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This sprawling, chaotic book has to do with American !and ownership and use--and even that might more properly be defined as the content than the subject. Wolf, a planning consultant, launches his massive effort on the paltry, advisory note that land is presently overvalued as an investment. The second chapter brings the ""land, power and wealth"" refrain (repeated three times on one page in virtually the same words): ""from the beginning. . . the land itself was seen and used as a source of power and wealth."" That platitude--at best, a gross oversimplification--then dominates Wolf's sketchy history of land disbursement and acquisition. Thus, in his eight lines on the Homestead Act, .probably the most significant piece of land legislation in US history he refers only (in a vague way) to its abuse. Here, too, his wordiness and repetitiveness turn into a drone: ""The frontier was first settled by immigrants moving westward, off of the coastal plain, away from the seaboard communities, toward the nearby interior-where more land was available, where more opportunity seemed to exist."" The absence of footnotes makes itself felt--one can't check dubious assertions (or even, in the bibliography, find books by some of the authors quoted). But if one grants that Wolf is not a historian or a scholar (and need not, perhaps, be much of a writer), what of the book's remaining parts--the discussions of taxation, zoning, environmental legislation, and so on? Wolf asserts, correctly, that these crucially affect land use. And it does emerge that he intends the book to identify mistakes and misconceptions, and to suggest new directions. The trouble is that, on their own terms, his treatment of these subjects tends to be crude too. He comes on with trumpets, for instance, to tell us that ""when property taxes go up, land values go down."" That seeming ""contradiction"" is basic real-estate knowledge; and instead of showing how it operates to shape land use, Wolf slips again into his advisory role to explain how real estate is assessed-and subsequently into his reformist role to raise some of the issues. Multitudinous matters are taken up in the course of the book-from transportation policy to historic preservation to Sun-Belt land speculation--but to say that it's really informative wouldn't be accurate: Wolf is just too undiscriminating in selecting and presenting his material.

Pub Date: July 20th, 1981
Publisher: Pantheon