Partial definition of the word land on a dictionary page

What Is Land Policy? Readers Weigh In

By Lincoln Institute, Octubre 18, 2023


In search of a clear, accessible, and efficient definition of land policy, Lincoln Institute President George W. McCarthy consulted artificial intelligence, then asked readers for help defining the term. Submissions rolled in from around the world. McCarthy highlighted a few in his President’s Message column

A Land Policy is a mandate that as an organized society we give ourselves, built from the State in agreement with private actors, academia and the community; to address the challenges and balance the interests required by timely access, integrated management and fair, harmonious and proportionate distribution of activities in the territory, within a framework of sustainable development that is respectful of the various forms that make up society.

En castellano:

Una Política de Suelo es un mandato que como sociedad organizada nos damos, construido desde el Estado en acuerdo con los actores privados, la academia y la comunidad; para abordar los desafíos y equilibrar los intereses que exige el acceso oportuno, la gestión integrada y la distribución justa, armónica y proporcionada de los actividades en el territorio, en un marco de desarrollo sostenible y respetuoso con las diversas formas que integran la sociedad. 

Marcelo Cooper Apablaza, Architect and Urbanist, Santiago, Chile

Land Policy is the bundle of rules through which governments formalize wishful thinking for responding to competing demands for land use in a future that is both inevitable and uncertain. 

Ben Brown

Mark Twain urged people to buy land, because “They’re not making any more of it.” Icelanders may differ. But for everyone most of existence is firmly tied to the lands of the Earth. And “land policy” expresses how we humans try to decide to treat this most fundamental dynamic resource.

I think of land policy as a kind of adopted middle child trotted out at recitals and soccer matches, wearing the household coat of arms. Once mature, it becomes the maiden aunt ignored until the will is read.

Greg Iwan, M.UrP., Longmont, Colorado

Land, and its associated water, flora and fauna is the fundamental foundation of human existence.  We build on it, gain sustenance from it, and recreate on it.  It is a finite resource.  Without land, we cannot exist.

Polic(ies) are the guidelines and principles that humans agree to, in order to create organized communities and societies.  Policies are a uniquely human invention. 

Land polic(ies) are the specific guidelines and principles that humans agree to, in order to guide the optimum use of finite land resources. 

Michael Smiley, Principal, CITYdesignworks, Sausalito, California

Land policy examines the privileges and benefits associated with ownership of land. The field considers government actions that shape the use of land, who has control of land, and how to distribute land. These decisions affect a range of issues including local zoning choices and state contests for water rights. Land policy understands that benefits of land ownership derive from access to location, which is fixed in supply, necessary for production, and stores value in context of its neighboring areas. Lincoln’s mission is to orient land ownership away from individual benefit and toward communal good.

Greg M. Miller

Use, control, share land
Protect earth, water, and air
To benefit all

PD Blumenthal

Developing a land policy begins by recognizing how we have come to covet that which God has gifted so freely to us all.  Canaan was distributed among the twelve tribes of Judah as a perfect inheritance in an imperfect world. As such, God demanded some checks and balances for the ancient Israelites. Forgiveness of debt and the returning of the land from privatization to public during the year of Jubilee was one such constraint.

We should fully revisit our spiritual relationship with the land as a beginning to an immensely complicated paradigm shift involving what we currently believe about land use and ownership. How do we share, sustain, and retain this gift through our imperfect lives?  It is through gentle action, experimentation, and dialogue. Perhaps, then, we can recover a bit of what God would want for both our planet and humanity.

John Ford, Sharon, Massachusetts

As a discipline, Land Policy is the art and science of how we best connect to this earth and to each other. Its perspective is based upon a circular view of our present surroundings, while considering the past, and planning for the future.  Its purpose is to enhance the communities in which we live, and to protect the environment. As a tool, it is forward thinking, pragmatic, and ever evolving.  Without it, our world would be chaotic, disruptive, and disorganized. The quality of our life depends on sound land policies that are cohesive and for the benefit of us all.

Mary Brennan, New Jersey

Being deeply amused by your message on land policy, I had to create this . . . not to worry hence you think I wasted the publisher’s time, as a freelancer I happily wasted mine. Only the last line is Bayeux font given the few hundred years between that and the Bard’s death. (Ed. note: the text in green is based on the AI-generated Shakespearean sonnet included in the first President’s Message on this topic.)

Cynthia Martin, Managing Editor, Municipal World Journal

Land policy considers land in its broadest sense. To some this broad sense is land and everything that is on it and under it – the waterways, the soils and more. To some this broad sense is land and everything it means – its personal and cultural values. Policy is making choices with long-lasting effects. Governments can make land policy by deciding on laws and allocating public funding. But lots of choices outside government also have long-lasting effects. When you say ‘lets get together to protect this land from weeds and pests’, that’s land policy!

Dennis MacManus, Senior policy advisor (Kaitohutohu), Toitū Te Whenua Land Information New Zealand

The resources and locations of our entire planet must be regularly accessed to meet the many needs of our species. This must be accomplished by treaties and other agreements between nations claiming sovereign control over some portion of the planet, sharing under negotiated agreement those parts of the planet remaining outside the control by individual nation-states. The sustainable and fair use of all such natural resources is the objective of sound land policy.

Edward J. Dodson, M.L.A., Cherry Hill, New Jersey

The following poem (by myself) actually does define how the alternative to our more familiar LVT should be obtained, and it will do so without offending the landowners, too! It is based on the analogy to a newspaper cartoon of a tree having a hard-to see-cat in its leafless branches. But once you have seen the cat, every time you look at the picture you can’t help not seeing it. Such is our Georgist idea too! 

David Harold Chester


The Georgist cat is small and lean 
And often doesn’t get to be seen. 
It hides in the branches of an economic’s-tree 
So it takes a long while for you or for me, 
To appreciate its cute and original form 
That the landlords are so ready to scorn. 

 The economic’s-tree has many fine branches 
(On which we contend, there are no free-lunches). 
Whilst the land-owning rich in the city all claim 
As bloated capitalists, that they’re not to blame 
For the gap that lays ‘twixt the poor and the wealthy, 
But oppose any tax to make our nation healthy. 

Have you heard the tale of a committee, that 
Thought to bell and get warning of a fat cat? 
But could not find a soul to apply this device, 
Because typically all were a council of mice! 
Our Georgist cat has a bell ready-fitted, 
(Which makes this analogy more to be pitted).  

This warning sound makes our ideals unwanted, 
For a new tax is how politicians get doubted. 
So the Georgist cat fails to catch any mice 
That pose as landlords, along with their vice. 
But how shall we silence the bell’s warning sound 
And quieten the news that our puss is around?  

Our Georgist feline is in serious error, 
‘Cause its bell draws attention not only to whether 
Valuable sites can be ethically shared, 
But also the rent from a site is declared 
As the means to replace other kinds of taxation, 
Which obviously causes the landlords vexation.  

In the economic’s tree many other beasts lurk 
But are missed, after learning of Henry G’s quirk 
Through the cat-finder’s recently brilliant discovery. 
This writer seeks a new means for recovery 
From our politi-unacceptable claim, 
And stealthily project LVT once again.  

If we would but examine some more of the tree 
Alternatives are waiting there for us to see. 
Among them is hiding a far better way 
For an equivalent LVT effect, to stay 
In essence, without causing such evil offences 
To the landlords and their partitioning fences.  

When a property-owner decides to sell–quick 
The gov’ment buys its land, and not the public! 
Its occupant then leases it for a similar fee 
To the One-Tax of Henry George’s decree.  

Any buildings on-site should be sold as previously 
But without the land, on which the price grievously 
Had risen, with huge speculation in its advance 
That stopped entrepreneurs from having a chance. 

The cost of this land must be raised through new bonds 
Which the government sells and the public responds, 
‘Though their interest-rate’s a bit lower than rent, 
Their returns are more stable than the average tenant!  

This process will take many years to complete– 
So its financial support is no great money feat. 
After the lease-fees begin to collect, 
Gov’ments can tax less, and firmly expect 
To pursue this policy without change, until 
All the lease-fees are site-rents in the Gov’ment’s till.   

With the land properly shared, the government sees 
That site development stays with the current leasees. 
Other taxes that cause so much trouble and hate 
Are scrapped, with great pleasure to all in the state, 
Except for some bankers and the tax collectors 
Whose actions no longer apply in these sectors.

Land-rights will be shared through this simple device, 
By a fast-growing country that takes our advice. 

Land policy is about the rules, the culture that underlies those rules,
and the social expectations for the use of land.

It draws together government, the market, and private actors.

It has formal and informal outputs.  Formal outputs are often plans,
regulations, and programs.  Informal outputs are often socially accepted
patterns for how land is to be used and our behavior upon land.

Harvey M. Jacobs, Professor and Visiting Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Madison (1984-2018), Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands (2012-2019)

Joint submission from the Lincoln Institute faculty network in Latin America, aka “The Forty Thieves”:

Land policy is a set of guidelines, administrative practices, or laws for the public (government or empowered community entity) to act on the legal rights and obligations, and on the market and other institutional value-distribution criteria, to change, preserve, or foment land uses and occupations, resulting from their historical development, with the aim of achieving society chosen goals. 

A land policy is thus a statement on why, how, where, and when an intervention (by the public or community) should be made on land. 

In this sense, a land policy is characteristically distinct from a statement on the land dimension of a policy defined to address other relevant cultural-economic-environmental-political-social goals, such as, for example, the public provision of social housing or of urban infrastructure and services that has a land component.   

Thus, a policy to promote the spatial inclusion of social housing IS, likely, a land policy, whereas a policy to mitigate climate risks through the electrification of an urban transit system (e.g., the electric train in San Jose, Costa Rica) is NOT likely a land policy. Though devising ways to finance said project through the social mobilization of its resulting land value increment IS likely a land policy. 

Martim Oscar Smolka, former LAC director at the Lincoln Institute
Visiting Professor, Urban Economics Master Program
Torcuato Di Tella University, Buenos Aires, Argentina 

Mac’s latest submission:

Land policy defines the relationship between people and place, dictating what we can do with, on, under, or above land. Land policies might be formal rules or customary practices. They delimit what resources we can extract from land through mineral or water rights or revenue that governments can harness through the collection of land and property taxes or direct expropriation. Land policies can be codified in national or state constitutions, local statutes, or legislative actions or they might be tacit agreements among citizens or members of Indigenous communities that are never written, but assiduously followed.

George McCarthy
Lincoln Institute
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Lead image: Devonyu via iStock/Getty Images Plus.