News & Views » David Walters

Going, Going, Gone

Coveted rural landscape is disappearing fast

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Urban living is cool and chic, and developers, like sharks after new blood, smell money. They invest in old buildings and create new ones that match the scale of the urban context, and there's a whole new shoal of young professionals and empty-nesters ready to bite the bait. As an urban designer, it's a pleasure to work in a context where market forces ally with good design principles to the benefit of all concerned.

But when I step out of downtown, my task as a community planner becomes much harder. In the rural counties surrounding Charlotte-Mecklenburg, it's a different story.

The settlement pattern in our region beyond Mecklenburg's borders is straightforward and ubiquitous: there are many attractive small towns with some good old downtown buildings and historic houses, but most of the area is farmland and open country, some of it exceptionally beautiful.

The towns have a problem: they're too far from Charlotte to benefit yet from the economic energy that radiates from the central city, but their time will come. If they can hold on to their good old building stock, the wave of desire for authentic urban surroundings will eventually reach them, especially as our wireless society allows people to work almost anywhere. It's the farmland that presents the more intractable problem. The "electronic cottage," where entrepreneurs commute by computer from their rural haven, might save some historic farmhouses, but this lifestyle does nothing for the fields of crops and herds of dairy cows.

Like the folks in my English home of Devon, a farming and fishing county in the far southwest of the country, next to Cornwall (the bit in the bottom left hand corner of the map that points toward America), country people in the Carolinas are hardy and independent. The Carolina farmers have worked hard on their land, and they don't particularly want anybody else telling them what they can do with it. It's their livelihood and their financial nest egg -- for themselves or their kids and grandkids.

But farming is getting harder and less profitable in America, as developing countries produce food, cotton and tobacco more cheaply. In our region, it's a disappearing way of life. Selling farmland for development is an increasingly attractive option for an aging workforce. Yet across our region, the single most important factor that's cited again and again as the number one factor for quality of life in these areas is "the rural environment," the very attribute that's under most threat.

Along with this appreciation for the qualities of country life comes a political attitude that is suspicious of government action and regulation. Citizens want to preserve a disappearing pattern of life and the physical environment that goes with it, but the last outfit they want to help them achieve that goal is the government! Given the farmers' profound antagonism to zoning rules, taxpayer-funded farmland preservation programs, and other government inspired notions of land regulation, it's ironic, even tragic, that these mechanisms are the only means of preserving the rural way of life and the landscape that supports it in America today.

Market forces and private action are powerless. The "free" market, if left to its own devices, will destroy the rural environment in less than a generation, building spotty subdivisions and strip malls across the landscape for suburbanites who flee the city for the fading illusion of living in the country. Rural two-lane roads get widened to four lanes, traffic speeds and volumes increase, woodlands are cut down, meadows covered with houses, ponds drained and streams culverted, all in the name of progress. You know this story well; we are all players in this same calamity.

Private land purchases by local land trusts can slow this process, but they can't buy whole counties. Only strict environmental zoning, innovative types of development like "conservation subdivisions" (where houses are clustered on only part of the site, leaving the main woodland and meadows untouched and preserved for posterity) and other sophisticated planning tools will save the landscape and give farming a fighting chance of survival.

Technically, the process of preserving farmland as a vital part of our region's economy is quite straightforward. Like a patchwork quilt of fields, fragments of good planning for rural conservation exist all across America, but only in a few places, like Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, are vigorous regional planning policies able to balance the financial and environmental needs of urban areas with their rural hinterlands. North Carolina lags well behind the curve of such sophisticated planning, and many folks in our region cast aside these policies as intrusive "big government."

As this process plays out around Charlotte, I sometimes feel powerless as I watch the inevitable demise of our agrarian landscape. I know how to help, but my help's not wanted.

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