Point of Beginning

On the level: Green zoning.

August 28, 2008

A little more than eight years ago, I wrote a column for POB about the surveyor’s role in the new public ethic of sustainable development.

The most reasonable definition for the term, at least in my mind, is “utilization of the world’s resources in order to meet our needs without inhibiting future generations from meeting their needs.” As we see demand for resources increasing every year, we have to question whether the United States--much less the world--will ever achieve the aims of the sustainable development concept.

We love catchy terms, and now comes the “green movement.” We have to hope that this movement will show more success than has the sustainable development concept 10 or 15 years after its introduction.

However, government blunders, like the diversion of agricultural resources from the food chain to the manufacture of biofuels, give little reason for optimism. Once again, we see the principle of unintended consequences rearing its ugly head. The introduction of biofuels has, to date, had a miniscule impact on oil consumption and the price of gasoline. Yet the government subsidizes the growing of corn for biofuels, thereby exacerbating the world’s food shortfall.

Another example of governmental double-think can be seen in my home state of Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs has published a one-page advisory titled “Sustainable Development Principles.” It offers 10 suggestions to promote development that conserves land and protects natural resources.

But according to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the state lost 40 acres a day to development between 1985 and 1999. The Boston Globe reported that the average lot size for new development in the suburbs west of Boston rose from 0.72 acre to 1.34 acre between 1998 and 2002. And a study of the lot sizes for new housing development from 1998-2002 reported that the average new single-family home built in eastern Massachusetts is consuming about twice as much land as an existing home in the same community. In other words, the farther development moves from Boston, the greater the rate at which land is being consumed to accommodate housing. This phenomenon has led to an unfortunate situation: As the commuting distance to the centers of employment in the greater metropolitan area of Boston has increased, land--an irreplaceable resource--is being used at ever greater rates producing housing even further from the reach of moderate income workers.

This problem is not peculiar to Massachusetts--it is a nationwide concern. The results are a progressive loss of land, a shortage of affordable housing and an increase in the distance people must drive every day to reach their places of employment. Land disappears. Imported oil costs more. Air quality deteriorates.

Sociologists and economists will talk about the need for housing for workers; environmentalists and ecologists will bemoan the voracious consumption of land by the housing industry; everybody will claim to be “green conscious” while holding out for sustainable development as the great ideal of the 21st century−but local governments will continue their profligate land-use policies.

There are no surprises for surveyors in the statistics. We know how rapidly land is being consumed as a result of the planning policies in communities all over the United States. It is time to add “green zoning” to the other aspects of the green movement.


1 “On the Level: Sustainable Development in theNew Millennium,” POB, April 2000.

2 “Sustainable Development Principles,”Massachusetts Executive Office ofEnvironmental Affairs, www.mass.gov/ envir/smart_growth_toolkit/pdf/ patrick-principles.pdf

3 “Losing Ground: At What Cost?” Third edition,Massachusetts Audubon Society, 2003, www.massaudubon.org/PDF/advocacy/ losingground/LosingGround_1.pdf

4 “Acreage surrounding new homes also on therise,” April 27-May 3, 2006 Boston Globe West.

5 “On the Level: Zoning in the United States,”POB, December 2007.

Editor's Note: References can be found in the online version of this article at