How to Make a Big Impact: Land

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As we have been discussing over the past few weeks, with all the restraints put on people, money, time, access, the secret to making change may be to focus on the big stuff. So, if you only invested in one green initiative this year, what should it be? What actions make the biggest impact?

We started with energy and water, and then talked about air quality. Last but not least, we will tackle the issue of land use.

Though not as obvious as say air pollution or energy use, the issue of land use for both living and growing food is just as important. Terms like urban sprawl and local produce may sound familiar to you. Where we live and what we eat are the two major ways the consumers impact the land we have to live off.

According to the LA Times, 13.2 percent of people moved in 2007. Image: Gulf-shores-real-estate.com

According to the L.A. Times, 13.2 percent of people moved in 2007. Image: Gulf-shores-real-estate.com

Making the Move

The term urban sprawl has been used since WW II to describe the movement of people across the nation as an result of economic growth. Simply put, less people are taking up more space. Urban sprawl is the basic increase of land use for urban purposes, created by a smaller group of people than those that lived before them. In fact, in the last 30 to 50 years, America has seen a shift in the density of population in a given area for city development.  This density has declined drastically.

To help put this growth in perceptive, the Clean Water Action Council described the correlation between population and land use. “Although the U.S. population grew by 17 percent from 1982 to 1997, urbanized land increased by 47 percent during the same 15 year period. The developed acreage per person has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, and housing lots larger than 10 acres have accounted for 55 percent of land developed since 1994, according to the American Farmland Trust.”

When this land is taken over for city use, where it does it come from? In general, land is taken for urban sprawl from farming, wildlife habitat and wetlands.

Again, the Clean Water Action Council points out the affects that sprawl has had on these different sectors. “More than 13.7 million acres of farmland in the U.S. were converted to non-farm use just between 1992 and 1997, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture.  This figure is 51 percent higher than between 1982 and 1992.”

So what can an individual do about it? Well, if you are moving in the near future, the Sierra Club developed a great list to keep in mind. Make sure the new city you call home:

  • Offers a range of transportation choices: walking, biking and public transportation
  • Redevelops existing areas, rather than developing natural areas, working farmland or wetlands
  • Builds homes, retail shops and business close to each other for efficient travel and east access
  • Preserves existing community assets by re-using older buildings
  • Minimizes stormwater pollution and handles runoff in an environmentally responsible manner

This map, from a report by Sierra Club, highlights America's best new development projects, based on their ability to offer transportation choices, revitalize neighborhoods, and preserve local values. Source: SierraClub.org

This map, from a report by the Sierra Club, highlights America's best new development projects, based on their ability to offer transportation choices, revitalize neighborhoods and preserve local values. Source: SierraClub.org

There’s No Place Like Home

According to the U.S. Census, 246.5 million, or 83 percent, of Americans lived in metro areas as of 2005. Living in cities is a reality for the majority of U.S. residents, and with this way of life there can be some drawbacks. Just because your city is already developed, doesn’t mean that all hope is lost for your city making a positive environmental impact. In fact, you and your city have a great opportunity to help reduce your city’s air pollutants by 25 percent.

The creation of urban forests is a classic section of city planning and is an important attribute to add to any landscape. Defined by the Urban Forest Coalition as “the art, science and technology of managing trees, forests and natural systems in and around cities, suburbs and towns for the health and well-being of all people,” urban forestry can have a major impact on your community.  What type of impact you ask? Well, according to the Urban Forest Coalition, planting large forest areas in your city can improve the overall quality of the area for residents.

  • A home shaded by as few as three trees can cut energy bills in half.
  • Urban trees store tons of carbon – between 400 and 900 million metric tons – and reduce smog and air pollution (NOX, SOX, particulates, etc.).
  • The presence of yard trees increases property values.
  • Trees slow and filter rainwater to reduce storm water flow, especially during peak loads. More trees mean less concrete for storm water control.
  • Trees, landscape and gardening are parts of a green industry, providing more than 1.3 million jobs.
  • Consumers will travel farther and stay longer in business districts with a mature forest canopy and are willing to spend 9-12 percent more for goods and services.

Visit your local National Sustainable Urban Forest Coalition member for info on how to get involved in your area.

You Are What You Eat

According to the U.K.’s Soil Association in a CNN article, “Fifty percent of the increase in global CO2 emissions between 1850 and 1990 has been tied to changes in land use –mainly because of farming practices.”

These contributions come in two main sources: meat production and distance traveled. As we’ve mentioned before, the Environmental Defense Fund estimates that if every American substituted a vegetarian dish for a meat dish for just one meal per week, the carbon dioxide reduction would be roughly equivalent to taking more than one-half million cars off the roads.

In addition to dietary changes, a change in where your food comes from can also have a major impact. In fact, CNN states:

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The shipping industry globally emits twice as much greenhouse gases 1.2 billion tons -- as the aviation industry. Photo: Gomanzanillo.com

  • The amount of food that is air-freighted around the world has increased by 140 percent since 1990.
  • The U.K. now imports more food than it exports, with 95 percent of its fruit and 50 percent of its vegetables coming from overseas.
  • The global transportation sector contributes 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • 90 percent of global trade — including the global distribution of food — is served by the shipping industry. A recent report released by the International Maritime Organization, or Intertanko, has revealed the shipping industry globally emits twice as much greenhouse gases 1.2 billion tons — as the aviation industry.

Be Smart While Buying Food

The first step in having a positive impact on food production and it’s effect on land use and air pollution is to get educated about purchasing practices. According to SustainableTable.org, “Sustainable agriculture involves food production methods that are healthy, do not harm the environment, respect workers, are humane to animals, provide fair wages to farmers and support farming communities. Sustainability includes buying food as locally as possible.”

It is important to know that local doesn’t equal sustainable. There are a lot of questions to ask the businesses you  purchase from. SustainableTable.org has developed numerous sets of Q&A’s to get you started. Check out what to ask your local:

You can purchase a plot in a community garden or create your own space with garden pots. Photo: Timeoutnewyork.com

You can purchase a plot in a community garden or create your own space with garden pots. Photo: Timeoutnewyork.com

Build Your Own Garden

The best way to know all there is know about your food, and cut down on it’s travel time is to…grow it yourself! Building your own organic garden can be done regardless of space. It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3 and, well, 4.

  1. Pick the right spot
  2. Build a bed
  3. Choose the right crop
  4. Maintain

“I think everyone should try to grow a little bit of their own food. It’s one of the best ways to really understand the seasons and become more conscious of where you’re food comes from,” says Scott Meyer, editor of Organic Gardening. You can also look into neighborhood garden options. The American Community Garden Association (ACGA) is a good place to start searching for the right gardening situation for you.

The ACGA serves the U.S. and Canada, and gardeners can find resources to help start their own community garden and search for gardens by zip code or state. The association also provides links to  regional urban gardening associations,  research and tips about growing in the city.

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