Land Use Debate

Not long ago I learned of an excellent service for urban forestry,, which has a list-serve that is possibly the most subscribed interlink for professional arborists in the United States, if not the world. For several weeks now I’ve been reading the emails that fly back and forth between these folks who have the good fortune to make their living from planting and nurturing trees, and it has nurtured my soul to monitor the dialogue.

Infill Extremism
Here’s your “smart growth,”
zero trees, and hot as hell

But today something set me off. I notice the tag at the end of one writer’s email which stated “urban forestry is America’s frontline defense against climate change.” And I couldn’t agree more.

So how is this statement reconciled with “new urbanism” and “smart growth” that packs people into cluster homes and super high density suburbs where there isn’t room for trees on any private parcels?

As someone active in urban forestry most of my life I think “smart growth,” “infill,” and the “urban service boundary” is utterly destroying the urban canopy.

Have these foresters seen any trees in the “new urbanist,” “smart-growth” communities where “low density” is now defined as eight homes per acre, and cluster housing now goes as high as 20 homes per acre? These are heat island dead zones, not leafy suburbs.

Perhaps it is time for urban forestry advocates to also advocate lower density zoning. There’s plenty of land. For more on this read Infill is Insane, Leapfrog Infill, Why Homes Aren’t Affordable, Agency Unsustainability, and California’s Land Use Choices.

Needless to say, the sentiments I expressed on this illustrious forum were not shared by the arborists – which is disappointing. To list just one example, “New Urbanists” cite the evils of the car as a primary example of why we need ultra high density housing. But the car is within 20 years of being a cradle to cradle, energy self-sufficient appliance – plugged into the home power system at night to recharge, 100% recycled when it wears out.

When greenbelts are mandated – and they are – instead of reducing “leapfrog” development, they stimulate leapfrog development. But instead of leaping into the adjacent open land, they leap across the greenbelt. The solution is NOT to control all development, everywhere. They tried that in the Soviet Union. Is that where green ideology is taking us? Because that isn’t green, it’s red.

Way back in 1995, when EcoWorld was born online, we made a statement that is more true today than ever: “The precious bird of environmentalism has been flying for too long with one wing, the left one.” This must be challenged, for the sake of our freedom, our prosperity, and, ironically, for the sake of the environment.

Categorized | Energy, Homes & Buildings, People
7 Responses to “Land Use Debate”
  1. Lisa Nisenson says:

    I would not call the pattern in the photo smart growth. It is high horizontal density where, as writer points out, there is little area for trees. However, spreading housing out would not represent an improvement mostly because the habitat needed for cars would fragment, disrupt, disturb and otherwise impact a far greater amount of land. The Center for watershed protection found that there were 10 spaces (not counting the home impervious cover) for each car registered in the Chesapeake bay area. Each space and its access is 300 square feet and there are now as many cars as people. However, this is just the hard cover, not compacted and overplanted soil, which is almost as large. Advocating for spread out low density might clear up some room for urban forestry, but is bad news for the real forestry out there that pulls weight for watershed health, aquifer recharge, cooling, air benefits, and on and on. I have seen plenty of places where 8 and 20 units per acre were nicely done with lots of greenery and mature trees.

  2. Dan Staley says:

    I’m one of the members on that board Ed refers to, and many of the statements he made are just plain wrong. I responded to them on that forum. I’d be happy to copy those responses here if requested.


  3. Ed Ring says:

    Dan: By all means you are welcome to post here. Your comments will be responded to with the utmost respect. Our position is debate is necessary – what I found on that forum was a fairly monolithic mindset on these issues. New urbanism (for lack of a better term), along with the extent, causes and prescriptions for global warming, are issues that are not beyond debate here.

  4. Dan Staley says:

    Thank you Ed.

    My view of that forum is that it is mostly arborists concerned with the scale of single or few trees and not larger-scale issues. Land-use issues, from the view of this practicing planner (and urban forestry undergrad), are not well understood there.

    That said, I found your statements and the statements of the park planner to be largely incorrect; these were due, in my view, to old views not being corrected or updated [all families want x, all smart growth is y]. Again, I am a practicing planner. I also am a New Urbanist and approach my practice from an urban ecology and microecon education. I was also a weatherman in the Air Force, but I’ll try to keep that topic ululation under control.

    Best regards,


  5. Ed Ring says:

    Well I would be interested in knowing where you get your data. I speak with developers all over the country, and the reason we can’t develop small homes on big lots – as opposed to big homes on small lots – is because the media elites, policymakers, environmentalists and trade unions all prefer to see everyone on tiny lots or in multi-unit structures. People would buy homes with yards if homes with yards were available and affordable.

    For this reason, there is a huge disconnect between what people want and what people get. And I think many of the studies are skewed. For example, surveys show people favor light rail. But when you dig deeper, you find people prefer light rail, if other people ride it.

    Nowhere have I ever suggested we shouldn’t have high density housing in the urban core. That makes market sense – there is a demand for more housing in the downtowns – and it is also smart growth. But I’m sorry, look at the photo that leads this post, and tell me that is smart growth. No trees, no yards, and that is a shot from a neighborhood that is twenty miles from any real downtown. It is a wasteland, and only exists because “smart growth” ideas have been taken to a grossly inappropriate extreme.

  6. Dan Staley says:

    Wow. Lots of Reason- and Cato- originated fear phrases in there, Ed.

    By any survey you wish me to produce, ~33-50% of folk want a New Urbanist-type development in which to live. More than that want elements found in a NU-type development, esp. non-autocentric features such as ped safety, walkability, etc, in stark contrast to your error-riddled latest piece on Urbnrnet.

    Also, your family-centric “what people want” needs updating too, as less than half the households in the US have families. Yes, less than half have a child unit. Demographics are changing too, and every year ~600,000 elderly stop driving and they demand non-autocentric services.

    Not everyone wants a yard, Ed. Period. Sorry to break it to you.

    But your equating the foto above with Smart Growth reveals more about your ignorance than anything, Ed. I don’t see that as a smart growth development at all, even if the developer chose to market it that way.

    There’s a whole world out there that wants different things than the narrow category that you wish everyone wanted because you do. You don’t have to wake up, though, because it’s happening despite your protestations.

    Good luck in realigning your worldview. The Almighty Market already has, and is providing these products that rational utility maximizing agents seek – even though you don’t know about it.

    Best regards,


  7. Ed Ring says:

    Dan: As I’ve already made clear, I haven’t studied the Reason or Cato material, in fact I’m not even sure who “Reason” is. But if you are saying that what I am saying is similar to what they are saying, perhaps I should look them up.

    You have posed this as an all or nothing, and I’ve never said that. High density developments make sense in downtown urban cores. They may also make sense in certain other cases of planned communities. But ultra-high density infill should not be permitted to destroy the character of already established low density suburbs. In a recent council meeting in a suburb of Sacramento, over 500 people showed up to protest a high density infill project that was proposed to go into a low density neighborhood. It was approved anyway. Believe me, there are a lot of people who don’t want this crammed down their throats.

    The point is not that nobody wants high density – the point is that we should not make low density unaffordable as if there is a shortage of land, because there isn’t, and we shouldn’t destroy quiet low density suburbs with high density infill.


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