Development of "greenfields," or previously undeveloped land, is expanding at alarming rates, contributing to degraded environments and isolated, car-dependent communities. This needs to stop.
Greenfields have been ravaged by sprawl development for decades. Perversely, at the same time, many American Rust Belt cities have been facing devastating property abandonment and population losses, known as the "shrinking cities" phenomenon. Could two negatives make a positive?
In other words, greenfield developers need space and infrastructure. Shrinking cities have excess space and infrastructure. Logic suggests that each could fulfill the needs of the other.
Consider these alarming development trends:
- Since 1955, the conversion of open space to impervious developed space has increased by 300 percent while the population has increased by only 75 percent.
- Over the next 50 years, developed land area is projected to increase between 39 million acres (larger than Florida) and 69 million acres (larger than Colorado).
Greenfield development not only eliminates valuable farmland, wetlands, and forest; it also fragments habitats, leads to high levels of carbon emissions, and impairs water quality. A 2008 study by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection
found that, once upstream impervious cover reached just 12 percent, none of the 125 sites that were analyzed met Connecticut's Water Quality Standards' aquatic life goals.
Yet, complacency and even encouragement of greenfield development abounds, even in areas where you would expect more enlightenment. For instance, on the website for the Sustainable Cities Institute at The National League of Cities, there is actually a list of guidelines and recommendations for implementation: "Greenfield development is an extremely attractive development option for several reasons..."
In contrast to the rapacious growth in greenfield development, shrinking cities, such as Detroit, St. Louis, and Buffalo, have lost approximately 50 percent of their populations since 1950. This decline is compounded by eroding employment, plummeting home values, diminishing tax bases, concentrations of poverty, and abandoned properties. In Buffalo, 30 percent of the city now comprises vacant lots, and the poverty rate is 27 percent.
Could shrinking cities play a positive role in scaling back the pace and magnitude of greenfield development? The simple answer is yes, provided barriers such as land use policies, community resistance, regulatory impediments, and costs are removed or reduced. This is starting to happen.
Still, while precise figures on available vacant, pre-developed land are hard to pin down, the availability of such sites does not equal the projected demand, assuming the low density, sprawling forms that currently characterize greenfield development. Higher densities are essential along with policies that aggressively reward infill development and dissuade greenfield development.
Is our society capable of this shift? The trend of younger populations rejecting the suburbs and moving into cities is an encouraging sign. After all, in the words of Doug Farr, the urban planner and author of Sustainable Urbanism, "Greenfield development is so last century."
— Kathleen Bakewell, Founder & Executive Director, BioCities