Legal geography is now well enough established as a sub-discipline to be the subject of numerous edited collections and progress reviews: it also provides the basis of a vibrant AAG specialty group that organises regular and well-attended conference sessions. But as yet, geographers’ interest in legal matters has not obtained the critical mass necessary to justify the formation of a specialist journal, with those lawyers and legal specialists interested in the role of law in resolving environmental and planning disputes mainly shunning geography to publish in law journals focused on ‘black letter’ law and statute.
This noted, Urban Geography has been perhaps the most significant outlet for debates in legal geography since the 1990s, a decade that kicked off with a pair of special issues that set out the basis of a critical, non-positivist conception of law as a significant force in the production of urban space. Showing how the law is implicated in the making of ‘urban orderliness’, a rich variety of work followed in the pages of the journal that explored how legal notions of property, privacy and territoriality were invoked in different contexts to shape patterns of urban land use. Though mainly drawn from the heavily-juridified context of North American cities, case studies of the way ‘municipal’ law determines the appropriate location of hazardous or ‘socially undesirable’ facilities added an important dimension to existing accounts of NIMBY and class-based conflict in the city. Moreover, this work suggested that the ‘planning’ of the capitalist city involves a bewildering range of legal techniques – e.g. zoning ordinances, the licensing of land use, environmental health regulation, the enforcement of city by-laws – which combine to produce particular outcomes. Usually, though not inevitably, these reinforce the interests of the powerful and wealthy, and encourage processes of real estate speculation, gentrification and displacement: in US cities they also encourage pernicious processes of environmental racism.
Inevitably, urban legal research has engaged with emerging questions of ‘rights to the city’. Indeed, the papers in this virtual special issue provide case studies of the policing of pan-handling, skateboarding, prostitution and ‘illegal’ public congregation which show how the law is invoked in different situations to define certain acts as ‘out of place’. This matters profoundly in cities where public spaces appear increasingly dedicated to capitalist consumption. Many of these papers have also explored the legality of new modes of surveillance and policing, making important contributions to debates on urban revanchism and the increasing hostility shown to those who do not conform to the ideal of the ‘citizen-consumer’.
Yet urban legal research is not always pessimistic, and does not view the law as mere appendage of state power. While Lefebvre’s original conception of the right to the city was suspicious of the use of the law to secure rights for the marginalised and oppressed, explorations of the legality of rights claims made in given contexts shows that ‘high level’ human rights law can sometimes trump municipal law and actually defend the rights of marginal or subaltern populations to occupy, and transform, the city. Because it is a realm of competing interests and ideologies, urban law does not always align with the interests of the wealthy, and can be a resource used by the weak as they pursue social justice in the city. Geographical studies, and associated legal advocacy on behalf of those on the urban margin, contributes to struggles for the city, not least in battles against urban displacement.
For many years, Urban Geography showcased the state-of-the-art in legal geography through a regular article section featuring case studies of urban ‘law in action’. Though this section has fallen into abeyance, the journal continues to publish theoretically-significant work on law and the city, including contributions from beyond the US and into urban contexts where long-established customary laws and systems of common law regularly clash with more formal environmental and planning laws. The scope and methods of legal geography continue to evolve, with efforts to peel away the different layers of the urban lawscape revealing multiple normative orders that clash and combine in sometimes unexpected ways. Beyond an awareness of this inter-legality, legal geography shows increasing sensitivity to the temporality of the law, with multiple studies showing that environmental and planning law is often out-of-synch with the complexities of cities whose forms are constantly evolving. Examining this layered and evolving urban lawscape is then a vital task for urban geography in the twenty first century as it seeks to deliver cities that work for the many and not the few.
Phil Hubbard, Professor of Urban Studies, King’s College London
Nicholas Blomley (2009) Homelessness, Rights, and the Delusions of Property, Urban Geography,30:6, 577-590, DOI: 10.2747/0272-36220.127.116.117
John Carr (2010) Legal Geographies—Skating Around the Edges of the Law: Urban Skateboarding and the Role of Law in Determining Young Peoples’ Place in the City, Urban Geography, 31:7, 988-1003,DOI: 10.2747/0272-3618.104.22.1688
Laam Hae (2011) Legal Geographies—The Right to Spaces for Social Dancing in New York City: A Question of Urban Rights, Urban Geography, 32:1, 129-142, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3622.214.171.124
Phil Hubbard, Roger Matthews & Jane Scoular (2009) Legal Geographies—Controlling Sexually Oriented Businesses: Law, Licensing, and the Geographies of a Controversial Land Use, Urban Geography, 30:2, 185-205, DOI: 10.2747/0272-36126.96.36.199
Robert W. Lake & Rebecca A. Johns (1990) Legitimation conflicts: the politics of hazardous waste siting law, Urban Geography, 11:5, 488-508, DOI: 10.2747/0272-36188.8.131.528
Deborah G. Martin (2013) Up Against the Law: Legal Structuring of Political Opportunities in Neighborhood Opposition to Group Home Siting in Massachusetts, Urban Geography, 34:4, 523-540,DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2013.790640
Don Mitchell (1998) Anti-homeless laws and public space: i. Begging and the first amendment, Urban Geography, 19:1, 6-11, DOI: 10.2747/0272-36184.108.40.206
Don Mitchell & Nik Heynen (2009) The Geography of Survival and the Right to the City: Speculations on Surveillance, Legal Innovation, and the Criminalization of Intervention, Urban Geography, 30:6,611-632, DOI: 10.2747/0272-36220.127.116.111
Wesley Pue (1990) Wrestling with law: (geographical) specificity vs legal abstraction, Urban Geography, 11:6, 566-585, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3618.104.22.1686
David L. Prytherch (2012) Legal Geographies—Codifying the Right-Of-Way: Statutory Geographies of Urban Mobility and The Street, Urban Geography, 33:2, 295-314, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3622.214.171.1245
Päivi Rannila & Don Mitchell (2016) Syracuse, sidewalks, and snow: the slippery realities of public space, Urban Geography, 37:7, 1070-1090, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2016.1153244
Mi Shih (2010) Legal Geographies—Governing Through Law: Rights-based Conflicts and Property Development in Shanghai, Urban Geography, 31:7, 973-987, DOI: 10.2747/0272-36126.96.36.1993
Marie-Eve Sylvestre (2010) Disorder and Public Spaces in Montreal: Repression (And Resistance) Through Law, Politics, and Police Discretion, Urban Geography, 31:6, 803-824, DOI: 10.2747/0272-36188.8.131.523
Monica W. Varsanyi (2008) Immigration Policing Through the Backdoor: City Ordinances, the “right to the City,” and the Exclusion of Undocumented Day Laborers, Urban Geography, 29:1, 29-52, DOI: 10.2747/0272-36184.108.40.206