Creating Property in Boston

April 2, 2019  

  • Blog

In Gaining Ground (MIT Press, 2003), Nancy Seasholes describes the physical growth of the city of Boston through the creation of usable land out of shorelines, marshes, and other land forms not otherwise suitable for immediate development. This process began in the colonial period, and extended into the twentieth century, but quite noteworthy transformations took place during the nineteenth century. At times this development was pursued by the government directly, but at other times the government licensed private actors to create land that could be more usefully developed.

An element of this story likely to interest residents of Boston and visitors alike was the nineteenth-century redevelopment of a tidal bay of the Charles River into today’s Back Bay neighborhood, the Boston Public Garden, and other well-known locations. Many American cities are currently experiencing housing shortages, and addressing such shortages is a significant concern of public policy. Modern cities may look with envy at a city able to create more land with such relative ease as was possible in the past in Boston. However, precisely because the land had significant value, the creation of land frequently revealed significant conflicts among individuals, groups of citizens, and state actors. Furthermore, the process of creating land was accompanied by significant waste, and even corruption.

Gaining Ground serves as a significant reminder of the central role of government in 19th century America in issues involving real property. Now we think of the primary role of the state as regulating uses of property owned by private actors, but in the nineteenth century the government’s role was at times more expansive.