Charlie Gardner is a Strong Towns member and blogger at Old Urbanist. The following essay is republished from his blog with permission.


It's an observation frequently made in urbanist circles that European towns and cities have starker divides between urbanized and undeveloped land than those of the United States, contributing to the perception that American cities are more "sprawling" than the urban areas of the old world.

As Let's Go LA wrote in a must-read post from a couple years back, however, there is a great variation in patterns of urbanization in various regions of the US.  While some parts of the country do feature land-intensive residential development, other areas are very compact.  I previously speculated that lot size on the city fringe, in the contemporary American context, is mainly a product of 1) agricultural land values and 2) availability of groundwater, which allows housing to be built (typically at low densities) in the absence of city sewers.  In areas where the value of land for agriculture is lower yet groundwater is abundant, such as in the Southeast US, very large lot sizes are observed.  In inland California, by contrast, where the climate and soil are optimal for high-value agricultural products and water is more scarce, cities are highly compact and lot sizes are small.

Tulsa, CA (from Google maps)

Tulsa, CA (from Google maps)

Tuscaloosa, AL (from Google maps)

Tuscaloosa, AL (from Google maps)

This all helps to highlight the differing attitudes of Western European countries towards the agricultural and/or rural landscape as compared to the United States.  At the risk of oversimplification, it is possible to carve out two competing visions of landscape preservation/conservation—one which I'll call the European, and the other the American:

European Vision

Appreciation of agricultural land for its cultural/aesthetic heritage, as reflected, for instance, in Britain's Town and Country Planning Act of 1947.  The notion of rural land as a public resource is also reflected in freedom to roam laws, which are largely unknown in the US.  Farming is heavily supported by the Common Agricultural Policy, which provides funds directly to small farmers rather than price supports for commodities, to the extent that land which would otherwise revert to forest or be sold for development is kept in agricultural production.  The appearance of compact European towns of tile-roofed houses dotted among crop fields and pastures is no accident, and instead is the result of public policy determined to "curate" legacy farm landscapes.

American Vision

Appreciation of dramatic wilderness landscapes with little or no evidence of human habitation, as reflected in the aesthetics of the Hudson River School of painting (not to mention Bob Ross) and, currently, in the US national park system.  Agricultural land, with a few major exceptions (see Lexington, KY), is generally not given significant, independent aesthetic or cultural value that is recognized in public policymaking.  Although loss of agricultural land is often mourned, few states or cities have policies that address the subject in a coherent and comprehensive way.    

Albert Bierstadt's Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California painting illustrates this untamed wilderness aesthetic.

Albert Bierstadt's Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California painting illustrates this untamed wilderness aesthetic.

These differences in policy appear to have resulted in significant differences not only in land use, but in employment as well.  Although the percentage of Americans involved in agriculture is today only 1.4 percent, with a total of around 2.1 million farms, France by itself has some 730,000 farms in only 6 percent of the total land area, with 7 percent of its population employed in agriculture.  It is difficult to judge the relative productivity of this farmland, but looking just at the value of food exports, France is at $68 billion as compared to the United States' $118 billion.

The European policy on agriculture is directed more at preserving farmland and subsidizing employment in agriculture, among other purposes, than it is in restricting the low-density spread of the automobile-based town or city, but the one is merely the flip side of the other.  In the absence of the limitations described above (high agricultural land values and scarce water), the condition often referred to as "sprawl" -- which I would prefer to spell out concretely as a leapfrog-like pattern of land-intensive, pod-like, low-density development -- seems to be a common condition in the context of high car ownership.

French villages and agriculture, south of Paris. (from Google maps)

French villages and agriculture, south of Paris. (from Google maps)

There are artificial means to imitate the above limitations, and they have been deployed with effect in some North American cities in the form of urban growth boundaries, as for instance in Lexington, KY, the state of Oregon and in Toronto, Ontario.  Rarely, though, does policy directly pertain to the subsidization of the activities that the boundary is intended to protect.  In Lexington, for instance, although the growth boundary was intended to preserve the area's legacy landscape of horse farms, tax subsides are offered to owners of large parcels regardless of whether any agricultural use is being made of the subject property.

The influential American environmental movement, on the other hand, has left little doubt as to the landscapes it favors protecting.  The Sierra Club's website doesn't seem to have any recognition of agricultural land, instead focusing almost entirely on wilderness, although most true wilderness is not under threat of urbanization.  The Nature Conservancy does mention agricultural land, but as a potential threat to natural resources.  Although many of the goals of these organizations are important and praiseworthy, the focus on nature, rather than the agricultural landscape, undermines their position with respect to urban policy and planning.  The Sierra Club has recently come under criticism in urban circles for appearing to support exclusionary zoning in certain contexts, while the Nature Conservancy's urban affairs expert seems to be at pains to make the case for dense urbanism to a skeptical audience.

I mention these examples, though, to reinforce the contrasting visions above.  The American imagination has traditionally been drawn to wild spaces rather than to the symbiosis between food and land (represented in the French term terroir).  Although the notion of "locally-sourced" food products has lately gained some traction, this has not translated into much if any public policy, and has has further been confused by cheerleading for the oxymoronic "urban agriculture" (although the very idea of local and/or urban agriculture could be interpreted as a pining for a sort of terroir).  A few New Urbanist developments have emphasized the connection between agriculture and urbanism, such as Serenbe in the outer reaches of Atlanta, but these are few and far between and have not been above criticism.  Local land trusts have embraced preservation of agricultural uses, but these organizations lack the scale necessary to guide policy at the regional scale.

None of this is to argue that the United States, or any other country, would necessarily benefit from European-style agricultural regulations.  What may be worth exploring, though, is the question of how agricultural economics affects urban form, and to consider how public policy in this area relates to goals for urban development.  Being the focus neither of urbanists nor environmentalists, agriculture has largely escaped significant land-use scrutiny in the United States.  It deserves more attention.


Related stories