field and city

Call me crazy, but I think farmers have natural allies in the people who are most excited about living in cities.

Urbanists want neighborhoods where they can walk to the store and other frequent destinations, and where they can bike or take public transit for most other trips around town. They want cities to be vibrant and pleasant places to spend time.

Urbanists lament the zoning of the postwar United States, in which land uses are often crisply separated. Urbanists say this leads to vast suburban housing developments and yawning shopping centers, all but requiring people to drive wherever they want to go.

Well into the 20th century, cities and towns were compact, densely populated and filled with mixed-use buildings — storefronts on street level, residential or office floors above.

Mixed-use districts allow people to take a quick walk to the grocery store, give children a degree of autonomy before they are of driving age, and may even produce a city of moderate-height buildings instead of unwieldy skyscrapers.

The urbanist model also fits more people onto a shorter length of street than the suburbs do, which reduces the amount of pavement taxpayers must shell out to maintain.

Urbanists’ concerns may not seem like farmers’ problems, but in some sense they are.

The low-density development that urbanists deplore hogs acres and acres of land that were once used to produce crops and livestock.

If we can make cities nicer to live in and easier to get around, maybe we can prevent some sprawl that would otherwise gobble up more farmland.

If we can help cities not be sties of gridlock and decay, maybe we can persuade people they don’t need to go to the suburbs for the good life.

In other words, walkable cities could protect farmable land.

I have three ideas for how farmers can find common cause with urbanists.

1. Support dense, mixed-use zoning in your county’s urban growth areas.

These areas are usually adjacent to existing towns, so they tie into existing infrastructure and keep development concentrated.

If you’re going to add 100 families to an area, it makes more sense to put them where some services already exist than to dump them on an outlying farm that just happened to be auctioned at the right time.

2. Be OK with funding for urban infrastructure like bike lanes and transit.

In rural Pennsylvania, I know people often begrudge any funding going to Philadelphia, but transportation projects help people get around and may allow the city to stay more attractive than the suburbs.

3. Oppose ordinances that prescribe needlessly large lot sizes in residential developments.

Expansive suburban lots consume huge amounts of farmland for the number of people living on them.

They are a missed opportunity to build modest-sized houses, which are in extremely short supply in today’s market.

And large lots mean large lawns, which may receive environmentally questionable amounts of lawn fertilizer.

To be clear, I don’t want to create a moratorium on city people moving to the country. Such a strategy would merely repackage the segregationist impulses that contributed to last century’s suburbanization.

In fact, in rural areas that have been battered by depopulation and economic decline, I’d argue we want people moving in.

But where a growing population is putting pressure on farmers — a reality in many parts of the Mid-Atlantic — urbanist principles could protect good farmland while improving the quality of life for everyone involved.


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