Land Use Law Center

Supervisor: John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor
Editors: Jessica Roberts, Jillian Aicher, Colt Watkiss[*]

The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change gravely threaten public health. Both call for a sharper focus on “sustainability,” a term given new meaning by these undeniable threats. A fear-based trend of people leaving cities has emerged as an initial response to the pandemic. If this trend continues, it could pose serious risks to low-carbon land use strategies recently adopted by densely populated urban communities and worsen already disproportionate public health harms in marginalized communities. Land use law can play an essential role in effectively addressing these issues and shaping a healthier, more prosperous future.

The Land Use Law Center’s Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project will make accessible effective land use tools for strengthening public health and environmental protections in urban communities in response to the pandemic. These strategies can contribute to communities’ healthy and resilient post-pandemic futures while also reinvigorating cities’ climate change management capabilities. Through a team of two dozen student researchers led by Professor Nolon, this project addresses climate change and COVID-19 by discovering local solutions.

The project will provide data on the pandemic’s effect, responding to questions such as: Who is fleeing? Where is urban flight occurring? To what degree?  What is the effect of this flight on municipal budgets and affordable housing? How does it affect small businesses, and how can they recover? What are the implications regarding evictions and displacement? And, and how can land use law protect residents, workers, and businesses?  Our reports will describe local land use solutions, garnered from case studies and reports, to show how localities are responding to the pandemic through land use planning and regulation. We will demonstrate how comprehensive plans, land use regulations, the review of development proposals, novel uses of public infrastructure, and other feasible strategies can protect public health, promote equity, and provide financial stability.

The project will demonstrate the importance of density in mitigating climate change and providing affordable housing and efficient transportation. It will search for environmental justice-centered land use solutions to pervasive health and environmental disparities stemming from racial inequities.

While the future of our post-pandemic world remains uncertain, one thing is clear: new energy and innovation are required to ensure that buildings and neighborhoods are safe for families, workers, and businesses. This is not a new idea, but these times make it imperative that officials, professionals, and advocates review, revise, and renew existing strategies to respond to what is clearly an existential threat.  As many wrestle with existential fear and uncertainty regarding climate change and public health in a post-pandemic future, the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project will offer concrete steps toward ensuring sustainable density, prosperous cities, and healthy communities.

[*] Jessica Roberts is a second year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Research Assistant to Professor Nolon.
Jillian Aicher is a second year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Research Assistant to Professor Nolon.
Colt Watkiss is a first year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Land Use Law Center Volunteer.