Rural Preservation: One more reason to care about cities

We talk a lot on PlaceShakers about urbanism, but less about one of our big drivers: rural preservation. Compact development patterns could have dramatically decreased the 41 million acres of rural land that the US lost to development from 1982 to 2007. That’s almost the size of the State of Washington.

Clearly, we can’t keep up this pace and expect to have enough productive cropland, pasture, and range to serve our growing population. From 1982 to 2007, US population grew by 30% while development land increased 57%. Eating up land at almost twice the population growth obviously has an unhappy ending.

If we were to see the implementation of our Seven Placemaking Wishes for 2013, part of the collective happy outcome would be a shift in this development rate, which for most of last decade consumed 1.5 million acres of land a year.

Now that’s just the pragmatic side of things. Over the holidays, my family spent some time in New Mexico, and I was invigorated again by the mountain energy and rural landscapes. The simple pleasure of being completely removed and in the wilderness or ranchlands is something that is becoming scarce these days. So I’d like to celebrate those rural lands with the snapshots below, in the hope that we continue to work together to preserve them, for all sorts of reasons.

“Compact urbanism keeps people from being out bothering the bears.” — Andrés Duany

However, there is a dichotomy here with a landowner’s inalienable right to develop in the United States. The cost of true preservation means that someone is willing and able to purchase the land and hold as wilderness or working lands. Much of the landscape in these images is legally protected and belongs to the Pueblo Nations or the Bureau of Land Management.

Another dynamic about this landscape that acts to preserve its dramatic beauty is the very arid environment that cannot support a dense population. These stunning uninterrupted rural landscapes in the west – like this high desert – exist in their pristine condition in large part because they are challenging. More land is required to support range and pastures, and the steep slopes inhibit development.

For places that feel more development pressures without these natural dampening effects of nature, organizations like the Little Tennessee Land Trust, Wisconsin Working Lands Initiative, and Kootenai County, Idaho provide some interesting preservation support. These organizations and local governments have united behind a regional vision to preserve their rural lands, and the trusts have worked to assemble funding to enable the acquisition in a fair market environment.

Clearly, one of the biggest challenges to compact development is our land use laws that encourage sprawling development patterns. Cities, towns, and counties are moving to concentrate their development into more productive patterns for economies, society, and the environment by using form-based codes. Within these character-based laws, Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs) are sometimes employed to make markets for compensation by selling the development rights in areas of intended preservation to focus neighborhoods into more livable patterns.

TDRs theoretically work in a free market, but to function at a high level they usually need both a high demand for density and high prices for real estate. Developers purchase the right to higher density to fund permanent preservation for a number of other reasons, including ag lands, wilderness, and historic neighborhoods.

The most notable recent form-based codes that have incorporated this tool are Lee County, Florida and Miami, Florida. Other interesting TDR programs include Nashville, TN, Milton, GA, Arlington, WA, Dover, NH, Hillsborough County, FL, Pass Christian, MS, King County, WA, Montgomery County, MD, and Boulder County, CO.

So, here’s to preserving not only what inspires us most but also what is essential to our nourishment and nurture in 2013.

“When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop. It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans; and I remembered with as much pity as pride, if I remembered at all, my acquaintances who had gone to the city to attend the oratorios.” — Henry David Thoreau

Hazel Borys

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  1. Matt Foster says

    Glad you had a nice time Hazel. Great blog.

  2. I couldn’t agree more that preserving the rural countryside is one of the best reasons to strengthen cities. I’ve said so repeatedly (for example, here and here). But we have to work both sides of the equation. Calls for conservation of the countryside ring hollow if those of us who espouse it design so-called ‘new towns’ or ‘agrarian urbanism’ in the countryside when a big developer comes calling, especially when there are disinvested city neighborhoods in the region. They will also ring hollow if we do not explictly support farmland and wilderness conservation and preservation. Form-based codes and other urbanist tools are useful for strengthening cities. But they won’t save rural land unless we exercise more restraint and discipline in the countryside, too.

    • Michelle Majeski says

      Great blog article. I am proud to be a resident of Multnomah County, Oregon, where we have a regional government that plans for growth and protection of land outside a growth boundary. I thank Metro every time I travel out of the city and breathe a relaxing breath of fresh air, as the land opens up, watersheds are seen, and wildlife is apparent. I am truly appreciative of Metro’s efforts.

  3. Thanks for the comments!

    Matt, Taos Mountain was sadly missed this round. Next time!

    Kaid, I agree on all points, with the caveat that places suited (environmentally, socially, economically, and politically) to full-on preservation and places absolutely due for further infill and densification do not really constitute the most difficult aspects of our challenge. The real challenge is those places in between, where one or more of those criteria are compromised. Do we hold out for full-on perfection or do we accept the inevitability of baby steps, some of which may be solid in some regards and of questionable value in others?

    Michelle, Portland and Multnomah County’s growth boundaries are definitely an inspiration to us all. Thanks for sharing the link! What an ambitious growth concept plan for 2000, much of which the rest of the continent still struggles with in 2013.

  4. Couldn’t agree with you more!! Great article!! In my book, the “innovative solution” is linking the overlapping benefits of farmland preservation/watershed protection with inner city revitalization – specifically youth mentoring.
    Charles Moore, AICP

  5. Will Cawthern says

    Excellent points, Hazel! I notice you passed Tetilla Peak — hopefully you got to visit one of the local Pueblos. I once worked at Cochiti Pueblo’s (NM) Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and was impressed by their knowledge and expertise in agriculture, despite much bureaucracy (BIA, EPA, etc.) and natives’ long histories of relegation to what used to be believed the poorest quality land.
    Laws like the Dawes Act make Indian reservations (which constitute much of America’s still-rural land) are in fact checkerboards of Indian and non-native landowners, so development initiatives — for better or for worse — are politically challenged. Things like the Keystone XL pipeline get forced through without much input by the people there: native nations.
    Because of points like you raise in this article, Indian reservations will increasingly become a focus of attention when discussing rural preservation in America.


  1. […] about as much is that a big part of our raison d’etre is that these compact patterns save our farmlands, rangelands, and wilderness from being gobbled up as quickly, and that walkable places reduce vehicle miles traveled and help […]

  2. […] choice impact the earth. We’ve blogged about compact development patterns as a tool for rural preservation. We’ve explored the rapid change for the Inuit living on the land, where they’ve gone “from […]

  3. […] and conversations with my farming friends point to a good yield, I’ve been thinking about how to preserve these lands. Rural communities are often the ones with the greatest constraints, especially when it comes to […]

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