Land use: A largely unspoken issue

If you ask Europeans visiting the United States what they see as the No. 1 environmental problem here, it is interesting to hear the vast majority come up with the same opinion.

No, it?s not air pollution or water pollution.<

p>I have talked to persons from Scotland, England, Denmark, Norway, France and Germany, and I can?t remember even one of them who didn?t come up with a different priority concern.

It?s land use. They can?t believe the ease with which our local, state and federal governments allow the leap frogging of malls, other commercial developments and residential areas into the countryside on the basis of profit to developers.

They can?t believe we assign such a low value to the lands that produce food that any other use of the same ground would take precedence. They seem to remember the hunger during two world wars and the years between them as reminders to preserve both land and farmers.

Call the French ?bloody frogs? if you want to for not favoring our more efficient system to provide them with more food imports, but they seem to want to preserve their food system and heritage.

An Englishman said to me, ?You Yanks act as though you?ll never run out of land, but it will happen. In England there are protesters any time a new highway is proposed. We don?t want England covered all the way with highways. There?s only so much land on an island.?

In their countries, Europeans say, proposed new businesses or land uses are brought before government boards?not just to determine whether the entities involved can make a go of the business, but also to determine if the change will be to the long-lasting benefit of the community.

This brings to mind where we are at now in our country. We are entering an era where fuel prices, economic disparities and other concerns are indisputably changing our social order, how we go about things.

Essayists have been writing on topics such as rebuilding inner cities, the decline in suburban values with high fuel prices as people move back to the cities where the jobs are rather than commute, the decline of bedroom communities unless they find other reasons for existence, the return of investment in railroads, and so on.

I would say it?s time to re-examine how we regard land use, both personally and at the government level. Historically, land in the United States often has been treated as a cheap trading commodity.

Remember how land hand-outs to the railroads helped develop them, and Lincoln?s land grant that gave a quarter-section each to homesteaders? I won?t address here who the land was taken from to make it cheap.

After Lincoln?s death it was proposed that every ex-slave be given 40 acres and a mule. I wish they?d done that, but they didn?t. Now the average mile of four-lane interstate takes nearly as much ground at 32 acres, and it seems we think very little about it.

We have evolved to the point that when a newly married couple buys a first home, somewhere in the back of their minds ideas are already germinating on how it will be sold to buy the home that will be the family?s next step up. And they aren?t even labeled as real-estate speculators.

What happened to the idea that a home is a little like marriage? Your home could be a part of you, something you value?even with ties of love.

Somehow the idea of land as a commodity is locked in our psyches. It?s an American mindset justified by profits and ambitions.

But let?s think here. Every leap into the countryside has met with a corresponding decline of the inner city. New strips replace downtown.

Do we really want to see non-stop development from Wichita to Newton, and perhaps onward eventually to Salina? Do we really want that newly urban space replacing the farmland of eastern Kansas from Kansas City to Lawrence to Topeka to Manhattan?

I remember the green fields between Olathe and Kansas City as a youngster. Now there?s talk of how soon KC will swallow Ottawa, or whether it already has.

I even remember the first time I saw the Shenandoah Valley with its dairies and Philadelphia with farms and forests marching into the city.

The lake set in the Virginia countryside where my in-laws settled in the 1970s is just another part of the Washington, D.C., metro complex now. Another new relative by marriage agonizes over the last disappearances of open land within the Philadelphia metro.

Now, I?m not anti-people. I don?t want all of the undeveloped land being moved into national parks or being purchased by conservancies. If I had my way, I might dry up silted-in federal reservoirs for homesteading by new young farmers.

But I would like to the start of see a serious discussion at all levels on land use, and how we are going to preserve the lands of this country. I would like to see our psychology turn from giving a city a three-mile zone of influence, thinking therefore of its future annexations and expansions, to thinking of increasing the quality of the city while largely preserving that three-mile radius of land.

I would like the real estate sales persons who are reading this, and saying to themselves, ?This guy is wanting to cut my livelihood,? to change attitudes. I would like them to say, ?This is how I?m going to sell downtown and the homes around it.?

The time to discuss land use is now, during a time of change that will force us to make choices.

Jerry Engler covers Marion city, county and agricultural issues for the Free Press.

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