Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Curated Landscape

It's an observation frequently made in urbanist circles that European towns and cities have starker divides between urbanized and undeveloped land than those of the United States, contributing the perception that American cities are more "sprawling" than the urban areas of the old world.

As Let's Go LA wrote in a must-read post from a couple years back, however, there is a great variation in patterns of urbanization in various regions of the US.  While some parts of the country do feature land-intensive residential development, other areas are very compact.  I tried to address the reasons for these differences in a post from late last year, speculating that lot size on the city fringe, in the contemporary American context, is mainly a product of 1) agricultural land values and 2) availability of groundwater, which allows housing to be built (typically at low densities) in the absence of city sewers.  In areas where the value of land for agriculture is lower yet groundwater is abundant, such as the Southeast US, very large lot sizes are observed.  In inland California, by contrast, where the climate and soil are optimal for high-value agricultural products and water is more scarce, cities are highly compact and lot sizes are small.

Compact Tulare, California,
compared to TuscaloosaAlabama.
This all helps to highlight the differing attitudes of Western European countries towards the agricultural and/or rural landscape as compared to the United States.  At risk of gross oversimplification, it is possible to carve out two competing visions of landscape preservation/conservation, one which I'll call the European, and the other the American:
  • European: Appreciation of agricultural land for its cultural/aesthetic heritage, as reflected, for instance, in Britain's Town and Country Planning Act of 1947.  The notion of rural land as a public resource is also reflected in freedom to roam laws, which are largely unknown in the US.  Farming is heavily supported by the Common Agricultural Policy, which provides funds directly to small farmers rather than price supports for commodities, to the extent that land which would otherwise revert to forest or be sold for development is kept in agricultural production.  The appearance of compact European towns of tile-roofed houses dotted among crop fields and pastures is no accident, and instead is the result of public policy determined to "curate" legacy farm landscapes.
  • American: Appreciation of dramatic wilderness landscapes with little or no evidence of human habitation, as reflected in the aesthetics of the Hudson River School of painting (not to mention Bob Ross) and, currently, in the US national park system.  Agricultural land, with a few major exceptions (see Lexington, KY), is generally not given significant, independent aesthetic or cultural value that is recognized in public policymaking.  Although loss of agricultural land is often mourned, few states or cities have policies that address the subject in a coherent and comprehensive way.    
    At left, Thomas Kinkade; at right, Bob Ross, embodying the "cabin in the woods"
    aesthetic that is still influential in much of American thinking on housing.
These differences in policy appear to have resulted in significant differences not only in land use, but in employment as well.  Although the percentage of Americans involved in agriculture is today only 1.4 percent, with a total of around 2.1 million farms, France by itself has some 730,000 farms in only 6 percent of the total land area, with 7 percent of its population employed in agriculture.  It is difficult to judge the relative productivity of this farmland, but looking just at the value of food exports, France is at $68 billion as compared to the United States' $118 billion.

The European policy on agriculture is directed more at preserving farmland and subsidizing employment in agriculture, among other purposes, than it is in restricting the low-density spread of the automobile-based town or city, but the one is merely the flip side of the other.  In the absence of the limitations described above (high agricultural land values and scarce water), the condition often referred to as "sprawl" -- which I would prefer to spell out concretely as a leapfrog-like pattern of land-intensive, pod-like, low-density development -- seems to be a common condition in the context of high car ownership.

French villages and agriculture, south of Paris. From Google maps. 
There are artificial means to imitate the above limitations, and they have been deployed with effect in some North American cities in the form of urban growth boundaries, as for instance in Lexington, KY, the state of Oregon and in Toronto, Ontario.  Rarely, though, does policy directly pertain to the subsidization of the activities that the boundary is intended to protect.  In Lexington, for instance, although the growth boundary was intended to preserve the area's legacy landscape of horse farms, tax subsides are offered to owners of large parcels regardless of whether any agricultural use is being made of the subject property.

The influential American environmental movement, on the other hand, has left little doubt as to the landscapes it favors protecting.  The Sierra Club's website doesn't seem to have any recognition of agricultural land, instead focusing almost entirely on wilderness, although most true wilderness is not under threat of urbanization.  The Nature Conservancy does mention agricultural land, but as a potential threat to natural resources.  Although many of the goals of these organizations are important and praiseworthy, the focus on nature, rather than the agricultural landscape, undermines their position with respect to urban policy and planning.  The Sierra Club has recently come under criticism in urban circles for appearing to support exclusionary zoning in certain contexts, while the Nature Conservancy's urban affairs expert seems to be at pains to make the case for dense urbanism to a skeptical audience.

I mention these examples, though, to reinforce the contrasting visions above.  The American imagination has traditionally been drawn to wild spaces rather than to the symbiosis between food and land (represented in the French term terroir).  Although the notion of locally-sourced food products has lately gained some traction, this has not translated into much if any public policy, and has has further been confused by cheerleading for the oxymoronic "urban agriculture" (although the very idea of local and/or urban agriculture could be interpreted as a pining for a sort of terroir).  A few New Urbanist developments have emphasized the connection between agriculture and urbanism, such as Serenbe in the outer reaches of Atlanta, but these are few and far between and have not been above criticism.  Local land trusts have embraced preservation of agricultural uses, but these organizations lack the scale necessary to guide policy at the regional level.

None of this is to argue that the United States, or any other country, would necessarily benefit from European-style agricultural regulations.  What may be worth exploring, though, is the questions of how agricultural economics affects urban form, and to consider how public policy in this area relates to goals for urban development.  Being the focus neither of urbanists nor environmentalists, agriculture has largely escaped significant land-use scrutiny in the United States.  It deserves more attention.


  1. Good post. Just a quick note: Tulare is in the Central Valley between Fresno and Bakersfield, not the Inland Empire.

  2. At least in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Greenbelt Alliance seeks to save land around the urbanized area from development--whether that land is agricultural or park land. I think this picture of American environmentalism may be somewhat outdated.

    1. I remember visiting Point Reyes Seashore and seeing large parts of it were ranchland. Seemed odd to me, as California has plenty of ranchland away from the cities and not that much elk habitat left. I realize it was for political / historic reasons.

  3. In California we have a few tools to encourage agricultural preservation and discourage urban sprawl. They are somewhat helpful, but each has its shortcomings.

    Agricultural preservation easements provide tax breaks for keeping land in agricultural use -- These are per-property and voluntary rather than a comprehensive growth boundary. A fairly standard policy in other states as well. They really only help in areas with high-value agriculture to begin with, as you pointed out in the main post.

    Each county also has a body that regulates city boundaries, preventing individual cities from gobbling up unincorporated land. These are called Local Agency Formation Commissions or LAFCOs -- On it's face this sounds like it would implement an urban growth boundary, but it really depends on individual counties. While a few counties limit development in unincorporated areas (mostly in the Bay Area or in high-value agriculture areas), most counties simply allow urban/suburban development in unincorporated areas, so the LAFCOs just determine who regulates land use (i.e., counties vs cities) rather than where development takes place.

    Finally, the state's anti-greenhouse gas law has a land use component. It provides some limited regional review of development in an attempt to cluster denser development thereby reducing transportation emissions. See for example, Not an urban/ag boundary, but has some similarities in implementation. Really depends on the individual regional planning organization.

    1. Thank you John -- this is fascinating information! The conservation easements, alas, seem to have the same shortcomings in every state -- and I say that as someone who worked for one at one time.

  4. There are organizations in New England that try to protect farmland from development. New England has so low farm values that much of the farmland has been abandoned and reverted to forest; with little farmland left and the best farmland often close to more populated areas, perhaps there's more of an interest in farmland conservation than most of the eastern US. The farming is small-scale so it's more for aesthetic concerns than economics.

  5. As always, enjoyed the post.

    Since I lived in Lexington my entire life until ~two years ago, a few observations possibly of interest: Lexington is unusual in that the most powerful interest group in the city, at least until recently, has been anyone involved in horse racing: affluent horse farmers, horse-related industry, and race-track activities.

    This absolutely permeates public policy. Many major roads and nearly all new roads are named after famous horses. Nearly every public space downtown references horses. The city and state heavily subsidize horse-related industry, facilities, and events. With the exclusion of that last component, I generally don't think this is such a bad thing, even though almost nobody I knew growing up had nothing to do with horses.

    As for the UGB: as I understand, it was instituted with the enthusiastic support of the horse industry over concerns that nearby development would frighten thoroughbreds into a hysteria such that they would run into walls and kill themselves. They are heavily inbred and notoriously excitable/stupid, so this may actually be true. Horse farm owners (I hesitate to call them farmers since most of that work is done by low-income immigrant workers) also weren't happy about the aesthetics of new subdivisions anywhere near their estates. I could be wrong, but I suspect the broader public good claim is a later addition.

    To Lexington's credit, they have gradually expanded the UGB as is often the intention (but not the reality) with UGBs. I grew in an affordable home on the 1980 expansion. The city has grown 5x since 1958 (when the UGB was instituted)—and has done very little infill upzoning—so it has been absolutely necessary to expand it.

    On the subject of growth, I can't help but wonder: would the UGB survive today? The UGB was instituted in 1958, when essentially the entire city elite would have been involved in the horse industry. Today there are regular calls for expansion and there seems to be less political will for growth controls. The city paper recently wrote a major expose on the startling exploitation of agricultural tax abatement in and around the city, noting that for the most part extremely wealthy horse farm owners benefit the most.

    The city's purchasing of agricultural development rights has also been highly controversial. A councilman representing a low-income downtown African American neighborhood heavily criticized the program as a direct transfer from low- and middle-income urban residents to high-income rural residents. He was the only candidate to oppose the program; incidentally, every other candidate (all white, nearly all representing wealthier districts) either supported the program or had no opinion.

    This is a longwinded way of saying: I think good old fashion interest group politics can explain the Lexington anomaly. More and more migrants continue to flow from declining industrial states, high-cost coastal states, and impoverished rural counties (Lexington was a scary metropolis to my family in eastern Kentucky). As the these people come in and reshape city politics, the horse industry had better hope they have a strong aesthetic preference for the farms, because the financial stake isn't there.