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Good Growing

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Protecting the Countryside: The importance of open space


This week's Good Growing column is not going to center on gardening. Instead, we are going to look at the bigger picture of the landscape.

Confession time – while I did study horticultural science at SIUC, my final three years of formal education was a Masters of Landscape Architecture at Kansas State University. The majority of landscape architects (LAs) are not trained in horticultural or botanical sciences. LAs typically, aren't the ones to diagnose your tomato disease or ask for a quote on mowing the lawn. Some LAs specialize in residential design or site design, where they work with individual property owners on the fine details to create spectacular landscapes. Other LAs, may have their roots in horticulture or botany and use that emphasis in their work.

However, many LAs work in the big picture. Much of my class time at K-State was devoted to community and regional development and planning. This is a broad-scale of the landscape dealing with acres and sometimes square miles of land.

As we examine historical land use prior to World War II, most Americans lived in a rural setting. Today, 80 percent of Americans live in an urban area. That type of population shift caused our cities balloon in size, known as urban sprawl. The growth of cities continues with 6,000 acres of open land converted to development per day, according to the US Forest Service. Additionally, the US Forest Service predicts by 2060 total urban and developed area will increase by 39 to 69 million acres.

Which finally brings us to the point of this article – the loss of agricultural and natural landscapes to development. Agricultural and natural landscapes provide urban areas with food and natural resources. Natural landscapes such as forests, wetlands, and prairie create habitat for wildlife, clean our air and water, help to build soil, absorb stormwater, and give humans a place for recreation. The spread of cities and towns into open space has become quite a balancing act and one that is sure to become more complicated.

The developer term used to describe ag or natural landscapes untouched by the bulldozer is "greenfield". A common misconception is that economic growth is characterized by the horizontal expansion of the city or town across the landscape. This greenfield development takes place on the fringes of town and creeps outward into the countryside. These new developments are desirable to most, but they do come with extra costs of infrastructure maintenance and loss of tax revenue to municipalities as residents move outside of city limits. Meanwhile, the existing properties within the town must deal with aging infrastructure, loss of citizens, and reduced property value.

Reinvesting within existing development can also be considered a potential for economic growth. Many communities are working to preserve open space and slow the outward growth of their towns and cities by encouraging reinvestment in downtowns and existing residential neighborhoods.

Portland, Oregon created an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). In its simplest form, areas outside of the UGB are preserved as agriculture use or preserved natural areas. Other developers incorporate agriculture within the community called 'agrihoods'. Kane County Illinois has taken big steps to preserve half of the county's land as agriculture use and open space. Other counties implement comprehensive plans to direct growth. An option for private landowners are land trusts.

The above-mentioned options are not always perfect or agreed-upon by everyone, but they can help protect agricultural and natural landscapes. One other thing I learned at K-State is to develop communities that respond to the needs of the people, the voices of the citizens need to be part of the planning process. Having knowledge of these different development strategies is important when gathering for community planning.

Whew, that is enough urban planning talk. Next week its back to the exciting things of life - plants, bugs, and disease.


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