Reflexive Gentrification of Working Lands in the American West: Contesting the 'Middle Landscape'

Jesse Abrams, John Bliss, Hannah Gosnell


The scenic rural landscape of Wallowa County, Oregon has attracted attention from
affluent urban populations who value the physical setting and sense of rural
authenticity of this remote setting. Since at least the 1990s, Wallowa County has
experienced a wave of real estate investment by amenity-oriented populations, some
of whom relocated permanently to the county and some of whom visit their
properties only seasonally. Here, we apply the insights of rural gentrification
scholarship to questions of land use and management. Specifically, we draw upon
recent work on actor-oriented gentrification to highlight the ways in which land use
is implicated in the reflexive processes of place (re)creation by gentrifier
populations. In this case, many landowner-gentrifiers were acutely aware of their
potential role in transforming the local landscape in ways which diminish local
authenticity. An emergent discourse of "working lands" served as potential common
ground for the imaginaries of both gentrifier and long-term resident populations. At
the same time, landowner-gentrifiers instituted subtle but significant changes to land
use practices in an attempt to reconcile their interests in consumption and protection
with their interests in maintaining more traditional productivist practices. We
interpret the working lands discourse as a manifestation of Leo Marx's concept of
the "middle landscape," situated between the extremes of unpeopled wilderness and
runaway capitalist production.
Keywords: land use; amenity migration; land ownership change; rural
gentrification; reflexivity

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The Journal of Rural and Community Development is supported by SSHRC.