The Boundaries of Property: Lessons from Beatrix Potter

By Blomley, Nicholas | The Canadian Geographer, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The Boundaries of Property: Lessons from Beatrix Potter


Blomley, Nicholas, The Canadian Geographer


   One time there was a picket fence / With space to gaze
   from hence to thence / An architect who saw this sight /
   Approached it suddenly one night / Removed the
   spaces from the fence / And built of them a residence
   (Max Knight, quoted in Certeau 1984, pp. 127-8)

Introduction: Law and Geography

The focus of my paper is the boundary. I want to use boundaries, especially those relating to real property (property in land), to reflect more generally on law and geography. In this paper, I offer an example of the workings of boundaries in the real world. Boundaries, of course, have long been of interest to political geographers (Newman and Paasi 1998; Paasi 1999). However, geographers had a lot less to say about the boundaries of property, although they have considered property more generally (see, e.g., Pratt et al. 1989; Choko and Harris 1990; Delaney 1997). A study of property's boundaries is of interest to me to the extent that it contributes to a broader intellectual project--the analysis of law and space. The past decade has seen a growing body of scholarship in this area (Blomley et al. 2001; Holder and Harrison 2003). My interest, along with a growing number of fellow travellers, has been in trying to think through the geographies of law at both a conceptual, political and empirical level. Canadian scholars have played a creative role here (see, e.g., Chouinard 1994; Bakan and Kobayashi 2000; Razack 2002). In part, this paper is an attempt to demonstrate the importance and potential of this project.

Simply put, legal geographers argue that there is an important and understudied relation between law and space. Space matters. Law matters. When combined, interesting things happen (Blomley 2003a). Now, as geographers, the argument that space matters is axiomatic. If we are interested in economic transformation, gender relations, globalisation, political processes, the environment and so on, an attention to space and place offers something important and new, we argue. However, this is news to many people interested in law. If anything, legal theory has privileged time, not space. Meanwhile, geographers have returned the insult. We are adept at recognising the influence of social, cultural and political processes on the spaces and places with which we are familiar, but we have not always acknowledged the significance of law (Blomley 1994). Yet, sociolegal scholarship has argued persuasively for the importance of law in the constitution and ordering of social reality (Ewick and Silbey 1998). Law, as Austin Sarat has put it, is 'all over' (1990). Put another way, many of the processes that human geographers are interested in are influenced by law, whether directly, through regulation or more indirectly, to the extent that legal forms, such as contract or private property, enter into those relations. Space is partly legal--the spaces we move within are legally saturated, influenced by sovereignty, property, rights, citizenship and so on. If we are interested in making sense of those spaces, their production and effects, we need to recognise their consequential legalities. Law is also partially constitutive of social identities--to be a husband, an employee for a citizen is to draw, in part, on legal categories. In that sense, law has been said to be constitutive of one's consciousness. For example, since the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadians have been said to think of themselves increasingly through the prism of rights. This is consequential given that the legal constitution of social life can have political effects. Rights-talk, for example, can serve to close down certain political possibilities given its individualistic and antistatist emphasis (Blomley 1992; Bakan 1997). However, rights discourse can also provide an immensely powerful and transformative vehicle for social change (Blomley and Pratt 2001).

Similarly, though law, in its abstractions, appears a-spatial, closer examination reveals that it frequently invokes, depends upon and produces spatial forms and discourses. …

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