Open Space & the American Dream

Urban open spaces are important for recreation, scenery, wildlife, and watershed values. Smart-growth advocates rely on public concerns about disappearing open space to build support for their policies. But smart growth doesn’t protect urban open space. At best, it trades off certain valuable forms of open space for less valuable ones. At worst, smart growth’s demand for urban infill actively eliminates valuable open spaces.

Despite popular fears that urban growth is paving over America, the cities and suburbs in the nation’s 450 urbanized areas of 50,000 people or more cover just 2.4 percent of the contiguous 48 states. When all smaller towns and unincorporated concentrations of people are included, the total is still well below 4 percent. Urbanization does not threaten rural open space.

Nor does it threaten the nation’s farms or forests. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that we have over a billion acres of agricultural lands, but we use only about 375 million acres to grow crops. The number of acres in crop production has declined because per-acre agricultural yields have grown faster than our population.

Meanwhile, thanks to the automobile, we have more acres of forestlands today than we did a hundred years ago. This is because millions of acres of horse pastures were returned to forests once autos and tractors replaced horses as a major source of travel and farm power. Today, Americans use less wood than they did a hundred years ago, mainly because we burn so little for fuel. As a result, America’s forests are growing faster than they are being cut.

While rural open spaces are not in short supply, urban open spaces are. The principle threat to urban open space turns out to be smart growth. While Americans consider their backyards to be an important form of open space, smart-growth planners think they are a waste and would like to see many of them turned into homesites or apartments.

So-called infill programs threaten other urban open spaces, such as urban farms, golf courses, and even city parks. Planners rezoned a Portland-area golf course for 1,100 housing units and 200,000 square feet of office space. Ten thousand acres of prime farmlands mingled among Portland suburbs have been rezoned for high-density developments. The City of Portland has even sold some of its parklands to developers at below-market prices in an effort to promote high-density developments. A similar infill program also reduced urban open spaces in San Diego.

These infill programs do not protect open space. They only transfer valuable open spaces, such as people’s backyards and urban play areas, to lower-valued open spaces, such as rural pastures that are closed to public use.

Smart-growth planners seem to accept only two legitimate lifestyles: urban and rural. Moreover, the rural lifestyle is only open to people with rural occupations such as farming. In 1993, Oregon planners issued a rule making it illegal for any rural farmland owner to build a house on their own land unless they actually earned $40,000 to $80,000 a year farming it (depending on farm productivity). They said this rule was needed to stop “lawyers, doctors, and others not really farming [from] building houses in farm zones.”

When smart-growth advocates say that voters approved hundreds of smart-growth ballot measures in recent elections, they really mean that voters approved ballot measures to purchase and protect open spaces. Voters view these ballot measures differently from smart-growth planners. Voters want more open spaces in their cities and towns in order to keep densities and the traffic congestion that comes with high densities low. Planners see such ballot measures as a way to purchase greenbelts that will hem in urban growth and force higher suburban densities. If voters realized that was the goal, they would oppose such measures.

The American Dream Coalition supports private efforts to protect critical wildlife habitat and rural open spaces using private funds. Because most rural open spaces are not in short supply, we do not believe that public protection of rural open space, either through zoning or purchases of conservation easements with public funds, is a sound use of our resources.

The Coalition supports a loosening of zoning codes in undeveloped areas so that developers can try innovative design concepts such as walkable communities and communities with large amounts of public open space. However, we oppose efforts to impose high-density zoning on neighborhoods. Rather than protecting rural open space, such zoning merely trades away valuable open spaces, such as people’s back yards, for open spaces that are less valuable.