Think we're using up too much 'open space'? We've space to spare!

September 19, 2003

The Daily Camera
Betsy Hart Commentary

Recently, on a cross-country flight from Washington to Los Angeles, I spent much of the time looking out the window. Or rather checking to see if food was finally being served, or gripping the seat through clear-air turbulence and reminding myself that no plane has ever crashed mid-flight because of bumpy air (I hope) and looking back out the window. But, amazingly, no matter how much I watched, one thing didn't change much: There was nobody down there.

There was nobody down there when we left Virginia. There was nobody down there 90 minutes later when they at last served breakfast. There was still nobody down there a half hour after that when the movie started, or later when it ended.

From the sky it's clear that America has mountains, forests, lakes, canyons and unending, vast expanses of drum roll please empty land. Yes, dotted with a few people and buildings, and sometimes clusters of people and buildings, but that's about it.

Yet one would think from the way the "no-growth" folks tell it that America is like a big sardine can full of stinky fish. That there's nowhere for any more people, or buildings or roads or schools or garbage or anything. Wrong. We've got nothing but space.

Dr. Ronald Utt, a noted land use expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, explains that in the entire lower 48 states, the most generous estimates are that a total of 5.2 percent of all land is developed. That counts roads, buildings, parking lots, golf courses, houses, yards, even rural areas where the power lines run, you name it. That figure comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Resources Conservation Service. (The report was done in 1997 and revised in 2000.)

Amazingly, that percentage drops to some 3.2 percent when Alaska is added to the mix.

In other words folks, America has space and space to spare; 94.8 percent of America is "woodlands, meadows, pastures, undeveloped federal land holdings, and farms," Utt explains.

Yet, to listen to politicians, media, environmentalists, community groups and so called "smart growth" advocates, we have a land-use crisis on our hands. Again and again, we've seen efforts to preserve what these folks claim is America's dwindling open space.

They argue we have to "save open areas." How? By shoving Americans into ever higher living densities. It's no surprise, as Utt points out, that in 2001 the powerful and respected environmental group the Sierra Club defined "efficient urban density" as 500 housing units to the acre. Only, shortly after that pronouncement, they were informed by demographers Randal O'Toole and Wendell Cox that such densities were almost three times the highest-density areas of Manhattan, and nearly twice the densest areas of Bombay, India.

So, they revised their definition of efficient urban density down to a still sky-high 100 units per acre still more than all but the very densest area of Manhattan and added a "dense urban" category of 400 units per acre some 1.5 times Mumbai's densest and poorest area.

Not exactly the American dream.

Nor is the Sierra Club's proposed "efficient suburban" category of 10 units to the acre "row houses with occasional single-family dwellings and apartment houses."

One reason for the misperception about America's lack of space is, at the risk of sounding like Yogi Berra, that people live where the people are.

So mistakenly, we tend to think all of America is like where we live, with some people, or maybe lots of people, and strip malls.

But there is also political agenda on the part of some folks to limit the right of Americans to freely choose where and how to live. So, we're told, recycle your garbage and quadruple a few times your housing density. There's an open land crisis!

Sure, some urban and suburban areas are pretty chock full of people and congestion. But aside from the fact that the "hordes" are choosing to live there in the first place, historically the smart-growth-type advocates have aggravated, not alleviated, such situations.

In any event, these folks need to lighten up. I suggest they take a trip across America on a clear day, skip the movie and spend a lot of time looking out the window.

Betsy Hart can be reached by e-mail at:


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