The University of Utah
College of Architecture + Planning

Land, Law, and Culture

The laws that guide how individuals and societies use land are the result of both cultural and geophysical landscape influences.  Similarly, cultures and lands are shaped by laws and policies developed by societies and implemented by individuals and institutions.  This course uses an intersection of history, the fine arts, geography, policy, and public administration to gain a better understanding of how the physical landscape, economic activity, cultural representations, and public policy mutually influence each other.

Below are excerpts from student work in Land, Law, and Culture:

Towards a More Versatile Ecology: Treading the Unbridged Gap Between Wilderness and Materialism by Matt Green

For many centuries, the European mind was awestruck by the image of barbarians descending upon Rome to conquer her and to cover her great civilization in a state of darkness. According to medieval historian Janet L. Nelson, only recently have we discovered that the subsequent “Dark Ages” were in truth an age of great “variety and versatility.” While acknowledging that “terms are war-cries in cultural history,” she reminded us that scholars have, for the most part, taken it as their duty to understand “their subjects’ ways of finding meaning.” As she put it, “We do our darnedest to avoid monstrous condescension.” So, too, throughout American history, has one’s place in relation to (or within) wilderness brought on a heap of cultural war-cries. From combatant to nobility to, according to some New Western historians, a fiction, the wilderness dweller has been an object of intense interest. Western or environmental historians of different eras have frequently taken to using buzz words and, broadly speaking, collected in familiar paradigms. What I have attempted to do in this paper is track the conventional claims of civilization for or against wilderness. Specifically, I set out to study how American scholars have increasingly spoken of an unbridgeable gap between distinct cultures of wilderness and materialism.

The Grand Canyon Escalade: Perspectives on the Jeopardization of Culture and Environment by a Mega Resort by Jenna Benson

The Grand Canyon is one of the world’s most sublime and impressive natural landmarks. For centuries, the canyon has been revered for its vastness, its awe-inspiring beauty, and its contribution to the United States’ national identity (Pearson, 2019). These characteristics, as well as the site’s natural and cultural resources, have transformed the Grand Canyon into a prolific tourist destination and attracted a variety of stakeholders with diverse development and land use interests. This transformation is at odds with the ecological health of the canyon as well as the cultural identities and living traditions of the indigenous people that have dwelled in the area for millennia. In recent years, conflict has been sparked by the proposal of a large-scale resort known as the Grand Canyon Escalade. This proposal has called attention to the complexity of land disputes in nationally-cherished, culturally-significant, and ecologically-fragile places. While developments in and near the Grand Canyon have been, at times, advantageous for certain parties, projects like the Grand Canyon Escalade, which are particularly imposing on the landscape and disturb the cultural sites of Native people, ought to be questioned. The purpose of this article is to assess the physical, cultural, and legal considerations made to balance various stakeholder interests in such disputes and to analyze various responses to the Grand Canyon Escalade.

Wilderness and Colonization by Amy Newman

The colonization of communities of color today and throughout history has been directly influenced by the concept that white society views land and space as a wilderness that needs to be conquered and tamed. This concept has been manipulated and justified over time to ensure that the disenfranchisement of communities of color continues and works in favor of new goals and values as white society sees fit. What this concept fails to highlight thoroughly enough is its connection to the oppression and disrespect that it encourages, through colonization, onto the inhabitants of communities of color. Throughout this paper some experiences of communities of color will be highlighted as they relate to this concept, with the experiences of Native Americans taking a more central role to support the arguments related to this concept.  These lived experiences help people reflect and understand that this concept is flawed. While all people and communities have great variability and are unique, the fact is that injustice has been fueled by this concept and colonization is applicable to all communities of color. Just as the concept that white society views land and space as a wilderness that needs to be conquered and tamed has evolved over time, colonization or the agenda of white society has evolved too.

Belonging & The Social Construction of Wilderness

Humans’ relationships with wilderness and nature are complicated. While the idea of spending time outdoors is a form of escape and relaxation for many, for others, the thought of visiting a national park or forest is less appealing. Socially constructed ideas of nature and wilderness as places devoid of humans or human influence can feel exclusive and even fearful to marginalized communities (Finney, 2006; Brahinsky et al., 2014). Racial legacies of oppression, social constructs, and lack of representation have shaped cultural understandings of the “great outdoors” and suggest who should and can access natural spaces. The evolution and social construction of wilderness in particular, along with its intersections with race and power dynamics in the United States, have racialized ideas of environment and nature, creating injustices and leading to feelings of exclusion for Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color (BIPOC) in natural settings such as national parks and forests.

This paper explores how the social construction of wilderness has evolved throughout history and how its intersections with ideas of race and dominant socio-political powers have created inequities in the past and present in accessing natural spaces (Finney, 2006). To increase equity, justice, and sustainability, racialized, socially constructed ideas of nature and wilderness need to be reconciled. Non-white experiences and ways of knowing should be considered to help reconstruct ideas and relationships with nature and create more equitable access and involvement with natural and wild spaces.