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Volume 4
2009

The World is Changing and So is Land Use

  • Soji Adelaja
  • John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor in Land Policy
  • Director, MSU Land Policy Institute

Each issue of The Engaged Scholar Magazine features a brief "think piece" about the theory and practice of engaged scholarship. For this issue Soji Adelaja, director of MSU's Land Policy Institute, offers his thoughts about land use—a key component of sustainability—and how Michigan State University is providing leadership in this area.

photo of Soji Adelaja

The world has changed dramatically in recent years and we at MSU have stayed current.

This is no small feat. Each day, society is demanding more university involvement in new areas in which scholarly intellect can benefit public welfare.

As MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon said at the 2009 Michigan Land and Prosperity Summit, "For we intellectuals who see our role as marginal and incremental, this is the time to be bold and transformational—to recognize that what we do is the very ingredient needed to transform our state and nation."

MSU's professors and research staff have strived for years to build a modern infrastructure of research and delivery in land use policy and growth strategy that is relevant to Michigan, addresses the problems of local and state decision makers, and increases the presence and visibility of MSU as a leader in land use research.

Faculty and researchers at Michigan State University are pioneering studies and applications of renewable energy.
Faculty and researchers at Michigan State University are pioneering studies and applications of renewable energy.

We've positioned ourselves at the forefront of emerging land use issues—issues that define the prosperity and performance of places. We have embraced the notion that our efforts must be guided by the realities of today and tomorrow, not the ones from which we have come.

The new economy has strong implications for how we view land policy. In Michigan, traditional land use concerns have almost disappeared overnight. In the past, community planners, economic developers, and policy makers focused largely on ways to manage bad growth. Zoning, traditional planning, and farmland preservation were among the tools that MSU research helped inform.

But in today's economic downturn, sprawl is not the main issue. Instead we find ourselves in a more complex world of competition. Land policy has become a tool by which states and regions can shape their own future—or not.

Anticipating this some time ago, the Land Policy Institute focused its research and outreach agenda on regional placemaking, sustainable growth strategy, and prosperity science. If we had not adopted this agenda, MSU would have missed the opportunity to be a pioneer and major force in shaping progress as Michigan struggles to transform its communities and leaders from the old to the new economy. We have now become the only university in the nation with this type of infrastructure and impact, the one that policy makers look to first for insight into these important issues.

"We have now become the only university in the nation with this type of infrastructure and impact, the one that policy makers look to first for insight into these important issues."

Soji Adelaja

The emerging competition for land for renewable energy—wind, solar, biofuels—illustrates this point. The challenges that these will pose may equal, if not surpass, those of sprawl. On the other hand, the development of renewable energy is a crucial strategy that will enable our state to capitalize on opportunities within the new economy.

Renewable energy work is just one of many areas in which MSU's environmental policy work is at the forefront. The knowledge we create through our research, classroom teaching, partnerships, and community involvement is making a crucial difference in our state as we make the difficult transition to a new economy in which the quality of life is no longer guaranteed. As residents we can no longer chase our past. We must instead invest in our future. As President Simon has said, we as scholars must take risks and we must lead.

As a land grant scholar who believes in the historical mission and who has spent his entire career exploring ways to better connect knowledge to society's needs, I cannot think of a better place to be than Michigan State University, as we engage a changing world and help shape it for the benefit of others.