Northfield’s greenbelt

New urban cow

“How to protect America’s countryside from sprawl” got my attention because of the word countryside – a very British term – and because it’s not the rural side of the boundary which gets the attention, usually, but the development pattern inside cities.  Still, the “how” in the article is really just a list:

There are strategies available for helping to maintain and strengthen rural landscapes and working lands, and slowing the loss of farms and farmers, forest and other resource lands…these can include “use value” taxation, purchase/transfer of development rights, assisting local farms with agricultural economic development such as direct farm-to-market programs, urban purchasing agreements, ecosystem services markets, right-to-farm laws and, crucially, extra low density zoning.  Promoting conservation easements can also be important.  Newly emerging strategies such as putting rural land to 21st-century nonpolluting uses with wind farms and biomass generation may also be promising in some areas.

To help with thinking about how we protect the countryside, we need to be able to express the value of open space, green infrastructure, agricultural land, and natural resources in economic terms and in measurable improvements to air quality, water quality, and, of course, quality of life.

Part of this, of course, is anticipating objections from the folks who don’t want to be told what to do with their private property.   If land was like an apartment building, where each parcel was completely separate from its neighbor with wall-like barriers at the property lines ensuring nothing would drift across into the neighboring property, then I’d agree.  I’d completely agree if each parcel was completely self-sufficient.  As it is, private property shares (and pays for) public resources like streets and pipes, as well as natural resources light, air, water, trees, etc.  Because we do share resources and share the financial burden  for them, I’d say we have to balance private property/public good to make our community as economically sustainable as possible.

Which is where I get back to the smart growth idea of knowing the value of open space to help create some additional incentive to increase density and put more taxpayers per acre (or foot of pipe) so we each pay less.  And I get back to England, too.

England, a country with many people but not much land – the UK is a bit smaller than Oregon but Oregon has about 3.8 million people and the UK has over 60 million – created greenbelts around major metropolitan areas in the 1950s (London’s greenbelt dates to the 1930s) to “stop urban sprawl and the merging of settlements, preserve the character of historic towns and encourage development to locate within existing built up areas.”  Now, facing a housing shortage (of millions of homes), England has been revisiting its greenbelt planning policy which has the potential to dramatically reshape the countryside.  I’m waiting to see what happens.

For Northfield, I think about the four townships surrounding the city as our de facto greenbelt, at least for now.  Waterford and Bridgewater townships have been clear about maintaining their rural character and perhaps we could help them do it because it would make good sense for the city, too.  As in Kaid Benfield‘s piece, the “how we do it” part is still undeveloped, so to speak.

3 thoughts on “Northfield’s greenbelt

  1. What I think is interesting about discussions of rural/urban land use is the general attitude that farming and open space are not legitimate land uses, to be protected. If we look at a zoning map of the city, it’s sort of a non-issue that the lands south and east of the middle school are in the “urban expansion zone”. Likewise, it’s not problematic for the city to plan for for a business park on existing farmland, miles from the City core.

    However, imagine if you were to paint a “planned redevelopment district” over Mayflower Hill. As suburban sprawl, that is a protected land use, with a lot more people to be upset if that land use is to change.

    I will say: that’s not universal. In landlocked cities, like Richfield, you see dozens of homes and businesses coming down for redevelopment (like Best Buy corporate, Shops at Lyndale, and the new Target/Home Depot). That’s not to say Northfield should or needs to do that. But it’s interesting how that sort of land use change seems kind of disturbing, while continuing to pave over farmland is almost a natural process.

    For what it’s worth: I’d like to see the city focus residential growth on already-developed tracts of land, like the unincorporated developments north of County Road 1, the unincorporated developments at the junction of Old Dutch Rd and Highway 19, and the Waterford CDP. The Highway 3 commercial corridor between Northfield and Waterford is another similar area. Acknowledging that annexing and retrofitting those areas is far easier said than done, it makes much more societal sense to be extending services into (and collecting property taxes off of) the open space that’s already been (somewhat) filled in — rather than just throwing the city’s effort into whatever chunk of land a farmer and a developer have shaken hands on.

    • I agree, Sean, about how undeveloped land has been conceptualized. In addition to the urban expansion areas, until the new land development code, all land annexed into the city was “Ag Holding” – or agricultural until the development came along.

      Anyone reading my blog knows that I favor maximizing the use of existing infrastructure and increasing density because of the financial advantage (more taxpayers per foot of roadway or more value per acre) and the non-motorized transportation advantage from density. The other side of that is preserving open space for food, wildlife, air/water quality, etc. Thoughtful planning at the macro scale – like some of the infill/redevelopment areas you mention – is going to be crucial for maintaining the city economically and environmentally and I’d really like to shift the conversation from believing this is an unacceptable intrusion into property rights and on personal liberty (we already intrude in many ways more invasive than this) to a question of how government can manage the shared services and infrastructure and land use to be affordable over the long term (and the environmental part is also about what we can afford – if we wreck the water, for example, it’ll cost a lot more to fix it).

      • The issue of $$ efficiency/productivity is one that I think is good to focus on. I intend to blog on this myself, but it is troubling how little property tax dollars are produced by newer development — relative to the size — than more compact development.

        Example: Target pays 288k a year of property taxes. Which is great for the city’s coffers, of course, but they also occupy 12 acres of land. 12 acres to manage. 12 acres’ worth of streets around the site, to plow, seal coat, and resurface. And those 12 acres work out to paying about $0.52 per square foot per year of what chunk of Northfield they occupy. Compare that to the Central Block building at Bridge Square: they pay 30k/yr, but occupy a paltry 0.22 acres. By comparison, they pay $3.34 per square foot of their land — over six times what Target’s paying.

        Obviously the numbers are all smaller with residential development, but the same issue applies. Just as acres of parking are not a financially (or socially) productive land use, acres of irrigated turfgrass aren’t either. For the city’s interest, high-value growth at a high density (or, hell, just not having acres of setback and parking) seems to be best.

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