It used to be that after exiting I-35 and heading east, all you could see for miles was wide open fields with alternating crops. People from around there thought it was the prettiest country to be found anywhere. The land had been owned for generations by families who cultivated the soil to grow food, fibers, and fuel, as well as to raise livestock. When passing each other on the road, farmers and other rural denizens would lift a finger from the steering wheel in acknowledgement — a gesture that is rarely seen today, a salute to a dying way of life.
The location is Kyle, a municipality 35 miles south of Austin whose population has nearly doubled with the addition of approximately 20,000 new residents in the last 10 years. Now, when you exit I-35 and head east, all you see for miles are the gables of single-family houses and duplexes interspersed with the occasional open field. The formerly rural roads have been made narrower by the addition of guardrails, which make it more difficult for farmers to move equipment from field to field. The people who pass are commuters on their way to their jobs in the city. The finger they raise off the steering wheel for the farmers in their tractors is the middle one, offered in the spirit of contempt for blocking traffic. There’s no need for them to be friendly. They know the farmers will soon be gone.
When I asked one farmer — who has seen most of the fields he once leased for crops sold out to developers for subdivisions, and who has had a portion of his ancestral homestead seized through eminent domain by the City of Kyle for the installation of a sewer pipe that left the land above it ravaged and unproductive — about his opinion of these changes in land use, he said, “You can’t publish exactly what I would want to say about it.”
This problem is not unique to Kyle. It’s national. And it’s not only about the destruction of one group’s way of life. It’s about the loss of agriculture — food — which is essential to everyone’s survival. According to the American Farm Trust, between “2001 and 2016, 11 million acres of agricultural land were paved over, fragmented, or converted to uses that jeopardize agriculture, curtailing sustainable food production, economic opportunities, and the environmental benefits afforded by well-managed farmland and ranchland.” While some of that loss (4.1 million acres) was due to expanding urban areas, the majority (7 million acres) was lost to low-density residential development, such as the subdivisions that have transformed Kyle’s bucolic landscape into a suburban dystopia.
In America, we like to dream of our wide-open spaces. They’re so vast! How could we ever run out? Indeed, the United States boasts 10 percent of the world’s arable soil — more than any other country. But only 18 percent of that land is significantly farmable, and it’s rapidly disappearing. Here in Texas, we’re losing farmland faster than anywhere else in the nation. We also have very few regulations in place to protect that most valuable dirt. Our veneration of the rights of property owners to dispose of their land as they see fit has now been pitted against the very real necessity of keeping farmland farmable.
Of course, Kyle wouldn’t be experiencing such a development boom if it wasn’t for Austin’s housing difficulties. The NIMBYism that has motivated the city’s zoning regulations has suppressed high-density development in the core, driven up housing costs, and encouraged exurban sprawl. According to a 2018 study by the Manhattan Institute, in May 2018 the cost of housing in Austin was $79,100 higher than the national average. Even sprawling DFW has lost its affordability edge, with a housing premium of $11,500. Only Houston, with its relatively laissez faire development codes, which has allowed a larger amount of high-density development within the loop, still offers below-average housing costs, though they aren’t as low as they used to be.
Architecture can’t save farmland, unfortunately, but policy that allows for and even encourages higher-density housing on historically developed land within central cities, while protecting arable land for agricultural use, certainly can. If, when, government takes such an enlightened step, architects will be there to show how dense housing can be crafted into sustainable, affordable, humane, and enjoyable urban environments. Then, when city dwellers venture into the countryside, on the weekend, say, for pleasure and to enjoy the restorative properties of nature, and they come upon a farmer moving a combine out of a field, they can raise a finger from the steering wheel — the pointer finger preferably — in civility, as if to say, “Thanks for the spinach!”