Land Gluttony

Just as population is increasing by large amounts and land wanted for development is dwindling, sprawl developments are getting less and less dense. Developers want you to think there's no problem.

By Joel S. Hirschhorn
Published August 22, 2005

(This opinion piece focuses on America, but the author's arguments apply equally to Canadian cities that have followed the American path of suburban sprawl.)

With so much attention to the invasion of illegal immigrants and skyrocketing gasoline prices in the United States, it is hard to get people worked up about another out-of-control problem. We're running out of land.

In discussions about suburban sprawl, look out for land-lies. Sprawl supporters' 'abundant land' argument is their most misleading, foolish and dangerous argument. Sprawl, they argue, can keep sucking up land as if there's no tomorrow. Do not be fooled when sprawl shills say only a small fraction, about five percent, of the entire nation's land has been developed, with the inference that we have sooo much land to sprawl on.

This is a general statistic for the whole nation. What matters from a market perspective is land where development is technically possible and where people want to live, not a simplistic and misleading statistic.

First, think about deserts, canyons, mountain ranges, steep hillsides, frigid northern plains, wetlands, barren and desolate regions, and flood plains, for example. There are also federal lands, tribal lands, and contaminated lands. Federally owned land is 83 percent of Nevada, 65 percent of Utah, and 63 percent of Idaho, for example, and overall is about 25 percent of all land.

Significant land is also preserved as parks, forests, wetlands, scenic vistas, and natural habitats, as it should be. Some historic land is precious because of cemeteries and old buildings. Already, 20 percent of historic civil war battlefields have been lost to development. Considerable land near railroad tracks, power lines, cell phone towers, and underground pipelines is undevelopable.

Other land is agricultural, and most Americans want to keep it that way. A survey of Seattle, Washington and Portland, Maine residents found that 91 percent believed it was important to preserve productive farmland. But one million acres a year are being lost to sprawl development. Do Americans really want to depend even more on imported foods that receive little government testing?

In contrast to land where development is impossible or unlikely, consider that some 53 percent of the United States population lives on just 17 percent of the land, excluding Alaska and Hawaii. The most desirable land is in coastal counties. Americans like living near oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes, even when natural hazards exist.

If there is any place where smarter development is urgently needed, it is on coastal lands, which contrary to the thinking of conservatives, is limited. Someone who wants to live in a coastal area is not likely to see living in Missouri or South Dakota as equally attractive.

California is the most populated state and the third largest after Alaska and Texas. Right-winger Randal O'Toole looks at the world through sprawl-tinted glasses and spreads the propaganda that California "is hardly running out of land," because only 8.6 percent of all land is developed for urban and rural living.

The Association of Environmental Professionals said: "Growth in California has always been outward toward open land. The paradigm is shifting as we realize that we have just about used up all the new developable land out yonder."

The 2002 "Invest for California" report said that the high growth counties of Los Angeles, Orange and Santa Clara will lack sufficient land to accommodate projected household growth through just 2010, if current development patterns continue. In high-growth San Diego, 88 percent of the land is developed. The Los Angeles Times ran a story in 2003 about Orange County reaching its final build-out and quoted a real estate analyst: "We're outta land. We don't have any dirt left."

Reflect on these other examples of voracious land consumption and, in some areas, land scarcity:

Think sprawl perfect storm. Just as population is increasing by large amounts and land wanted for development is dwindling, sprawl developments are getting less and less dense. More land is used for each house, and because subdivisions are more dispersed, more land is used for roads, water lines and other infrastructure.

Population growth is unrelenting – one more person every 11 seconds. Every 11 seconds! Think about 50 million or more people needing housing in the next 20 years, and 100 million or more by 2050. As the nation approaches a population of 400 million, sprawl's land consumption is unsustainable. By 2050 total national land developed would more than double, if current sprawl patterns of development continue. The sprawl industry's continued political influence will make us feel like the Crowded States of America.

All over the country single acres are already selling for $500,000 to $2 million, because they are in land-scarce areas with strong housing demand. Do pro-sprawl conservatives want to deny Americans the right to live in geographic areas they choose? Unbridled land development will do just that, especially for Americans who are not wealthy. In the long run, low density sprawl reduces housing affordability.

Greed drives land gluttony. By developing and consuming excessive amounts of land, the current pursuit of happiness by the few denies the future pursuit of happiness by the many. Children should learn this in school: Land developed is land lost. Someone who remains unconcerned about rapid U.S. land consumption after learning the truth about sprawl is like the person who falls off a 60-story building and upon passing the 20th floor still thinks "everything is okay." Do not succumb to land-lies from sprawl shills. An even uglier, crammed America is rushing at you.

Joel S. Hirschhorn, Ph.D., is the author of Sprawl Kills - How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health, and Money. He can be reached through his website: www.sprawlkills.com. Check out Joel's new book at www.delusionaldemocracy.com.


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By Jeff Jacobson (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2006 at 12:53:23

The problem is not sprawl. People need space to remain healthy! This said, I also beleive that we are running out of land. So what is the answer? Well Population control. Don't mistake me for a supporter of Chinese policy, I have a real solution. First off, we need to reinstitute the traditional family, where the children grow up and live on the family land. This would slow the loss of land, and have the added effect of stabalizing local communities. Next, we need to Take a real look at immigration, and only allow people who we need for some skill that our population does not possess! We can grow our own landscapers if we pay a decent wage, and remove the social stigma's associated with these types of jobs. Low skill jobs don't have to mean that a person is too stupid , ignorant, or poor to do a "real job"maybe they simply like horticulture and the out doors. next, we need to get away from the idea that eonomic growth is the only way to have a healthy economy. If we are at a zero population growth, we should be able to maintain a stable number of jobs. Stocks would no longer be a volital market where fortunes are created and lost, but dividends would be stable and could provide a good stable investment income over the years, and could even replace some aspects of our retirement system. Don't forget , that stocks can be willed to the next generation, who would have the same stable benefits when their time comes. This is a radical approach, but think of the possiblities. What is needed is a sweeping change in how every aspect of our system works. Protect the freedoms of citizens, but why do we have to let anyone else in. Let them bring goods to the border, (if they accept our wage and labor standards in their country, and if their is complete trade resiprosity, )and Americans can distribute them as we desire.We don't need their man power, or their permission, and the foreign interests earn a profit only on the whole sale price of goods, with Americam interests retaining all retail profits here at home .Keep the finance market here as well, and see how healthy our economy looks, how how muck land use we save!

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By Kate (anonymous) | Posted December 20, 2007 at 11:01:56

I think the point about land choice being only for the wealthy is a good one, and to continue on a similar thread, one thing I think is that people are not content with what they have. I grew up on a farm, in a small town, and I remember there were (and still are) some houses in the area that were only occupied in the summer, then their (fairly wealthy) residents would go back to their "winter house". This needs to stop. You don't need more than one house, and people need to stop and think "do I really need to build this house in *insert place here* when I already have a house in *insert place here*? If you really wish to live elsewhere during the more brutal seasons (winter in Northern Canada for example) rent. If we all worked together, it wouldn't be that expensive. We need to stop building more than we need.

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