During the general economic boom in the mid-1990s, there was growing pressure to convert farmland to urban and suburban uses. Whether it was a new strip center, office parks, or housing subdivisions, the pressure was on. The desire for development was outpacing the short-term value of farmland and acre after acre was paved over. Many agriculturalists started waving the warning flags for unbridled conversion of food-producing farmland to non-farm uses. The pendulum was swinging in favor of commercial development.
In Indiana, agricultural leaders responded to this loss of farmland with two major initiatives. First, we formed an Agricultural and Natural Resources Land Use Working Group. The goal was to prepare a policy paper, Indiana Land Use on the Edge, that expressed the concerns and opportunities regarding land use from an agricultural perspective. Secondly, this group evolved into the Indiana Land Use Consortium, a group of 40+ organizations, serving as a catalyst for education and a forum for discussion to foster responsible land use decisions and practices in Indiana. The Consortium coordinated thirteen annual statewide conferences to increase awareness of the complex issues surrounding land use, reuse, and natural resource protection. Then around 2010 the pendulum swung the other direction.
The general economy crashed in 2008 and housing starts and commercial development screeched to a halt. Nationally, housing starts dropped to their lowest level since they began recording in 1959. Land previously purchased for retail centers or office parks sat idle while the general economy began to slowly dig out of a deep trough. Meanwhile, crop prices reached record levels, farm income jumped, and farmland values followed. At that moment farmers were buying all the land they could while developers were putting their plans on hold or abandoning them altogether.
Well, the pendulum has shifted again as the farm economy tanked in 2015 and the general economy’s recovery is signaling a new building boom. So what can we learn so that history doesn’t simply repeat its past mistakes?
- Density offers opportunities. Density makes sense and creates desired places where people can live while lessening their dependence on cars and commuting.
- Transportation and infrastructure are tools that can address or exacerbate community problems. For example, new or expanded roads typically extend the reach and increase the volume of commuters as well as encourage duplicative commercial development. New construction doesn't replace the old roads, just adds to the future maintenance bill.
- Don’t let 20th century infrastructure rules limit 21st century growth.
- Prime farmland’s highest and best use may be for producing food for a growing world.
- Food production can be local AND commercial and we will benefit from embracing multiple delivery channels.
- Changing work patterns (e.g. work from home/technology/flexible scheduling/balanced school calendars) are affecting space and place needs, but only if we respond to them.
- Greater understanding of the value of natural spaces to health and well-being.
- Reusing, restoring, revitalizing. By seeking to reuse existing spaces, restore historic structures, and leverage existing infrastructure, we can revitalize cities and towns.
- Embrace neighborhood and business designs that respect property rights, support a range of lifestyle choices, and promote the needs of a diverse population.