Nomadic Property – Thesis Abstract by Ben Leavitt


The system of real property ownership delimits urban form and experience, and often inflexibly prioritizes private value over communal experience. While some nations have maintained pre-modern precedents of the commons and flexible application of spatial resources, the United States, in particular, largely upholds a rigid system of private ownership and use. Despite this image of stability, the influence of a volatile economy, social dynamics, and temporal use patterns destabilize this system, which leaves certain parcels fallow for various periods of time. Though “property” often implies a plot of land or an object of ownership, it is also synonymous with a quality or characteristic. These subjective properties define a place but are not necessarily tied to a particular location. Thus, an alternative concept of property can exist outside of the legal boundaries of object or location and, rather, as mobile and nomadically seeking spatial opportunity. How can this alternative definition of property enable the communal use of these sites within fallow periods? What loopholes can be exploited to enable this appropriation into the domain of the common?

Nomadic property manifests as a sort of toolkit of tactics, adaptable and potentially dispersed to various locations and scenarios, that proliferates through a social network. This practice involves temporary interventions, however circumstances would determine a variable duration. In the case of more contested sites, the intervention could take on the form of an event or catalyst, while it could have a phased transformative effect in a location with less real estate pressure. These spatial tactics can adapt to change over time and place, enabling a fluid concept of property that exploits spatial opportunity.

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Peralta Junction

Just a quick note about a new precedent in West Oakland. Peralta Junction is a multi-use “pop-up creative commons” that is open until December 15th. It is utilizing a vacant lot in an industrial area that has not been used for 12 years. The vacant space will be activated with a changing program that includes “art installations, creative workshops, local performing arts programming, micro retail shops featuring local artisans, Oakland-based food trucks, and a tented creative commons.” It has a three month trial period, though it may move ahead with a five-year plan if successful.

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friern barnet library

In current events, the Friern Barnet Library, a local branch library in London, makes for a really interesting case study. This library, along with 270 other branch libraries in England, was closed due to economic and budgetary constraints. Coinciding with this closure, the British government also changed the laws of squatting residential buildings now to be a criminal offense on September 1st. As a result of these two conditions, a group of squatters and political activists has broken in and squatted the closed Friern Barnet Library. But not only are they using the building for residential purposes and as a political statement, they actually re-opened the library and are managing it entirely with volunteer labor, with much support of the local neighborhood, as it is seen as an important community fixture. I believe that there are real estate developers interested in acquiring this land as well, demonstrating the pressure that land value and privatization has on the future of this common institution. The references from the news are found below:

Story from The Guardian (9-11-12).

Editorial by Pete Phoenix, one of the squatters (The Guardian, 9-13-12).

Story from the BBC, 9-13-12).

I find this story interesting for a number of reasons. It demonstrates how certain events and changes in conditions (i.e. the libraries closing, the change in squatting laws, real estate pressures, perhaps also the influence of the local and global occupy movements) can act as catalysts for change. It also is a real life example of how squatting and occupation can have an affect on and gain the support of the diverse surrounding community, instead of being an isolated, esoteric movement. It is also interesting that the resulting newly managed library exists and is organized into a new sort of informal public sphere. It is current events, so it is yet to be determined, but I believe they are in negotiations with the city council and, though the library is autonomously organized and run, it may also have some connection to the existing library organization. I am interested to see what becomes of this movement.

Below is a timeline diagram showing the ownership, occupation, and use of the library over a period of time. The green volume is the city ownership of the library, which gets more transparent when it is closed. The blue planes are the squatters’ occupation, which is, for now, relatively unstable and from moment-to-moment. The red cylinders are the public use of the facility, which is discontinuous and stops when the city closed the library and restarts when the squatters reopened it.

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precedent survey

Park(ing) Day – Rebar and many others

Property attributes/variables:

  • reconceptualize the street automobile parking space as a plot of publicly owned property to be rented out for a limited amount of time.


  • reprogram this space from temporary storage into various forms of public leisure activities.
  • extend the public pedestrian zone of the sidewalk.
  • foster novel interpersonal interactions.


  • sod/astroturf
  • planters
  • furniture
  • games
  • performance

Commonspace – Rebar

Property attributes/variables:

  • mandated privately-owned public space created in exchange for dense development.
  • in the form of plazas, courtyards, rooftop gardens, and atriums.


  • bring attention to, exploit, and test the limits of these little-known public amenities.
  • question the premise given its existence under private capital-backed security and surveillance.


  • performance/happening/flash-mob.

Spacebuster – Raumlabor

Property attributes/variables:

  • mobile, thus not tied to any particular location.
  • extension of vehicle.
  • transform vehicle-accessible space (such as parking lots).


  • mobile and deployable enclosed event space.


  • inflatable/pneumatic
  • automobile
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working key terms


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working thesis statement

Property laws, conventions, and the spatial systems that they imply, to a large extent, determine the ways that we interact with each other and the city. Property is actually based in legality as a bundle of rights, however it manifests itself as a spatial boundary and a means to divide up land into territory. These divisions determine the character of our cities as the aggregate of these private boundaries and their negotiation, relative to our urban commons. Though urban public space is often in the form of discrete designed parkland, a more ubiquitous and less recognized form exists in the in-between spaces of circulation and leftover spaces from the system of private ownership. Within these spaces, there is potential for the integration of leisure, personal, civic, and political engagement.

I am interested in the ways that property laws and conventions manifest as a spatial system. Within this system of ownership, there are instances in which there are gaps in private ownership. These gaps may be occupied and leveraged as opportunities for a new distributed system of urban commons. Rather than the centralized and separated model of urban parks, recreation, and leisure, for example manifested in Central Park, I am proposing a more distributed and informal use of common space, appropriating places of disuse. This system would have the potential to integrate recreation and personal and political interaction into everyday life.

Property ownership within a city, and thus its urban identity, is in flux. Many parcels fall into vacancy disuse, which can often seem a blight, however, it can also be seen as an opportunity. Because property ownership is a system in flux and often, especially in marginalized communities, properties can remain wasted or undeveloped for periods of time, intervention in these plots would be in the form of temporary use. The factor of time is critical in that these interventions could be easily deployed, adapted, and moved or removed. It is intended as a systematic approach applied to a wider geographic area than just one parcel, which could be adapted to specific conditions.

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Extension of the sidewalk public sphere.

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