A New Land Contract
A proposal for a new form of land ownership, based on root-cause analysis to identify the underlying systemic causes of housing inequality, and reimagine the fundamental functions of property within economy


The ways in which people own land are at the root of the financialisation of space through speculation: the ability to make money just through the ownership of chunks of space, without even doing anything with it. Land ownership entrenches existing race- and gender-based inequality by creating a class of owners who have the legal rights to extract rent from tenants in return for the use of “their” land. A land owner doesn’t have to contribute to the processes that raise the value of his1Globally, men own far much more land than women. See Duncan Green, ‘Killer factcheck: “Women own 2% of land” = not true. What do we really know about women and land?’, From Poverty to Power, 21 March 2014 <https://frompoverty.oxfam.org.uk/killer-factcheck-women-own-2-of-land-not-true-what-do-we-really-know-about-women-and-land/> [accessed 8 February 2023]. land, he simply profits from “our investment into infrastructure, and by the activity of the community, and our collective consent for development”.2Alastair Parvin, ‘A New Land Contract’, Open Systems Lab, 21 June 2020 <https://alastairparvin.medium.com/a-new-land-contract-684c3ba1f1b3> [accessed 7 February 2023].

What gets lost in this arrangement is not only social justice, but the actual material properties of land: it becomes a fungible asset, a balance on paper, and exists in the capital world rather than the material one. In the world of capital there are no planetary boundaries: values rise, land churns, and the minor relative value of buildings compared to the land they sit on—as a proportion of the entire property value—encourages demolition and rebuilding. Land as pure commodity lifts it out of any connection with ecological systems, and so the occurring exchanges of land are blind to the impact on planetary boundaries. 


“Fairhold” is an early-stage proposal (a white paper is due in 2023) for a new form of land ownership, authored by Open Systems Lab (OSL)—a design and research office concerned with the underlying systems infrastructure of the built environment. OSL argues that the unjust and exploitative means with which we regulate land through ownership are at the very root of climate breakdown. Therefore, the only way to begin to deal with climate breakdown in the context of spatial practice is to redesign the way in which we hold land. 

“There is no path to a prosperous, zero-carbon future for humanity that does not begin with fixing our property system.”3‘Projects’, Open Systems Lab <https://www.opensystemslab.io/projects> [accessed 7 February 2023].

The starting point for Fairhold, then, is the idea that land is an asset that should be held in common, for the benefit of all. It is therefore designed to prevent land speculation. The proposal—which follows other forms of ownership such as community land trusts and mutual home ownership—puts forward a model of stewardship in place of ownership, whereby land holders have a wider set of financial, social, and ecological responsibilities to existing and future communities. It is transitional rather than revolutionary, in that it acknowledges the degree to which the British economy is built on land ownership, and therefore the unlikelihood, and risks, of such a rapid change in the way we hold property. The proposal would initially see public authorities buy back land and lease it under a set of conditions, and for a fair rent, to people and organisations. Eventually, Fairhold project aims to “create an open source, modular family of template lease agreements that any landowner can use to make land available as a low-cost platform for the community, local economy and environment”.3 

Fairhold assumes that we can’t change our built environment without first changing the underlying systems that determine it. This way of working—common to OSL’s sibling companies Dark Matter Labs and Architecture 00—relies on a form of analysis that involves looking at societal problems in terms of underlying root-causes, in this case land. By doing so, OSL avoids focussing merely on the symptoms of climate breakdown, and both reveals and targets the systemic causes of interconnected crises of land, housing, and climate.


External links

The Atlas of Ownershipanother of OSLs projects, maps established forms of property ownership across the world, as well as innovative alternatives (see also Alastair Parvin, To redesign ownership, we need a map., Open Systems Lab, 15 May 2023 <https://medium.com/open-systems-lab/to-redesign-ownership-we-need-a-map-e9c1f6c41546> [accessed 25 October 2023])