Tale of Two Pictures

We need farm land both for food and for fuel. So why are we wasting it with sprawling development?

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The pictures tell part of this story:

 First, the brick, Federal-style farmhouse abandoned in only the past few years. A year or so ago, there were few, if any, broken windows. 

 Then, a house under construction on former farmland near a high-end housing development with large lots.

The two houses are less than a mile apart.

Perhaps I’m being a little dyspeptic. But this is wasteful and all too common.

The recession has slowed home construction tremendously. Sad as this may be for builders and construction workers, now is the time to pause and reconsider how we might develop and redevelop cities and small towns and suburbs on the outlying areas of cities – the so-called (and wretched-sounding) rural-urban interface. 

Here’s a simple concept that’s already been tried in some areas across the country. We need to emphasize redevelopment of abandoned urban and small town lands to save our countryside. A Brookings Institution study in 2000 found more than a million acres of vacant land in 83 cities that responded to a survey. 

Brookings studies major metro areas. But this is not only a big city problem. It affects declining small towns, where abandoned downtowns, industrial areas, and houses and neighborhoods are commonplace.

I wish saving towns to save the countryside were my idea. Credit could go to plenty of people, but I like Tom Hylton’s approach, probably because he ardently pursued the idea of “Save Our Land, Save Our Towns” as a journalist in Pottstown, PA, a smaller city. His work on the rural-urban connections of land use won him a Pulitzer Prize for pointing out how we waste our landscapes, and, even more importantly, what we can do.  

EPA Smart Growth
Near Leesburg, Virginia, housing development encroaches on pasture.
Since widespread, auto-dependent suburbanization after World War II, we have created a complicated mess of subsidies for housing and other development. At the same time, migration has left some communities abandoned. 

We have become more spread out too, and it is costing us. We desperately need to develop sensible and rational local, state, and national land use policies to encourage urban neighborhood development and refocus auto-dependent suburban and exurban development to protect farmland and open space.

All of these decades of waste have brought insecurity. People need cars, but face high fuel prices that chew into family earnings. Fuel prices go up and down, but, they have been increasing over the long run. Fuel efficient vehicles help, but it’s counterproductive to increase continually the distance people drive to work.

Protecting the country’s global energy supplies also demands a costly military. Meanwhile, auto dependence has been linked to obesity, which makes us unhealthy and raises overall health care costs. Rural mass transit is virtually nonexistent in many areas, raising questions about how to care for our rural elderly and chronically poor. Roads obliterate farmland, green space, and wildlife habitat and allow us to spew pollution all over the place. The list goes on.

It’s not that the United States necessarily faces an immediate farmland shortage. But we do face issues of pollution and endangered wildlife. Suburban development often overtakes rural land because it’s easy to build on and relatively cheap. Is this something we can really afford to keep doing? 

Meanwhile, our fuel consumption grows.
Perhaps the most stunning change in the U.S. agricultural economy in the past 10 to 15 years has been the recognition that we can produce green energy on our farms. Partially as a result, farmland prices have increased tremendously in the past few years (up 12 percent in the Midwest in 2010), while the rest of the economy faltered. Land speculation is part of this. Then again, there’s an increased demand not only for food, but also for energy products. We are increasingly asking our land to do double duty – to grow food and provide feedstocks for green energy. It is apparent that this is going to be costly.

With high energy prices and increasing demand for farmland (including pulling land out of conservation reserves that protect soil, water and wildlife), does it make sense for the U.S. to continue risky development patterns? We have entered an era where “undeveloped” farmland is not as cheap as it seems, especially if we account for its future value. Each acre taken out of production for urban development has a real future cost.

We need to value agricultural land not at its present worth, but for its future value in producing food, fiber, and fuel. We don’t need to value rich agricultural soils according to real estate development calculations. We need to value this land for what it is — the reservoir of future domestic food and energy production. 

Accounting for our energy use is central to good land use policy. It is astounding to think that since 1919 the U.S. has consumed some 17.2 trillion gallons of motor fuels, a pool almost as large as Lake Ontario – about 393 cubic miles of fuel. This resource, which took eons to form, is gone forever, left as atmospheric carbon that helps trigger climate change. 

Redevelopment of cities and small towns as walkable neighborhoods and localized farm communities makes sense in terms of economic efficiency, community building, and human health. This can save energy, farmland, and natural areas.

Back to those pictures: It is lamentable that we have lost old houses and other rural landmarks in the face of development. This is wasteful enough. More lamentable, however, is the squandering of our increasingly valuable natural heritage – our soil, water, wildlife, and nonrenewable energy, when other options are available. This is something we do at our peril.

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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