecological and social effects—rather than more sustainable, small-scale farming.

    In the Maldives, all land belongs to the state, but the country maintains complex property leasing and land tenure measures. On uninhabited islands, the government abides by a traditional land ownership concept called “Varuvaa,” issuing 20- to 35-year leases to the highest bidding individual or private company, who then pledges to use the island primarily for coconut production. But the Varuvaa system seems to dispel the threat of corporate takeover, as the customary code insures that lessees limit production and uphold responsible forestry practices. Meanwhile, land use on inhabited islands seems, on the surface, conducive to environmental conservation—for instance, one of the three categories of land tenure, called “goi,” indicates areas that contain fragile plant or tree species. However, land use in inhabited regions of the Maldives is essentially a free-for-all: there are neither rents nor regulations to keep farming in check, enabling individuals to establish virtual monopolies over arable land.

    The Maldives faces an uncertain future, as ocean levels continue to encroach on the island nation in either creeping or catastrophic fashion—as for the latter, the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2005 literally swept away islands and illustrated the Maldives’ precarious position. The island nation has created a campaign calling for relocation, but if this proves impossible, then the Maldives will most likely resort to tourism as its economic and (potentially) environmental savior. As I mentioned earlier, the Maldives is a popular ecotourism destination, and entire islands fall under the domain of a single resort. So it seems probable that land use in the Maldives will fall increasingly to the development of hotels, attractions, and amenities, all directed at vacationers. On the one hand, I’m leery of a country committing itself so wholeheartedly to tourism. If the Maldives becomes overrun with foreigner visitors, environmental degradation is inevitable. On the other hand, however, I also see tourism as one of the Maldives’ only practical options in terms of land use. Agriculture and food sovereignty are obviously unattainable. Perhaps if the country builds itself into a dominant tourist destination, the visitors who engage in popular snorkeling and reef fishing will observe the country’s precious—yet fragile—natural resources, and as a result, the international community will become a stronger advocate for the Maldives. Also, the island nation could invest its huge tourism revenue in coral reef conservation, not only to protect biodiversity and marine ecosystems, but also to make the country more resilient to climate change—rebuilding the reefs would create natural storm surge barriers. And finally, investing in tourism and reef preservation would regenerate the nation’s declining fisheries, and offer the island nation a potential domestic food source.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sites DOT MiddleburyThe Middlebury site network.