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Debbie Brasket: Preserving Farmland with Sustainability

Denser housing and reduced use of cars are key to saving the ag land we all say we want

It’s exciting to see new movements to preserve agriculture and promote local farms springing up on all sides. More and more people are becoming aware of the importance of supporting local farming in creating a sustainable future.

Too often, however, efforts to preserve agriculture have been co-opted by neighborhood preservationist groups more interested in preserving the views from their backyards than preserving farmland. Their aim is to preserve the status quo and oppose efforts to build affordable housing anywhere near them.

But it’s becoming clear you can’t really talk about preserving ag land without also talking about building denser housing in urban areas, and weaning ourselves away from using cars as our sole mode of transportation. To accommodate the modest growth that our area experiences each year (less than 1 percent on average), we need to provide housing — especially for the folks who work here. Exporting our housing needs to other communities (or counties!) is not living sustainably, within our resources.

Interestingly, some of the same people who don’t want high-density housing in their neighborhoods aren’t all that fond of mass transit either. For them, the solution to traffic congestion is to build more and more lanes, roads, freeways and parking spaces. But where would all those highways and parking lots be built? All too often, on land that could be productively farmed.

The fact is, any practical dialogue about preserving agriculture needs to include a serious conversation about providing housing and sustainable transportation for future generations. Creating a sustainable future will require balancing our needs for housing, agriculture and transportation.

Here are some key strategies for sustainability that will also help to preserve farmland:

» Building denser housing in urban/ suburban areas. High-density housing development, including multistory buildings, can still be attractive, still include open public spaces, small parks or community gardens or urban farms.

» Creating more mixed-use zoning so commercial development includes second-story apartments, and single-residence neighborhoods can build granny units.

» Building compact, walkable communities that include small grocery stores and playgrounds, so people walk more and drive less.

» Creating road systems more convenient for biking and walking. Reducing the size of parking lots so people will be encouraged to leave their cars home and walk or bike whenever possible.

» Funding more alternative transportation, including ride-sharing and van pool programs. Developing more public transit and using parking and developer fees to help fund it.

Without looking at all these strategies together, we are not likely to be successful in preserving farmland. Even if people understand the benefits of local produce and supporting local agriculture, if we don’t also build denser housing communities in urban/suburban areas, and build fewer freeways and parking lots, we are still not going to be able to preserve enough ag land to sustain future generations.

Scientists tell us that the way we are living now is simply not sustainable. It would take the resources of four earths to support our current population at the level that Americans now enjoy. And we soon would run out of land for growing food — it would all be covered over with housing and freeways.

But it doesn’t have to come to that. We can begin to make the needed changes now. Our quality of life will not be diminished by living in a denser, walkable community with convenient bus systems so we aren’t dependent upon cars to get around. And we can preserve land for growing food, in the process.

If you want to preserve farmland, you also need to be a firm advocate for sustainability — creating high-density, affordable housing in urban/suburban areas, and sustainable transportation systems.

— Deborah Brasket is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 805.722.5094. This commentary originally appeared in the Santa Maria Times.

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