Jameela: Hi, I’m Jameela Hammond, the host and one of the reporters of Plot of Land.
Over the course of ten episodes, I’m joining our team of five reporters throughout the U.S. as we pull back the curtain to look at how our history with land has shaped every aspect of our lives. How exactly did we get to this moment in time? In Plot of Land we’ll break down how race, class, and power have been used to build and maintain unfair systems that determine how land is used. These systems harm nearly everyone, and create so many inequities that they might seem normal, unavoidable, or even natural. But these are the products of deliberate choices made by real people. It's time to reckon with these decisions. It’s time to understand this history so we can help build a just future for everybody. This is a Monument Lab production with funding from the Ford Foundation and music by Blue Dot Sessions.
I'm Jameela Hammond and this is Plot of Land.
Before we get into our first story, I want to introduce our team of reporters. For more than a year now we’ve been digging into these stories, trying to understand the impact that our land use and housing policies have had, and are having, on real people. It’s a very particular type of work, so we knew we needed to bring together some of the best journalists. Journalists like Katherine Nagasawa, or Kat as she’s known. In Episodes 4 and 5, Kat’s going to take us to Oklahoma, to a historically Black town, to spend time with a family of ranchers as they reckon with the land deeply rooted in nearly 200 years of racial hierarchy. Jones: Now the trunk over there that is the trunk that my grandmother brought over on the Trail of Tears. But…to me, it wasn’t a Trail of Tears. This is what the Native American called it. I call it a Trail of Blood. Because it was bloodshed all the way on the trail and there was bloodshed here after we got to Oklahoma. And this is the end of the trail and the story never been told.
Hammond: We’ll also hear from Kat in our tenth and final episode as she helps us think through what reparations and a more just future could look like. But Kat, you’ve been a journalist for a while now—can you share a little bit about what first got you interested in these stories?
Kat: Yeah, I’m really interested in understanding the forces that have shaped the land that we live on today. I think this stems from my time in Chicago working as a producer for a show called Curious City, which invites the public to send in questions about Chicago and the region and then our team would report out the answers. During my time working for the show, I noticed that a lot of the questions we received might seem on the surface level to be about odd details or observations about particular communities or neighborhoods – but digging deeper were actually related to historical forces like racial segregation, redlining, urban renewal, and other policies related to land and housing. I’m interested in storytelling that connects these histories with today’s cities and landscapes to better understand how these places got to be that way. I’m also interested in efforts to repair historic harms related to land – what those repair efforts look like, and also what stands in the way of full repair and healing.
Hammond: Joining Kat in Oklahoma is journalist and writer Anya Groner. Anya’s based in New Orleans, and later in Plot of Land you’ll hear from her in Episodes 8 and 9, as she spends time with a Black documentarian uncovering her family’s history on a piece of land in rural Louisiana. Family land that’s increasingly threatened by some of the largest petrochemical companies on earth.
Miller: It's about survival. It's about surviving slavery. It's about surviving Jim Crow. It's about surviving sharecropping. And it's about keeping a legacy and surviving everything being thrown at this family, even in 2022. It's about survival.
Hammond: Anya is also my co-reporter in our next episode, Episode 2, on land speculation. But Anya, we’ve been reporting for this podcast for more than a year now—how has this journey changed the way you see land?
Groner: It’s changed everything. Really, working on this podcast has been transformative. When I began reporting on Jonesland, in southeast Louisiana, I saw firsthand how land can be an extension of family, that a family who nurtures what land they have can be fed and housed and even protected from harm by those very same acres. In so many ways, our relationship to land is a mirror for our values, for how we treat each other. Power, community, capital, environmentalism–or the lack of it–are all articulated through what we do with and to land. What would this nation look like if we were stewards of the land instead of property owners, if our resources were shared and replenished, if we honored generational ties to place?
Hammond: And then we’ve got our sound engineer, our sonic maestro extraordinaire Mark Nieto. Raised in Long Beach, California, in many ways, Mark has pretty much been following this story his whole life. Shortly before he was born, his family survived a horrible explosion.
Casillas: I remember hearing the stories that it was like a valve that didn't get caught and that it had already ruptured once and then they repaired it and then it, you know, this was the second thing that, you know, caused, basically taking everything away from us. And I remember mad thinking like, those big oil people don't care about us.
Hammond: Mark this is so personal. I mean that’s your aunt Jackie we just heard from. How did you approach telling such an intimate story?
Mark: Well, it started with a desire to learn more about my family’s history. Most people would probably revisit their old photo albums but I had to go a different route. I had to go through government archives and track down an accident report for what was one of the worst days in the lives of my family and their neighbors - the day that the petroleum pipeline exploded next to their homes. Even though it was difficult for all of us to revisit that terrible day, getting to sit down with them and to hear their stories it showed me what resilience really means and how you could still have love for your hometown even when it threatens to take everything from you.
Hammond: In Episodes 6 and 7 you’ll hear from Melissa Fundira, a phenomenal journalist who brings us an incredible story from Roosevelt Island in New York City. There, Melissa investigates how a successful social housing experiment faced government disinvestment and is now feeling the demands of one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. What used to be an open and inviting community, Melissa finds, is turning into a series of gates and not-so-subtle messages.
Orraca: A gate like that the only purpose is to keep people out…That's a sign of what we are now and also what's to come. One fence develops other fences. What would the harm be in not having that fence, in sharing that playground with people across the street or down the block? Not only is there no harm, but it's good. You're building community, you're having children meet each other and parents meet each other and connections that are made…We're going towards greed and siloism. You know, this is mine. I bought in here. This is what I own. And you don't own that.
Hammond: Melissa’s one of the editors on Plot of Land as well. But Melissa, this story in New York—it’s actually pretty personal too, right? You grew up there. What was it like going back and reporting this story?
Fundira: Honestly, I’ve always felt like Roosevelt Island was one of New York City’s best kept secrets. It was a dreamy place to grow up. It was safe, filled with green spaces, surrounded by water, and incredibly diverse. So when my family moved there from central Africa, I just remember feeling at home right away! And as I got older and became interested in urban policy, I started to realize that all the things I loved about Roosevelt Island were by design! And I truly believe that some of what we’re trying to solve around housing in this country – genuine affordability, mixed communities – that some of those answers lie in this 2-mile long island in the middle of the East River. But as you’ll hear, the story of Roosevelt Island is also about how this all depends on political will, and how our privatized housing market can jeopardize even the most successful housing project.
Hammond: And last but certainly not least is reporter Irina Zhorov…
Zhorov: Jameela, I’ve got to interrupt you real quick, because we want to know about you, too. What got you interested in this podcast?
Hammond: Well, I have a bit of background working in affordable housing, but when I went to grad school, my eyes opened to the systemic injustices that impact marginalized communities, from freeway placement to eminent domain. There are marginalized communities that will never know about the land their family once owned.
But okay, back to Irina. Based in Alabama, Irina reported our very first story that you’re going to hear in just a minute, the story that’s going to ground us—are you ready for this, on virtual land. Irina, why do we want to know more about virtual land?
Zhorov: Virtual land is kind of a game…an expensive game…where land has been reduced into this 2-D crude commodity. But of course games are often embedded with society’s values - just think of the way kids play house, or what Monopoly has to say about our economic system. I thought looking at the simplified version of virtual land could help reveal some deep truths about land in the real world.
[music transition into Zhorov’s virtual land story…]
VIRTUAL LAND STORY
Zhorov: Okay. So tell me, how do I get here?
Mike Borden: Yeah. So the address is -135, 25, -135, +25.
Zhorov: Sorry, -135, 25? Okay here I am.
Borden: Yeah. Let's see. I've noticed that sometimes. Usually I can see other people when they show up to the property. But sometimes I can't.
Zhorov: I'm teleporting.
Borden: Very good. Very good.
Zhorov: Okay. So I'm inside. There’s some art on the wall. I like this pink table.
Borden: You found the table! Let's see, the fire table?
Zhorov: I’m trying to click…I feel like my toddler, I'm, like, drunkenly stumbling about in here without quite getting to where I need.
Hammond: That’s Irina again. She’s in a virtual world with Mike Borden, a 36-year old engineer in San Francisco. He owns his apartment there. But it comes with homeowners rules, restrictions on what he can and can’t do with the property. So one day he got to thinking, maybe virtual worlds, or metaverses as they’re called, could offer a freer, more creative space for him. And he started looking into one in particular called Decentraland.
Borden: Like for me, I can't hang Christmas lights on my patio, but in Decentraland I can build anything I want. I could build a floating house. I could build a house made of clouds - like I could do anything in that world. And so I think it will become a bit of an outlet, a creative outlet for people and a space where people will want to spend time.
Hammond: A creative outlet? Totally. But through virtual land we can also see things about how we treat physical land. We take so many things about our relationship with land for granted: how we use it, and who has access to it, how that access is supported or restricted. Looking at virtual land can be a lens. Here are worlds literally created from scratch, blank canvases that can help us see ourselves for who we really are. Here’s Irina…
[Decentraland music transitions to next segment]
Zhorov: I start out in Decentraland’s Genesis Plaza. There are some lost-looking avatars wandering around. The world is on a grid, so addresses are just coordinates, and you can beam between them. I’m there to check out Mike’s virtual furniture store, where he sells furniture that looks cool, but...
Zhorov: Can I sit down on this couch?
Borden: No, no. So that's sort of the irony of this whole thing, is that at least right now, there is no way to sit in Decentraland. So it's the irony of building furniture for a bunch of avatars that can't sit. I get it. It's kind of ridiculous.
Zhorov: His foray into Decentraland started around Thanksgiving 2021, when Mike got COVID.
Borden: And basically had to cancel all of my social plans. So, was going to be spending the next ten days in full quarantine, not leaving the apartment.
Zhorov: Isolated, he started catching up on things he normally didn’t make the time for. And he stumbled on an article about real estate in the metaverse. The metaverse, both the word and concept, comes from a 1992 science fiction novel called Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. In the book, Stephenson imagines a virtual world. He pictures it as a long street people can stroll, interacting with stores, engaging in entertainment. The metaverse, as he called it, though not exactly utopian, was an escape from a grim reality.
Today’s metaverses aren’t too far off from the 1992 fictional conception of a virtual world, designed for people to socialize and experience escape in entertaining ways. Within days of reading that digital real estate article, Mike Borden decided to purchase a piece of virtual property himself. Decentraland has 90-thousand parcels - it could have been more, but developers capped it, in an attempt to make virtual property more attractive to potential buyers
Borden: There’s this element of scarcity that is kind of the same in real real estate in the world of, you know, there's only one property that exists in that physical space. Same deal with these digital worlds. There's only one property that can exist on any square on this map in Decentraland.
Zhorov: Mike was studious about picking out his property.
Borden: Location, location, location. So the mantra of real real estate is pick a spot where it's a good location, where you have grocery stores, restaurants, things that interest you nearby, parks, there's no replacement for location. And so I sort of took the same mentality when picking a plot of land in Decentraland.
Zhorov: He zeroed in on a few developed districts — the so-called Fashion District, a Virtual Reality District, and an adult content district. The area would be busy, he figured, and desirable. And then he just started walking around in-world.
Borden: And I actually found a property that had a For Sale sign on the front and it was like you could click on the For Sale sign, it brought you to a chat to Discord. And I could talk to the guy real time and kind of negotiate a little bit and it was really very seamless.
Zhorov: He had to pay for it in MANA, the in-world currency. But it was real money, dollars, that he’d converted into MANA. In real money, the virtual plot of land cost him 27-thousand dollars. 27-thousand dollars for a digital piece of land that he initially had no idea what he could do with.
Borden: When I bought it, it was pure hype, really. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. But this sounds cool and like I don’t want to miss this boat.
Zhorov: Like in the physical world, everything in Decentraland is built on a digital approximation of land. If you want to build something in Decentraland, a furniture store say, or a concert venue, you need land. You can rent it, or you can buy it…and for a while it was going for really exorbitant sums…like tens of thousands of dollars for one parcel.
Borden: Buying a plot of land in one of these platforms could be like buying, you know, a storefront in Manhattan back in 1910 or something like that…this is really kind of Wild West days in these metaverses. And it's a world that has not been built out, but at its best, this could be an incredible asset to own down the road.
Zhorov: In other words, Mike Borden thought it was a good investment. And he’s not alone. According to one report, more than 500 million dollars worth of digital real estate was transacted in 2021, and prices soared as much as 500-percent. The more I learned about this phenomenon—the digital land scarcity, the inflated and skyrocketing costs, the incessant demand—the more I thought, this is really crazy. But then I thought, oh wait, this is actually just like land speculation in the real world.
Borden: We're sort of walking into another scenario where there's the haves and have nots as it relates to land, because land is very expensive now, you know, I bought that property for $27,000, that's pretty darn expensive…we may be walking into kind of building the same scenario where scarcity has inflated the prices so much that it's left huge swaths of the population out of it. So that to me is an unfortunate similarity between the two.
Zhorov: And this is why we’re looking at virtual land. I want to understand how our real world land systems were born, how certain ideas around land have become so entrenched in much of the U.S. that we can’t seem to imagine our way out, even in a virtual world made from scratch. There’s already a landlord class in virtual spaces. There’s already a system that encourages private ownership with little oversight and widespread speculation. And in Decentraland there’s already a weighted voting system, where a virtual landowners’ vote counts for more than someone who doesn’t own land. All of this sounds way too familiar.
Borden: I don't have a solution to that problem. I don't know how to get around that problem. And maybe this is a problem with the way that we as humans think is that we're Hey, this worked before. Let's do it again. There probably is some other way to distribute ownership. But man, I don't have the answer. I don't know how you build that platform.
Zhorov: Louis Rosenberg has been working in and around virtual reality for decades. These days he’s also the chief scientist at the Responsible Metaverse Alliance, a group focused on ethical and fair practices within the metaverse. Rosenberg said a lot of developers start out aspiring to egalitarian ideals, with visions of less concentrated wealth and power. But these aspirations fall short. He said they don't even question something as basic as land ownership.
Louis Rosenberg: Land ownership is…not necessarily inherent to a functioning society. It's a cultural choice. You know where I live in California, if you go back just a few hundred years, the people who lived here had no notion of land ownership, and so it's a relatively new concept, for all the land that I can see. And yet these metaverse worlds before they have, before they have a user base, before they have any real types of commerce, before they have even a sense of what people are going to do in these metaverse worlds, the very first thing a lot of these platforms are doing is selling land.
Zhorov: Louis Rosenberg said he’s a big believer in the metaverse’s utopian potential, and that it can be used to create spaces for good. He thinks what’s currently unfolding—this replication of the physical world—is owed to a lack of creative thinking by the developers.
Zhorov: But Alexander Cho said maybe there’s something else fueling this lack of innovation.
Alexander Cho: When you follow the money, especially in the United States, you follow it back to land. And that is totally unequal in our history.
Zhorov: Alexander Cho is a digital media anthropologist who teaches in the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California - Santa Barbara.
Cho: You basically have to follow the receipts. This is what I tell my students. At the end of the day, it's all about protecting wealth and assets.
Zhorov: A lot of the metaverses have investors, people with deep pockets who’ve likely benefited from land ownership. And developers themselves tend to be paid very well, too. Alexander Cho said it makes sense that they would create virtual copies of the real world systems that have benefited people like them.
Cho: So I would suspect that if they are constructing these metaverse spaces to mimic and mirror physical land, and if the same people who are in charge of capital in the real world, are the ones who are setting up this virtual world, it's not a huge stretch to imagine that absent any kind of real activist intention, intervention, in the ways that resources are distributed, if we just keep the machine going, it’s probably going to reproduce some of that inequality.
Zhorov: So Louis Rosenberg thinks metaverse developers aren’t working hard enough to come up with creative, more equitable worlds. And Alexander Cho thinks they’re not motivated to think differently because these worlds are working out just fine for them. But either way, these worlds are copying existing systems that have been normalized in the physical world. Things like private ownership and speculation…In the metaverse, these things seem…strange, almost counter-intuitive. Which made me wonder: are they any less strange in the physical world? How did we end up with these systems anyway?
Zhorov: Historian Allan Greer is the author of Property and Dispossession; Natives, Empires and Land in Early Modern North America. He says that before there was a country called the United States, land here was occupied by hundreds of different tribes.
Allan Greer: So across North America, across the parts that become the United States, there's just an infinite range of arrangements.
Zhorov: Tribal land practices varied widely across North America, says Allan Greer. For instance, in the Great Plains, tribes often followed large game across vast stretches of territory.
Greer: Territory is defined in complicated ways because people are moving about and, you know, it's pointless to claim as property a particular spot because what you're interested in is the migratory animals as opposed to a particular place in the ground.
Zhorov: In places like the eastern woodlands on the other hand, or like contemporary New England and around the Chesapeake Bay, people combined agriculture with fishing and hunting.
Greer: They had tracts, clearings around villages where people grew their crops. And that was usually under the control of specified families, mostly in the northern part of what's now the eastern U.S. Mostly female descent lineages. So, families defined by women who had control over these plots in communal fields and had some degree of control over the crops that were produced.
Zhorov: Around these villages might be a forest where people would hunt and gather other resources.
Greer: A different kind of property regime applied in those areas where in most cases a family or an individual would have control over usually a waterway and the associated territory coming around it and, you know, had a fairly exclusive right to the animals that passed through there.
Zhorov: There were myriad other arrangements, too, across tribes, geographies, ecologies, and time. But one thing was distinctly not there: the commodification of land.
Greer: Alienation or commodification, that is to say, land is not a product that can be exchanged for other products. Families and individuals and tribes can have control over a territory and its resources. They can, in some cases, conquer other territories from other people, but they can't buy and sell it.
Zhorov: At the same time, across the Atlantic, in England and Europe, land use was also layered with different types of relationships.
Greer: So the community would have different kinds of lands. They would have individualized portions for growing crops, and it would have collective areas that were mostly for shared, not only grazing of animals, but, collecting firewood and reeds and various other products that were needed. So part of it was individualized and part of it was shared.
Zhorov: But increasingly, Allan Greer says, land was becoming understood as something that could be owned, bought, sold and transferred. During the 16th century — at roughly the same time as North America’s colonization — Europe’s old agrarian structure began to change. From a world where the lives of peasants or serfs were inextricably tied to the land, emerged a new one where people could earn wages for that work, and could even purchase the land. Land was becoming capital and that meant much more concrete notions of absolute private ownership. English colonists brought these fledgling ideas of land ownership with them, along with the idea that, in what became the U.S., land was theirs for the taking.
Greer: They came with the notion that the Indigenous people had no legitimate claim to the land and they could therefore occupy it insofar as they had the, you know, the power to do so.
Zhorov: When the people they encountered resisted these land grabs, the English tried buying the land. But buying something, of course, assumes that somebody else thinks they own it.
Greer: Exactly. It's totally contradictory, in fact.
Zhorov: Still the English pushed on.
Greer: So we have records of in New England they would call “Indian deeds” as agreements by which, legally and formally Indigenous people ceded the rights to a given territory in consideration of some kind of payment of various goods. The problem there is it all was based on a huge fiction that pretended that the land was for sale.
Zhorov: It wasn’t. Or at least, it wasn’t in the way we imagine something being for sale.
Greer: We have these ceremonies of negotiation between Puritan colonizers and Wampanoag or Narragansett, Indigenous people, where they sit down and have an agreement and the English give axes and blankets and other valuable presents to the Indigenous people. And they say, okay. And from the Indigenous people's point of view, this is a kind of agreement that we will live in peace and that we will allow you to live amongst us. From the English point of view, this was a real estate transaction.
Zhorov: Which is not to imply that it was somehow any more civil than a physically violent seizing of land.
Greer: The boundary between that kind of direct violent appropriation and appropriation through sale is a little shadowy because so many of the sales were fraudulent. And again, when the Indigenous people objected, had to be settled by violence.
Zhorov: K-Sue Park teaches law at Georgetown University Law Center and for more than a decade she’s been studying the formation of U.S. property law. In particular, she looks at conquest and enslavement — two foundational pieces often erased from our popular understanding of how American property law was created. Like Allan Greer, she says yes, the English brought over some of their ideas…but those ideas evolved here. With ongoing land conquests and the enslavement of people, a uniquely American system of land commodification emerged.
K-Sue Park: I mean, this is a very different political order and the institutions adapted to be different, to respond to these dramatically different circumstances on the ground. How could they not?
Zhorov: K-Sue Park says various tools appeared: a comprehensive survey system, a centralized title registry, and easy foreclosure. Each of these means of control helped establish land as, primarily, a commodity and a form of capital. Take the survey system—where British colonists ignored centuries of Native land use, and, for the first time, divided land into mapped parcels. This made the natural world more impersonal. You could measure and quantify land on a map, you could own and transfer it more easily.
Park: Scholars have written about how that description has changed over time, obviously it's really different to describe the bounds of land from like rivers and oak trees to lot and tract numbers on a survey system. Because there was no survey system.
Zhorov: So now, tracts of land could be easily identified, and sold off. But how could people prove their ownership?
Park: The deed. We use deeds. They use deeds in England. At first glance, it's easy to say this is just a continuation of English law…
Zhorov: In England, to make the transfer of land official, a buyer needed to perform an elaborate, time-consuming, public ceremony. But in America, a paper copy of the deed was good enough. It made property transfers self-executing, which made it possible for more transfers to happen, more quickly.
Park: Very fast, very easily. Invisibly. So interests in land are changing all the time now, but that's just not something that was the case in England. It makes it clerical. Which is how a lot of land transfers and the creation of capital happens now on the real estate market.
Zhorov: Deeds were stored in a public registry, where anyone could look up who owned what property. They could see what liens were on it, that sort of thing. K-Sue Park says people could use their property’s listing in the registry to secure loans. See, early colonial America had been floated by investors on credit. But colonists often couldn’t pay back those loans. This left investors hesitant. Still, the colonists needed capital. The registry created a public paper trail, which meant any debt that was unpaid could be collected on. Easy foreclosure. Just as land could be sold or given, so too could it be taken. The security of the registry and all it brought made investors open their pockets once more.
Park: So this is what ultimately gets sacrificed when you make easy foreclosure the rule across the board, Individuals, families, property owners are going to carry more risk, are going to face more devastation. But…the overall amount of money that's going to flow into the colonies is going to be so much exponentially greater that everyone's going to be better off. So you have people becoming immiserated in a way that they've never been before. And you also have an economy that goes through a boom.
Zhorov: Money started to pour into the colonies…for land, and for what was also legally held as property, for enslaved people. And it perpetuated a vicious cycle.
Park: Which meant making money flow in to buy more enslaved people, to pursue more land speculation, which meant more land expropriation, which meant more destruction of tribal nations. In a very real way, these systems fueled that process of expansion, fueled that process of destruction from another perspective, and grew colonial jurisdictions over the course of the 18th century to make them strong enough to feel like they could take on the Revolutionary War.
Zhorov: The Revolutionary War. Allan Greer said it’s around this time that people like Thomas Jefferson began loudly suggesting that property rights were paramount in America.
Greer: He says property rights are individual and absolute, and it's part of the freedom of America to enjoy these rights. Like, if I own this land, I own it and I'm not beholden to anyone else.
Zhorov: This idea had been building with each acre of land seized from tribes, with each tract that enslaved people were forced to work. But in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, England wanted to slow colonial expansion west of the Appalachian mountains, because the presence of settlers often led to expensive wars with tribes in those lands.
Greer: Many American land speculators, including Jefferson himself, objected to that and thought they had a natural right to appropriate land and to own it fully and without reference to a superior authority.
Zhorov: And that right to take land was inextricably connected to what they saw as their right to profit off that land. In part, the United States was born when a group of powerful white men saw that their ability to make money from land speculation was being threatened.
Greer: So that becomes a kind of Republican ideal that permanently marks American history from then on.
Zhorov: K-Sue Park says this is not the popular story that’s usually told of America’s founding, but it has dramatically far reaching impacts still today.
Park: The goal is expansion, is profit making. That's what the colonial enterprise is. There's no real sugar coating that. But, that society has grown this one, where we have a lot of different people who are trying to live. And my point is that this rule still holds. Right? These rules that were developed for a time of get in, get out, quick, make as much as you can in a lot of cases, or just accumulate property beyond anyone's wildest imaginations in England. And then do with it what you can to make as much money off of it as you can. The rules that were developed for that world are still the ones that do govern people's homes.
Zhorov: These are the same rules that today allow some people to keep a home while others lose theirs. The same rules that dictate a community’s ability to grow and thrive, or…not.
Park: If we don't have rules that provide for everyone, it's because no one ever made rules that provide for everyone. You know, it's not that complicated.
Zhorov: Instead, K-Sue Park says, our popular narratives assert that property is happenstance, its possession neutral, something, ostensibly, that anyone can do. It’s yours for the taking. This is the same rhetoric that’s emerged around the metaverse: this world is for everyone, it’s decentralized, accessible, democratic… But is it?
I ask K-Sue Park and Allan Greer what they make of the metaverse and its virtual land. They’re not very familiar with it, so I explain the basics: who’s developing it, and how they’ve set it up. K-Sue Park says, yeah, that makes sense. Like Alexander Cho, she says that if the developers are people who’ve traditionally benefited from our current physical property laws, why would they create anything different for virtual land? Allan Greer, however, is more incensed. He says the metaverse sounds like a culmination of an abstraction: first the natural physical world was made into a commodity and now that commodity has gone virtual.
Zhorov: Does it surprise you?
Greer: As someone who's immersed in trying to understand a long ago, uh, you know, version of relations between people and their environment, it does shock me, frankly, and repels me, I have to say personally. But, as soon as you mention it, it doesn't seem all that surprising. It seems like the logical culmination of historic tendencies…to their point of absurdity.
Zhorov: Some people and virtual world builders are pushing back — not, perhaps, at the absurdity, but at the lack of access. There are projects now that pool resources in order to acquire land, functioning effectively like cooperatives. And some developers are thinking about restricting land purchases, so speculators don’t buy every available property. One world has even set its own prices on land, so values can’t balloon from speculators - though that doesn’t necessarily mean property is affordable, either.
Some users are trying to think outside of traditional systems too, layering hidden spaces onto plots of land so the parcels open up into infinitely large spaces. But these workarounds are just that, and Alexander Cho says worlds striving for fairer playing grounds need to go a step further.
Cho: Show me the metaverse world or platform that has baked into its charter the fact that it will be equitable, the fact that it will distribute resources equitably and will have a commitment to racial justice built into the way that it distributes its land - do you any of them have that? I'm not sure, do you know actually? Because absent that I don't think that the momentum is going to lean that way.
Zhorov: A lot of hype around the metaverse stems from when Facebook - now named Meta - started investing in their own version of the metaverse. But actually, virtual, multiplayer, open access games - early versions of the metaverse - have been around for a while. Lars Doucet played them as a kid.
Lars Doucet: My name is Lars Andreas Doucet. I'm the co-founder of a company called Level Up Labs.
Zhorov: Lars Doucet studied architecture and computer graphics and ultimately became a video game designer and consultant. But he’s got a deep background in land policy and economics as well, and even wrote a book called Land is a Big Deal. So he’s perhaps uniquely qualified to think through how virtual worlds are treating land.
Doucet: I started noticing a trend…where massively multiplayer online games would have housing crises. And I thought that was such a strange thing that you could have such a specific kind of economic problem from the real world happening in virtual worlds.
Zhorov: Basically, he says, people would buy up all the prime land, but not necessarily use it. This made it so other players couldn’t buy in, and the game would just kind of stagnate. Sometimes, land-owning users would sell their virtual property on a black market, like Ebay for example. In other words, land speculation. From a gaming perspective, this stagnation was, well, pretty boring. But as someone interested in land policy, and particularly as someone who sees the hoarding of land as the root of vast inequalities, Lars Doucet sees virtual land as a fascinating problem. He says nobody sat down and designed a virtual space, thinking, I’d really like this world to experience a housing crisis, and yet…
Doucet: Yet by building in assumptions based off of — trying to design an asset class that functions like one in the real world and you reproduce its problems, it kind of tells us something about those problems in the real world.
Zhorov: He’s always thinking about real world problems too. And for Lars, things like real world speculation, land hoarding, and the inequities that result, could be tempered with a hefty land tax. The tax would apply to just the land, not the things on it, like a house, an apartment building, or a factory.
Speculators will often buy a piece of land and just sit on it—they won’t develop it at all. They’ll just bide their time, waiting for the value of the land to go up. A tax on just the land, like Lars suggests, would mean that a vacant parcel is taxed at the same rate as a parcel with an apartment building on it. The idea is that landowners would be more likely to either sell the land to someone else….or build an apartment building, because while, yes, they’d be getting taxed on the land underneath that building, the apartments themselves would bring in money. Whereas a piece of land with no apartments on it would just incur the tax with no profits. The hope, Lars says, is to tamp down on speculation.
But before land is taxed you have to know what it’s really worth. And as simple as that sounds….in the U.S. property tax assessments vary widely from place to place. They’re political, and often contested, especially by those in power and with means. Lars wants to fix that.
Doucet: I'm now moving towards joining a startup that does property taxes assessments…leaving the boring world of video games for the exciting, thrill-seeking world of municipal property tax assessment. Because I think it's a way to kind of achieve these ideas in practice.
Zhorov: Maybe, one day, he’ll return to the metaverse…to do property tax assessment on digital land.
Doucet: I think the big thing is that if you're trying to make a metaverse where people can just be as creative and playful as they want, you need to not create a world with all the same problems that we already have. And I think the takeaway from that is that if we remove the burdens from the real world that we've recreated in the metaverse, we can make the real world as creative and productive and playful as the most successful metaverses that don't have those shackles.
Hammond: Join us next time on Plot of Land as we dive deeper into our real world, and take a close look at how private equity, a lack of tenant rights, and land speculation have contributed to our housing crisis. Next time on Plot of Land.
Plot of Land is a Monument Lab production with funding from the Ford Foundation and music by Blue Dot Sessions. And please—share these stories—and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Jameela Hammond and thank you for listening to Plot of Land.