Denser Dense Places Means Less Density Elsewhere

A blog about business and economics.
March 14 2012 10:26 AM

Denser Dense Places Means More Room for Farms and Pasture

139792650
Cows at the Paris international agricultural fair at the Porte de Versailles exhibition center, in Paris on Feb. 25, 2012

Photograph by Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images.

Something I don't really talk about much in The Rent Is Too Damn High is the question of what might America overall look like if everyone took my advice and upzoned. I'm sometimes accused of wanting everyplace to look like Manhattan, but at a Manhattan-level density of 71,000 people per square mile the entire population of the United States could fit into San Diego County. And even that is a drastic underestimate since the densest portions of Manhattan are full of office buildings where most of the workers live elsewhere. The United States would be one relatively tiny but extremely bustling coastal metropolis and then a vast howling empty wilderness.

That, of course, would be a ridiculous way to arrange things but the point is that more density in some places is going to mean less density in others. I was reading about the problems of scaling-up grass-based ranching and obviously a major constraint is that to pasture a lot of cows you need a lot of land. And it turns out that the quantity of land on American farms has been in long-term structural decline:

1331735132202

Author's calculation based on USDA Census of Agriculture data.

Advertisement

Now to an extent, if this is the trend this is the trend. When land is more valuable in use as houses and offices and stores it makes sense to transform it to nonagricultural uses. But one important reason that there's been growing pressure to turn farmland over to other uses is that we have severe regulatory constraints on the number of people allowed to squeeze into the already-developed parcel. If you turn some neighborhoods of single-family homes into rowhouses and build some more tall apartment buildings on your most expensive land, then there's still plenty of suburban-style land left over for the large share of people who want to live there. Developers don't need to go out and find some new land and turn it into new subdivisions. A country with a growing population is bound to have both infill and greenfield development happening, but the current state of land use regulation in the United States is very heavily biased toward the latter in a way that's destructive to pastoral goals and open space.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.