Open Space

Another important environmental objection to suburbanization is the potential loss of open space. Many people want to discourage land development because it lessens their quality of life: Fields and grasslands are replaced by houses that disrupt the aesthetic beauty of a rural lifestyle. Thus, even though an individual family benefits from better housing and increased standard of living, the community may face a net loss because the value to existing residents is diminished by a loss in aesthetics.

Whether the current pace of suburbanization seriously threatens the loss of open space in Michigan is empirically debatable. At the state level, for example, the case for restricting land development to preserve open space is tenuous: More than 90% of Michigan’s land is rural — forest, cropland, or pasture. Moreover, as discussed in Part II, even counties with large cities devote substantial portions (e.g., more than 40%) of their area to cropland, grasslands, pasture, and forest. Thus, Michigan is not in serious danger of losing open space. Any state program to preserve open space would be focused on providing benefits to a relatively small and narrow geographic area, most likely suburban cities.

On the local level, the issue becomes more complicated. Local residents are often not as concerned about the loss of open space hundreds of miles away as they are in their own backyard. In Washtenaw County, for example, county commissioners passed a $3.5 million property tax proposal that would fund an effort to preserve open space in the county. Half of these tax revenues, $1.75 million, would be earmarked toward giving some farmers a lump sum payment in exchange for the legal right to develop their property for non-farm uses (e.g., housing) in the future. Peninsula Township near Traverse City established a similar program in 1994.

Despite local political interest in preserving open space, the state of Michigan already has a program in place that keeps millions of acres from development. Forty-one percent of Michigan’s farmland is enrolled in the Open Space and Farmland Protection program (established by Public Act 116) with agreements between farmers and the state government not to develop farmland for a minimum of 10 years. In addition, the state has established a program that will permanently remove even more farmland and open space from development. The federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program enrolls another 332,853 acres of farmland. Thus, substantial portions of Michigan farmland is placed off- limits to future development under existing programs.

Other issues become problematic as well. While many people may want to preserve open space, the appropriate amount of space is unclear. Should open space account for 10%, 20%, or 50% of total land area? "New Urbanists" — planners who favor increasing population densities in cities — argue that between 5% and 10% of land should be preserved for open space and parks in neighborhoods. Developers and planners who favor cluster housing development often argue that 20% to 40% of land should be reserved for open space. Thus, the "appropriate" amount of open space is highly subjective and fraught with imprecision. More importantly, unless all open land is protected from development, development will simply move further out into rural areas and exacerbate the already-negative perceptions of "sprawl."

Ironically, many people voice concerns over the loss of open space outside of urban areas and call for restrictions on development, which ultimately accelerate the loss of open space inside urban areas. The concept of an urban growth boundary is a case in point. Growth boundaries are often proposed as a way to promote "in-fill" — the development of vacant land within cities — and protect farmland by preventing development outside of a service area defined by local or regional governments. One of the most heralded examples of the growth boundary in practice is in Portland, Oregon. The Portland boundary encompasses 24 local governments and is administered by the nation’s only elected regional government, Metro. Metro is increasing population densities inside the boundary to accommodate future population growth rather than expand the boundary significantly to include more undeveloped farmland.

Preventing development in rural areas outside the boundary implies increasing density within the boundary. This means allowing more in-fill and consequently promoting the destruction of open space in urban areas through land-use policy. John Charles, environmental policy director for the Cascade Policy Institute in Portland notes that, "Growth boundaries cause such a shortage of land that developers will eventually do in-fill projects on odd-shaped parcels and other lands that would not ordinarily become developed. This loss should not be minimized because vacant lots have almost as much value as parklands for many urban residents." In fact, to meet current density requirements, notes Charles, "Metro is planning on the complete destruction of nearly all farmland inside the growth boundary." So growth boundaries and other limits on property development establish a trade-off — less open space inside the boundary (where most people live) for more open space outside the boundary (where most people do not live).

In other words, restrictions on suburban land development may enhance the aesthetic value of open space for those on the fringe, but they do little to improve the aesthetics for those living in the most heavily populated and urbanized portions of the city. In fact, growth controls may actively reduce the aesthetic value of inner-city living because they accelerate the loss of open space.