Dateline USA - Small Towns and Countryside
This article is being written as I travel around the USA visiting small towns and rural areas discussing the issues faced by the planners, academics and government officials. I also attended the American Planners Association Annual Conference in Boston where I gave a paper in a session with an American colleague on the issues facing fringe metropolitan areas.
The USA has a population of 269.6 million. It has approximately 2600 towns of 10,000 or more people. Australia has 18.3 million people and 110 towns of 10,000 or more people. The US has 75.2 % of its population living in urban areas whilst Australia 79.5% urban. Compared to Australia, America's population is distributed throughout the country whilst most of Australia's population is located on the coastal fringe from Brisbane to Adelaide.
Australia is the same size as mainland USA minus Alaska. However, unlike Australia, some of the most productive agricultural land is in the centre of the Country (in Kansas). I don't have to remind you what is in the centre of Australia.
The issues facing planners in the US are however, similar to those we face in rural Australia. Containing urban sprawl, protection of farmland, catchment management, zoning, preparing strategic plans, town centre revitalisation, heritage preservation, tourism, economic development and so on.
Downtown revitalisation is a major issue which is linked to economic development for the towns. Whilst some towns have done some great stuff, others have completely lost the plot. What was once a main shopping street, bustling with pedestrians shopping, eating and enjoying the experience have now become a ghetto of closed shops and no people. The major reason for this is the introduction of large retailers and shopping malls on the fringes of the towns. The main reason for these to locate on the fringes is because of the low land cost, ease of construction - usually on productive farmland and highway access. These retailers and mall developers will often locate in the county outside the city limits offering the county the possibility of high tax (rate) dollars. It should be noted that in the US, rates are charged on the improved capital value and not the unimproved value as it is in Australia. The counties approve or rezone the land to enable the mall to be built and the adjoining city can do nothing about it. All they can do is sit and watch the once prosperous downtown fade away. This scenario, although common is not the rule in Rural America. There are some great examples of downtowns that are prosperous and full of pedestrians. Some towns have also embraced small town economic development and looked for a reason to enhance their downtowns with good street furniture and traffic calming and management.
The issue of farmland preservation is an important one for planners in Rural America.It is more of a problem in those Counties that are close to the large urban areas. It being noted that there are about 220 cities of 100,000 or more people (Australia has 13). Because of the different system of zoning administration and annexation of urban areas, there is little overall strategic coordination and control from a state and regional level on the conversion of farmland to residential and rural residential uses. It is up to each County and Township / City to take measures to protect the farmland from being fragmented. They do this through zoning for agriculture. However, unlike in Australia, where there is a dwelling right for each subdivision minima, in America they give a subdivision right for each farm size (subdivision minima). This subdivision is akin to a concessional lot. This can lead to rural land use conflict and the demise of the productive farming unit. All States have right-to-farm legislation which, basically, takes away the rural resident's right to sue for nuisance as long as the farmer is carrying out best management practices. The practicality of this is somewhat questionable. Purchase of development rights is one of the major tools used for the preservation of farmland. This is a method whereby the Government will purchase the development rights for productive farmland. This is arrived at by the difference between the fair market value and the value for agriculture. In some cases this can be as much as $200,000 to $300,000 dollars. Tradeable development rights is another method used to some degree of success but it is a lengthy and complicated matter.
Controlling urban sprawl is a major issue facing both urban and rural planners here. It has the same complexity and political intrigue as it does in Australia. The sprawl is a function of uncontrolled growth and lack of coordination of the planning. It takes the form of urban expansion into the productive farmland and strip development of commercial development along the main roads into a town. It was one of the major topics of discussion at the conference and is the major issue facing planning in America.
It can be seen that the issues facing rural planners in the USA are the same as those we face in Australia. There are some good examples as well as bad. We have the opportunity to learn from both the good and the bad so that we do not make the same mistakes.
|| Rural Planning Wheel ||
launched March, 1999