Mapping a Blueprint for Open Space

Mon January 12, 2004 - Northeast Edition

In the following interview, Adesoji O. Adelaja, one of the nation’s leading authorities on land use policy, reflects on open space challenges and solutions.

Adelaja became the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor in Land Policy at Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI, on Jan. 1 of this year.

He was previously executive dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the dean of Cook College at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.

Q. Open Space is a very important issue, is it not?

A. Open space conservation or growth management may well be the most important domestic issue facing our nation today. It relates directly to the future of our land and natural resource base, our economy, the health of our communities and our quality of life.

These are important national and state issues that warrant visionary solutions and strategy. However, the decisions that shape our future in this important area are largely made at the local level by individuals in towns and communities across our nation, often in uncoordinated fashions and without broader state and national objectives in mind.

For example, New Jersey is the most built and most suburbanized state in the nation and it is no surprise that it also faces some of the most significant challenges in traffic congestion, property taxes, out-migration of manufacturing jobs, and other factors that are critical to quality of life. To address these issues, more rational and coordinated local decisions are needed, and that would require greater state involvement in these decisions.

New Jersey is one of the few states that has defined a broader role for state government in land use and taken action. Land use issues will increasingly move beyond the purview of local authorities and appear on state or national radar screens.

Q. Are states acting to get more control?

A. Of course, and rightfully so. A dozen or more states have made the transition by making land use a state level policy issue.

With the State Development and Redevelopment Plan and the creation of the Garden State Preservation Trust, which has the goal of farm and open space preservation, New Jersey is at the forefront of this trend. Pennsylvania will likely be moving in this direction.

In Michigan, my new state, Gov. Granholm empanelled a bi-partisan Land Use Leadership Council early in 2003 to help define the state’s vision for land use. The council’s recommendations represent a blueprint for the state’s future and she is beginning to act on the recommendations of the council.

This is a pivotal time in Michigan’s history. Michigan may well be the next state to implement sweeping state-level policy to incentivise progressive land use activity at the state and local levels.

The state wants to shape its own future by acting to protect its natural resource base, enhance the vitality of agriculture and other land based industries, creating healthy communities, encouraging urban revitalization and sound transportation policies, promoting regional collaboration in planning and promoting smart growth.

However, we also recognize the importance of balancing local needs against state sustainability needs.

One of the things that I believe is unique about Michigan is the role the academic community wants to play in finding solutions to land use problems. The state is poised to base its future on sound science, good information and innovative solutions.

As the state’s land grant institution, Michigan State University is committed to mobilizing its intellectual resources to support these important choices that the state will be making. One of my responsibilities is to lead this mobilization effort.

Q. Please explain some of the challenges in land use and open space management.

A. These are indeed complex issues.

First, we need to recognize that sprawl and our unfettered pattern of land consumption are pretty much the result of consumer demand.

People are pushed to seek new homes outside the cities by quality of life concerns such as low school quality, high crime rate and lack of jobs. People are pulled into suburbs and rural areas by the absence of these problems as well as the desire for larger homes, better lifestyles, more open space and other factors.

The real estate and developer community is largely catering to what society wants.

Hence, the demand for growth management and open space preservation stems from the need to address the conflict between what individuals want today and what is in the best interest of the broader society and future generations.

Land use is a “public goods” or “externality” issue.

A typical family that can afford it wants a good-size home. That is the American Dream. However, if everyone had such homes, our broader society would be worse off in the long run.

We have limited land resources and have to think about consuming them in a way that keeps options open for future generations. Appropriate balance is important because open space is a non-renewable resource.

Some say that New Jersey will be the first state to be built out. If this happens, the next generation’s options would be limited. The state’s options will be limited in terms of the ability to shape the future.

Q. Can you comment on the connection between congestion, development and open space initiatives? How serious is the situation?

A. One of the most prominent demographic trends in the United States is the suburbanization of our nation or the dispersion of our urban populations.

Our national population is growing, but most of our cities are losing population and many of our old, historical industrial states have not gained much population. People are moving away from towns and cities where we have already developed infrastructure, transportation systems, employment centers. They are moving into new homes in communities where new infrastructure needs to be built to accommodate such homes.

Of course, the average new suburbanite prefers homes with much greater footprint and lot size than the typical city town-house he/she left behind. By this process, we are leaving behind abandoned homes, dilapidated infrastructure and communities without the requisite tax base for viability.

As more and more metropolitan-type activities are migrating their ways into communities that were previously rural and people are moving farther and farther away from employment centers, we observe more traffic problems, stress, congestion and automobile pollution. Such problems adversely impact on quality of life in many of our states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

As an example, let me highlight one typically obscure aspect of traffic problems. In my research on New Jersey, we found that the majority of trucks transporting goods on our highways are carrying food and kindred related products. This makes sense basically because we buy and consume food daily, compared to furniture, appliances, computers, etc.

You can imagine the implications of traffic problems for food delivery costs. Traffic problems result in excess delivery charges and sometimes late fees. You can imagine the implications of traffic problems for pollution and the environment as trucks and cars wait at toll booths.

Half a century ago, on the other hand, many more people lived in the communities in which they worked and didn’t face some of these problems.

Q. How does this impact state economies?

A. Sprawl and congestion impact state competitiveness.

In many municipalities, the cost of providing services to each new home exceeds the property tax revenues that such home generate, so taxes increase for everyone and the state becomes more expensive to live in. Sprawl and the growth management strategies implemented by many towns also run counter to affordable housing principles.

Companies are looking for states with high quality of life, limited congestion, healthy communities, access to good-quality labor, and reasonable taxes. The more developed a state is, the higher the property taxes, the level of congestion, and the cost of transportation.

I wanted to comment about the relationship to the absence of multi-jurisdictional planning and cooperation.

As an example, the fire station in the community I lived in in New Jersey was within two miles of the stations in most surrounding towns. We need towns to cooperate to reduce duplication. The duplication that comes from sprawl and home rule impose high costs and diminished quality of life on taxpayers.

Q. So how would you address the problem?

A. We need more responsible and creative planning and such planning must occur across current local jurisdictional boundaries.

Rather than build more communities where people have nowhere to walk to, we need to create incentives for communities to come together to plan for healthy living, rational transportation flows and better overall quality of life. We need aggressive brownfield redevelopment incentives in our states. We need to plan for communities that are safe and where children have the ability to walk to school and where our community layout does not contribute to childhood obesity.

Couldn’t we work more exercise routines into our activity instead of constantly transporting our kids by car? We need to bring the public along through education so that they can better understand how their choices constrain the future.

Q. Is there a conflict between those who want to relieve congestion by building highways and those who want to preserve open space?

A. In my mind, there may well be.

Obviously, as we build more highways to take care of congestion, we further open up our rural areas and suburbs to sprawl and create long-term opportunities to consume more land and natural resources. I think that the solution is to think more comprehensively about city and suburban transportation networks and designs that complement our growth, community health and quality of life objectives. We must also encourage communities that are well planned and that contribute to our objectives. I prefer that we look for creative win-win policy situations.

For example, one standard tool that communities use to manage growth and preserve open space is to impose maximum housing densities. This is called downzoning. A result is that the average new home consumes more land, rather than less. Given the high cost of land in urbanizing areas, only the rich can typically afford to buy the types of homes that can be built on large lots or to maintain such large lots. So, downzoning runs contrary to affordable housing goals of communities while it may accelerate land consumption.

I advocate “up-zoning” as opposed to down-zoning. Instead of 200 homes on 400 acres, perhaps we could have 1,200 homes on 400 acres and then dedicate a space within the community to open space. Along with Paul Gottlieb, my colleague at Rutgers, I am currently investigating the implications of up-zoning.

Upzoning would involve setting minimum housing density as the norm and the application of impact fees (green payments) for constructions that exceed the target maximum lot size. We believe that this is a creative solution.

Q. Are you advocating a return to towns and cities?

A. I am. In many of our states, most residents live in cities and metropolitan areas and the health of our residents depend on the condition of these cities and towns. In many cases, the towns do not have the tax base to be viable. We need to make cities more attractive, livable and lively.

But this is only one dimension of what I am advocating. I’m advocating for more rational thinking at the local, regional and state levels in terms of how we act in land use. Right now, developers and planning boards, many of whom have little training in planning, are making decisions that will shape our futures.

I am advocating for more educational programs for local planning officials. At Michigan State University, we have a great program called the Citizen Planner program through which experts from the university help expand the knowledge base of local officials through training in planning. We are also working on a project with the Farmland and Community Alliance to survey the next generation of homebuyers to find out what they really want, and to then educate developers about what the housing choices of the future would likely be.

There is a looming question out there about whether or not developers provide housing choices that are consistent with what consumers want, or consumers simply buy from the pool of what developers make available to them. Our study will reveal more about this issue.

We need to do a little more thinking about what we want our future to be like, what we want our communities to look like. We need to do more regional planning. Many townships face sprawl problems and are afraid of runaway property taxes. We need to come up with cooperative solutions which are mutually beneficial.

Q. Is there more legislation about open space?

A. We’re seeing more and more policy action, not only at the state and county levels, but also at the municipal level.

For example, in 1988, New Jersey passed the $1 billion Garden State Preservation Trust fund that targets $1 billion of state funds toward open space and farmland preservation over a 10-year period.

This billion dollars will leverage more money at the county and municipal level because counties and municipalities are, in turn, passing open space preservation ordinances that impose open space taxes or millage to support their preservation efforts.

The way the New Jersey program is designed, townships can partner with their counties to apply for state funds. All tolled, we may be talking about as much as $2 billion to $2.5 billion in open space preservation funding over the 10-year period.

Nationwide, we are seeing growing interest in statewide referenda which would commit taxpayer money to preservation. We also are seeing more counties, like Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, implementing open space taxes. Many towns and municipalities are also passing such taxes. However, I think that where the action is really going to be is at the state level.

State programs can create incentives for local governments to pass open space referenda. I expect to see very, very aggressive programs emerge out of some of our states in the next five to seven years designed to catalyze county and municipal action for preserving open space.

You know, it actually makes economic sense to preserve open space. Studies have shown that most residential development will result in higher property tax burdens on communities and the diminution of natural and environmental resources. Fresh air, open space, and good quality water are non-renewable resources. So, society pays a high price when you pave open space over.

Q. Land use and open space issues are relevant to towns and cities?

A. Yes. Even urban areas need to be concerned about open space.

First, open space provides air and water quality benefits, as well a pleasant landscape which most people want.

Secondly, open space amenities are currently more limited in cities. With respect to land use in general, we need to be concerned about how to revitalize our cities through sound land use policy. Philadelphia, for instance, lost population and jobs, compared with 50 years ago. The resulting abandoned industrial sites, or brownfields, need to be repositioned. The infrastructure is there, the sewage systems are there, but people are going to the suburbs and building new homes that require new infrastructure such as septic tanks.

Rather than subsidizing sprawl, we should be subsidizing the return of corporations to cities. A question here in Michigan is how do we develop new tools that would make it easier for developers to choose urban projects rather than those which lead to sprawl.

There is evidence that the younger generation and the so-called creative class increasingly find cities attractive. They like to be close to the things they enjoy, including nightlife, museums, and theaters. We need to capitalize on this trend by developing policies that encourage infrastructure, which will attract this class.

In Michigan, Gov. Granholm just held the “Cool Cities” conference in which the creative class was well represented. Our researchers at Michigan State are currently thinking about incentives to capitalize on the “Cool Cities” concept.

Q. On a best-case basis, what may happen in the future in the open space area?

A. I think our nation has a fairly good chance of seeing many of the great open space and sprawl ideas coming to fruition.

Open space issues are being taken seriously by many states. At the federal level, the open space concerns of our communities are appearing on the radar screen. Federal funding now exists to assist states and communities preserve open space, but we have a long way to go.

I am optimistic. With all these activities and discourse about the importance of open space, I expect that we will make great strides toward healthier communities in the not-so-distant future. We will see more, better-planned communities. I believe that one of the most differentiating factors in housing today is lot-size and it does not need to be. If we can come up with a mechanism for minimizing the consumption of land, developers will compete less on the basis of lot size, but more on the basis of other amenities associated with a new home.

Hopefully, developers of the future will make more profit based on their good designs and good landscapes. I think that in the next few decades, researchers, scientists and planners will come up with creative means through which developers can “do well by doing good.”

Developers are very important to the economy and I believe that they will take advantage of tools to achieve more sustainable communities if made available to them. Smart states will eventually start coming up with creative programs to encourage developers to pursue initiatives consistent with smart growth tenets. I do not think that we have much of an alternative.

Q. What role does rising income play in all of this?

A. One of the major determinants of land consumption is income. It drives the demand for lot size.

I have often argued that as Americans get wealthier, we have a tendency to capitalize our wealth into private open space in our homes, as opposed to public spaces. It may be good for the current generation to enjoy access to its own private space, but this jeopardizes the opportunities for future generations to enjoy public open space.

Q. So the economics of land use are very much involved?

A. Very much so. These issues are complicated, but we have no options but to find solutions.