The best books about land use

9 authors have picked their favorite books about land use and why they recommend each book.

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Wilding

By Isabella Tree,

Book cover of Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm

This is the heart-warming and inspirational story of the author’s own rewilding project, on the Knepp estate in West Sussex, UK. I know Knepp well, since it is near to my home. For 20 years the author and her husband have allowed nature to run riot on their 3,500-acre estate. This book captures the magic of a visit to the project itself, a place where wildlife now thrives unchecked, purple emperor butterflies soar in the treetops, and nightingales can once more be heard singing.  


Who am I?

I have loved insects and other wildlife for all of my life. I am now a professor of Biology at the University of Sussex, UK, specializing in bee ecology. I have published more than 400 scientific articles on the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and other insects, plus seven books, including the Sunday Times bestsellers A Sting in the Tale (2013), The Garden Jungle (2019), and Silent Earth (2021). They’ve been translated into 20 languages and sold over half a million copies. I also founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006, a charity that has grown to 12,000 members. 


I wrote...

The Garden Jungle

By Dave Goulson,

Book cover of The Garden Jungle

What is my book about?

The Garden Jungle is a celebration of the wildlife that lives right under our noses, in our gardens and parks, between the gaps in the pavement, and in the soil beneath our feet. Dave Goulson gives us an insight into the fascinating and sometimes weird lives of these creatures, taking us burrowing into the compost heap, digging under the lawn, and diving into the garden pond. He explains how our lives and ultimately the fate of humankind are inextricably intertwined with that of earwigs, bees, lacewings, and hoverflies, unappreciated heroes of the natural world, and how we can all help to encourage biodiversity in our back yard.

Take Back the Land

By Max Rameau,

Book cover of Take Back the Land: Land, Gentrification & the Umoja Village Shantytown

The best book I’ve ever read about organizing. Max Rameau is a visionary organizer who, in the midst of the housing crisis of 2008, began seizing empty houses and helping homeless people move in. In this book, he goes into deep detail on a previous campaign to reclaim land and turn it into housing, explaining both the successes and failures, as well as the strategy and ideas behind the tactics. Read this to learn the fundamentals of how to plan, organize and win.


Who am I?

I produced dozens of hours of film and television, including for Al Jazeera’s Emmy, Peabody, and DuPont-award-winning program Faultlines; as well as short and long-form documentaries for Democracy Now and teleSUR, and reporting in The New York Times and Washington Post. I’ve written two books based on my journalism, No More Heroes: Grassroots Responses to the Savior Mentality and Floodlines: Community and Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six. I produced the independent feature film Chocolate Babies, which was recently added to the Criterion Collection. My latest film is Powerlands.


I wrote...

No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality

By Jordan Flaherty,

Book cover of No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality

What is my book about?

We are often told that nice white people are the solution...but what if we are the problem?

From the Crusades to Black Lives Matter, No More Heroes is a grassroots history of resistance to the savior mentality. This book weaves the stories of teachers, international volunteers, sex workers, FBI informants, indigenous organizers, and prison abolitionists into a narrative of revolutionary change that travels from Alaska to Palestine, from Karl Marx to Muhammad Ali, and from KONY 2012 to the Red Cross. Robin D. G. Kelley, the author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination calls it, “A perfect gift for the age of Trump.”

Zoned in the USA

By Sonia A. Hirt,

Book cover of Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation

Hirt’s title might make you think it is just about the United States, but her well-written book is one of the rare instances of an insightful comparison of zoning policies in the other high-income nations of the world. Zoning actually started in Germany in the late nineteenth century and was imported to the US at the beginning of the twentieth. It was seriously modified on our shores. Rather than orchestrating the orderly development of mixed-use neighborhoods, Americans isolated the single-family, owner-occupied house on a zoning pedestal that it rarely enjoys in other countries. 


Who am I?

When I studied urban economics at Princeton in the 1970s, theoretical models of urban form were all the rage. Political barriers to urban development such as zoning were dismissed as irrelevant. But as I read more about it, zoning appeared to be the foremost concern of both developers and community members. My service on the Hanover, New Hampshire zoning board made me appreciate why homeowners are so concerned about what happens in their neighborhood. NIMBYs—neighbors who cry “not in my backyard”—are not evil people; they are worried “homevoters” (owners who vote to protect their homes) who cannot diversify their oversized investment. Zoning reforms won’t succeed without addressing their anxieties. 


I wrote...

Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation

By William A. Fischel,

Book cover of Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation

What is my book about?

Zoning is the division of a city into separate uses such as residential, commercial, and industrial, and the regulation of each building’s size and location. It has been embraced by nearly every urban government for over a century, but Americans still think that it is mean old developers who cause urban sprawl and segregate our cities and suburbs. Zoning Rules! shows that the condition of our cities is very much the product of public land use regulation. My book explains how zoning works, why its politics is dominated by homeowners, and why it has recently pushed up housing costs. The books recommended here demonstrate that local land use regulation has enormous consequences for the environment, inequality, and economic growth. 

Land's End

By Tania Murray Li,

Book cover of Land's End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier

Tania Li shows the impacts of the capitalist process of a highland group’s attempts to adopt commodity production of cacao in central Sulawesi, building on her two decades of ethnographic research there. The book shows how, in this process, relations among people and with their environment change as the forest disappears and land ownership and wealth become more inequitable – not particularly pretty. It taught me how the Sulawesi situation differs from the Bornean situation I know so well.


Who am I?

I worked in Indonesia much of the time between 1979 and 2009, with people living in forests. As an anthropologist, my work was initially ethnographic in nature, later linking such insights to policies relating to forests and people – as I worked at the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor (1995 – the present). Although later in my career, I worked in forests all over the tropics, my real love remains with Indonesia, where I worked the longest and learned the most. My most recent research was in 2019, when I returned to the first community I studied ethnographically in 1979-80.


I wrote...

The Longhouse of the Tarsier: Changing Landscapes, Gender and Well Being in Borneo

By Carol J. Pierce Colfer,

Book cover of The Longhouse of the Tarsier: Changing Landscapes, Gender and Well Being in Borneo

What is my book about?

This book pulls together a series of articles about the Uma’ Jalan Kenyah Dayaks from Long Segar, East Kalimantan (Borneo). They are an ex-head-hunting group who have long adopted a peaceful way of life. This book explores aspects of their lives that intersect with the tropical rainforest, including agriculture, non timber forest product use, nutrition, time allocation, gender differences (women’s status, men’s migration), resettlement, fire and climate. An important and desirable aspect of their way of life has been the egalitarian way that men and women interact with each other. They also have much to teach us about living with and within tropical rainforests.

The Size of the Risk

By Leisl Carr Childers,

Book cover of The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin

I suspect most people see much of the Great Basin—and Nevada specifically—as empty, uninteresting, and boring in its geographic features and history. I confess that I’ve been guilty of this. But in Leisl Carr Childers’s hands, I learned to recognize how full, fascinating, and insightful this place can be. She takes a key management idea that pervades public lands management—multiple use—and demonstrates what it means when the public and their representatives call for one stretch of land to be used for grazing and recreation and wildlife habitat and bombing ranges and mining and, seemingly, new things under the sun almost continuously. With a fragile ecosystem and a fractious political environment, Nevada offers many lessons that can only be taught when a careful writer digs as deeply as Carr Childers has. We’re lucky she rescued this place from relative obscurity.


Who am I?

I started studying public lands by accident in the 1990s for a class project before I really knew what they even were. Since then, I've published hundreds of thousands of words about them, including my latest book Making America’s Public Lands where I’ve brought together much of what I’ve learned. I’m convinced the national forests, parks, rangelands, and refuges are among the most interesting and important experiments in democracy we have. I'm a writer, historian, and former college professor who now calls the Skagit Valley of Washington home. As much as I enjoy studying the public lands, I've appreciated hiking, sleeping, teaching, and noticing things in them even more.


I wrote...

Making America's Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands

By Adam M. Sowards,

Book cover of Making America's Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands

What is my book about?

The federal government controls roughly 640 million acres in national forests, parks, rangelands, and wildlife refuges. Managing these lands has been an ongoing—and noisy—experiment in democracy and conservation. Making America’s Public Lands tells this history from the earliest years of the nation to recent controversies, along the way providing guideposts and explanations to help us understand the public’s land. The book shows the increasingly complex task land managers have faced as the public demanded more and more from the lands, from timber and beef to inspiration and ecosystem services. Meanwhile, the politics of it all has become ever more complicated as a more diverse set of constituents demanded their rightful seat at the table. 

Crossing the Next Meridian

By Charles F. Wilkinson,

Book cover of Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West

This classic furnishes the best foundation for understanding land, water, and wildlife issues in the American West—and that necessarily means the public lands. Charles Wilkinson tacks from the past to the present, from law to history to ecology, effortlessly. What makes Crossing the Next Meridian so valuable is Wilkinson showing how nineteenth-century laws—the “lords of yesterday” in his apt phrasing—continued to guide the policy and politics around public lands and resources through the twentieth century. Packed with scholarship, legal reasoning, and on-the-ground reporting, Crossing the Next Meridian laid out clearly why the West I have lived in my whole life looks the way it does. Whenever I have a question about the history or law, this is my first stop. (I would love for him to issue an updated edition.)  


Who am I?

I started studying public lands by accident in the 1990s for a class project before I really knew what they even were. Since then, I've published hundreds of thousands of words about them, including my latest book Making America’s Public Lands where I’ve brought together much of what I’ve learned. I’m convinced the national forests, parks, rangelands, and refuges are among the most interesting and important experiments in democracy we have. I'm a writer, historian, and former college professor who now calls the Skagit Valley of Washington home. As much as I enjoy studying the public lands, I've appreciated hiking, sleeping, teaching, and noticing things in them even more.


I wrote...

Making America's Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands

By Adam M. Sowards,

Book cover of Making America's Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands

What is my book about?

The federal government controls roughly 640 million acres in national forests, parks, rangelands, and wildlife refuges. Managing these lands has been an ongoing—and noisy—experiment in democracy and conservation. Making America’s Public Lands tells this history from the earliest years of the nation to recent controversies, along the way providing guideposts and explanations to help us understand the public’s land. The book shows the increasingly complex task land managers have faced as the public demanded more and more from the lands, from timber and beef to inspiration and ecosystem services. Meanwhile, the politics of it all has become ever more complicated as a more diverse set of constituents demanded their rightful seat at the table. 

Struggle for Land in Southern Somalia

By Catherine Besteman (editor), Lee V. Cassanelli (editor),

Book cover of Struggle for Land in Southern Somalia: The War Behind the War

I read this original and outstanding book long before I decided to join academia. It was almost a year before I embarked on my undergrad years. It was a memorable time of my life, as an exile in a small town, a suburban of Brussels, Belgium, to grasp the real causes of the state failure in Somalia. The authors brilliantly presented painful empirical research findings on land grabbing they had collected a few years before the collapse of the military regime in Somalia in 1991 which navigated a new route in research findings on the post-state collapse in Somalia that allowed me to look differently at the Somali conflict.


Who am I?

I am a Somali scholar in the field of Somali Studies and African Studies, specialising in anthropology, history, and the politics of Somali society and state(s). I am recognised as an authority and expert on the historical and contemporary Somali conflicts in the Diaspora and back home. I am a Research Fellow at the Conflict Research Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where I am tasked to study the political economy of Mogadishu. I am also a visiting professor at the African Leadership Centre, King’s College London, where I deliver lectures about the genesis of the Cold War in the Horn of Africa and the Civil War in Somalia. 


I wrote...

The Suicidal State in Somalia: The Rise and Fall of the Siad Barre Regime, 1969-1991

By Mohamed Haji Ingiriis,

Book cover of The Suicidal State in Somalia: The Rise and Fall of the Siad Barre Regime, 1969-1991

What is my book about?

My book is a critical reposition of the study of military regimes in Africa. It documents and delves deeper into the reign and rule of General Mohamed Siad Barre regime in Somalia which ruled between 1969 and 1991. The book puts emphasis on African agencies evidently shaped by external beneficiaries and patrons over what went wrong with Africa after the much-awaited post-colonial momentum. It does so by critically engaging with the wider theoretical and conceptual frameworks in African Studies which more often than not tend to attribute the post-colonial African State raptures to colonialism and ‘late colonialism’.

Unparalleled in-depth and analysis, this book is the first full-length scholarly study of the Siad Barre regime systematically explaining the politics and process of the dictatorial rule. The historicity of exploring Somali State trajectory entails employing a Braudelian longue duree approach.

Imperial San Francisco

By Gray Brechin,

Book cover of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin

There are few books about San Francisco that have so successfully situated the City in a regional and geographic history, as well as naming the names of the wealthy elite that have managed to dominate local government, media, business, water sources, land, technological choices, and far-flung world markets. Starting with the early fortunes drawn from the rapacious destruction of nature and turned into valuable downtown real estate, and ending with the venal Regents who dominate the University of California and its shameful embrace of the nuclear war industry, this beautifully written book will forever shape your idea of San Francisco and the Bay Area.


Who am I?

I’ve lived in San Francisco since I was 20 in 1978. I helped launch Processed World in 1981, Critical Mass in 1992, and Shaping San Francisco in 1998. I’ve been co-directing and co-curating the archive at foundsf.org since 2009, and have been fully immersed for years in gathering and presenting local history online, on bike and walking tours, during Public Talks, and most recently on Bay Cruises. I have published three books of my own and edited or co-edited seven additional volumes, much of which covers local history. The more I’ve learned the more I’ve realized how little I know!


I wrote...

Hidden San Francisco: A Guide to Lost Landscapes, Unsung Heroes and Radical Histories

By Chris Carlsson,

Book cover of Hidden San Francisco: A Guide to Lost Landscapes, Unsung Heroes and Radical Histories

What is my book about?

In Hidden San Francisco Chris Carlsson peels back the layers of San Francisco’s history to reveal a storied past: behind old walls and gleaming glass facades lurk former industries, secret music and poetry venues, forgotten terrorist bombings, and much more. Carlsson delves into the Bay Area’s long prehistory as well, examining the region’s geography and the lives of its inhabitants before the 1849 Gold Rush changed everything, setting in motion the clash between capital and labor that shaped the modern city.

The definitive San Francisco ‘history from below’, Hidden San Francisco invites you to step out in the streets and use its self-guided walking and bike routes to immerse yourself in a history that is varied, contested, and still being written.

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