Bernadette Baird-Zars

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Urban Planning

Bernadette Baird-Zars is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Service of NYU's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. She is also an urban planner and researcher specializing in land use and housing. As a partner at Alarife Urban Associates, she brings years of senior project management and research leadership to work on urban land development, affordable housing, and municipal governance. Through public and entrepreneurial efforts to make cities more equitable, she has brought grounded expertise to successful plans for low-income housing, finance, and public-private collaborations for innovative land assembly and development. Her recent clients include the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, Habitat for Humanity International, Infonavit and Harvard GSD and local governments on projects across the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and SE Asia. 

Her current work towards a doctorate in urban planning at Columbia University identifies patterns of zoning practice and new arenas for local land development interventions under conditions of high risk and uncertainty. Her dissertation will be three articles on how city governments use recently decentralized land management powers in Latin America and the Arab world. Bernadette deeply enjoys collaborations, and is co-authoring works on zoning and planning, zoning relief in New York City, institutional analysis for planning, language urbanism, and planning and violence. 

 Prior to Alarife, Bernadette designed financial and business models for housing microfinance companies in India, Colombia and Egypt and social impact bonds as a Senior Project Manager for the Affordable Housing Institute. During her work for the Aga Khan Development Network in Syria on urban planning projects between 2006 and 2009, she co-launched the socioeconomic development program in Aleppo. Bernadette is a former Fulbright Fellow and Lang Scholar, and holds an honors BA from Swarthmore College and a Master in City Planning from MIT. 

Land underpins everything, and configurations of land rights and institutions can dramatically shape how cities grow, and for whom. As one of the most contentious aspects of planning, land use is also a central way for the public sector to intervene in urban development to promote more equitable and just outcomes. How land is framed and codified contributes to patterns of existing ownership, physical form, mix of uses, mobilities, housing and transport.


The course will investigate the central ideas and empirical practices across three core arenas of land use. First, conceptions of land rights draw from a diverse global array of legal traditions and practices that touch on key questions of externalities, transaction costs, land rent, public interest, rights and obligations, fairness and access to property. While ‘customary’ practices are often positioned as mutually exclusive with ‘modern’ freehold regimes, experiences of colonization and development yield more complex permutations and histories of conflict and adaptation. Second, through empirical cases mixed with theory, we will tease out intersections between ideas, politics and other institutional arrangements in shaping practices of land use and interventions. Finally, many governments, especially in an era of reduced public funding and decentralization, are increasingly turning towards land as a space of opportunity for planning. ‘Established’ tools, such as zoning and exactions are being updated, expanded and critiqued for a variety of planning goals. Others, such as expropriation, are less tenable in an area of greater resident organization. How the new or reconfigured practices, such as inclusionary zoning, TDR, land readjustment, land banking etc., spread among cities and implement will shape the urban fabric of the future. 

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