Tale of Two Pictures

[imgbelt img=before.jpg]We need farm land both for food and for fuel. So why are we wasting it with sprawling development?


 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.  

[imgcontainer left] [img:Leesburg.jpg] [source]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?