Land Use in the Southeast

Kathryn J. Lincoln, November 1, 1997

Would you like to experience the results of dedicated city and regional planning achieved with the cooperation and participation of the citizenry? Then you might consider Chattanooga.

Participants in the recent Lincoln Institute conference, “Land Use in the Southeast: Reflections and Directions,” experienced Chattanooga’s renaissance first hand. The conference was the third in a series of programs related to the book, Land Use in America, coauthored by Henry Diamond and Patrick Noonan (Island Press/Lincoln Institute, 1996).

The agenda focused on the challenges facing residents of the Southeast as they work to develop sustainable communities. In his keynote address, the Honorable Zach Wamp, a member of the House of Representatives representing eastern Tennessee, stressed the need to balance the sometimes competing interests of transportation, the environment, research and educational institutions, and the private sector.

Several speakers commented on the national land use scene. Henry Richmond, chairman of the National Growth Management Leadership Project, stated that land use and sustainable development were forgotten issues for many years but are now coming to the forefront again. Why? Because the goals of many powerful interests are being undermined by land use regulations. In addition, more people are interested in alternative patterns of land use that benefit society at large.

Attorney Henry Diamond observed that, despite the centrality of land, land use issues have failed to capture national attention for several reasons. It is difficult to regulate land, and the land pollution/land quality spectrum is hard to measure. Whereas the regulation of air and water falls on the community as a shared resource, the regulation of land falls on individuals. Finally, major environmental groups, until recently, have not given land much attention.

Patrick Noonan, chairman and CEO of the Conservation Fund, noted four emerging national trends:

  • from federal to local governance: people are questioning centralization and in some cases demanding local control;
  • from public action to private enterprise: the mantle of environmental leadership is passing from the nonprofit sector to industry;
  • from a regulatory to a non-regulatory arena, with emphasis on economic incentives, voluntary initiatives and education; and
  • from piecemeal conservation to a focus on whole systems, which may seem at odds with the previous three trends.

Norman Christensen, dean of Duke University’s School of the Environment, noted that by the middle of the next century the earth’s population should “level off” at between 10 and 12 billion, nearly twice what it is today. He outlined the basic tenets of ecosystem management: complexity and diversity are crucial; the world has never been the same twice; human use and ecological change represent an endless cycle; connections of all types are important; and, it is never simple.

Juxtaposed with these national views were success stories from the region. Officials from Chattanooga were joined by speakers from Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina, who outlined the techniques they are using to gather a constituency for sustainable development. All of them stressed the importance of grassroots community involvement. To be successful in implementing radical changes in land use and density, broad-based agreement among parties is critical. In addition, research and education are needed for well-informed policy making, and certain legislative and regulatory changes, unique to each jurisdiction, must be implemented to permit better, smarter growth.

Norm Christensen’s closing thoughts sum up the conference: “The land we possess is less an inheritance than something we borrow from our grandchildren.”

Kathryn J. Lincoln is chairman of the Lincoln Institute.