Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Land Preservation and the Common Good

Henry Suhr


July 20, 1998

A movement is building across the nation that defies today's "common-sense" expectation of smaller government and lower taxes. Citizens are enthusiastically directing their state and local governments to raise new taxes in order to buy rapidly dwindling open spaces and preserve them as public trusts for a variety of purposes.

In New Jersey, the apparent violation of "common sense" shows up in both the popular advocacy of tax increases (in a militantly anti-tax state) and the use of those taxes to expand government control of land resources (traditionally considered the sacred domain of private property).

What explains this anomaly? In recent years, New Jersey has experienced the urban flight and consequent suburban sprawl that has become a national phenomenon. The migrants want a lower cost of living, schools with smaller class size, less congestion and pollution, and the aesthetic beauty that natural tracts can provide. Now the suburbs are beginning to expand as the cities once did and the open spaces are again being swallowed up, this time by housing tracts and shopping malls. The same communities that fled the cities are realizing that only government's law-making powers, broad reach, collective financial resources, and potentially long-term view can preserve these "open space" goods.

How shall we evaluate this trend? We should be cautiously thankful for this movement. On the positive side it illustrates several important political lessons. First, citizens can and should make a difference by speaking to their representatives and taking direct action in their local communities. Second, land-conservation issues cannot be reduced to individual decisions and market solutions because of their implications for the whole body politic. Third, multiple goods are provided by the natural environment beyond the raw materials and human habitation to which it is often reduced.

We should also be cautious about this movement, however, because its concern for land preservation may remain too narrowly confined to suburban interests, ignoring similar problems in urban areas that have a smaller tax base and even less available land. We need policies that protect the richness and variety of the land as part of the whole environment, including our diverse human communities and institutions.

For example, government could assist poor urban communities by using environmental funds to help build land trusts and encourage land stewardship. This could provide inner-city neighborhoods the opportunity to develop green spaces for gardening, parks, and habitats for native flora and fauna in otherwise concrete jungles.

In conjunction with federal and state initiatives, local governments most familiar with the various needs and composition of their communities could reevaluate zoning practices, considering the ecological character of land and the way it serves non-human creatures and meets a variety of human needs. Helping to assure the aesthetic and food needs for human populations while directing people to appropriate sites for housing and commercial development is something in which all citizens have an interest. It takes a wise government, however, to bring that to the attention of those not immediately affected by urban blight.

Although the movement for increased land preservation may look like a contradiction of today's political "common sense," it can point the way to a more humane and environmentally sound commons. What we need are governments that will answer the call for public justice, exercising wisdom and including the powerless, rather than limiting themselves to satisfying the short-term interests of the few.

—Henry Suhr, Graduate Student
   Rutgers University

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”