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November 10th, 2022
By Sherry Barrett
“Oh, I thought Upstate Forever was a land protection organization.”
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve introduced myself and received this reply or overheard this sentiment at an event — well, I’d have quite a few nickels.
Of course, this idea isn’t wrong. Protecting land is a key aspect of Upstate Forever’s mission. Over the past 24 years, our stellar Land Conservation team has worked with landowners across the Upstate to permanently protect nearly 30,000 acres of forests, farmland, and green space.
So, where does my work as Land Policy Director come in? Upstate Forever is somewhat unique as a land conservation organization that also works in advocacy, including land use planning & policy advocacy.
We believe that vibrant communities exist at the intersection of land and water conservation and smart growth. To envision a future for the Upstate that is greener, brighter, more prosperous and equitable, is to embrace the symbiotic relationship between "traditional" conservation and land use planning and policy.
It’s no secret that the Upstate is growing rapidly. By 2040, our region’s population is projected to reach nearly 1.75 million, an increase of 64% since 1990. Growth itself is not inherently bad — in fact, it can be a great thing — but where and how we accommodate new residents is critical to the health and future of our communities.
Most of us want mobility options, housing choices, and access to clean water and safe green spaces. We want local farms to thrive and to preserve important natural resources. We also want economic development, but not at the expense of all other community priorities. Unfortunately, many of our existing land development policies fail to strike a balance among all of these important goals.
If we want to protect the Upstate’s natural resources while minimizing sprawl and growing equitably and responsibly, then we have to say goodbye to business-as-usual when it comes to the development of new subdivisions. Our communities and local leaders must embrace smarter ways to welcome the thousands of new residents relocating to the Upstate each year.
Communities that embrace forward-thinking development and responsible growth benefit residents at an individual level. One’s physical, mental, and in some cases, economic health can all be improved by living in a neighborhood that empowers a more active lifestyle, offers a closer proximity to jobs and services, and allows equitable access to green spaces.
I have personally experienced the life-changing difference between living in a car-dependent neighborhood and in a community that is navigable by bicycle and foot. In December of 2019 (which we later came to know as very fortunate timing!), my family relocated from the suburban Greenville County area we had lived in for nearly two decades to a new home at the western edge of downtown. For the first time in my adult life, whether I wanted to pick up coffee or dinner, grab a few household essentials or a gift for a friend, I could walk out my front door and arrive at my destination without starting the car.
The onset of the pandemic, of course, elevated my gratitude for the people-friendly (i.e. walkable, bikeable, and otherwise navigable without a car) community I call home. When gyms shut down and state parks were often at maximum capacity, my husband, dog, and I could enjoy a neighborhood stroll or ride on the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail. We cherished the interactions made and relationships built within our neighborhood on these outings.
Living in this vibrant community, where a mixture of goods, services, and natural areas are available to me through alternative transportation choices, has truly changed my life. It’s an opportunity that I will never take for granted and will continue to work each day to expand access for more Upstate residents.
What do we mean by "smart growth?" Click here to learn more about the 10 principles of smart growth
Ultimately, sprawl cannot pay for itself. While a development boom may bring new residents, businesses, tax income, and discretionary spending to a local economy, those benefits are often short-lived. What’s worse, that temporary surge in dollars is often later eclipsed by the high cost of maintaining strained suburban infrastructure.
The good news? Studies show a clear connection between people-friendly development and the economic viability of a community. Building with a smaller, denser footprint in appropriate areas leads to lower infrastructure costs for cities and towns, and a more robust tax base for continued improvements.
In 2017, the Shaping Our Future initiative — a partnership between Upstate Forever, Ten at the Top, Furman University’s Riley Institute, and a steering committee representing diverse communities and interests from across the Upstate — completed a 10-month study and comprehensive report exploring alternative patterns for growth in the Upstate.
One particularly illuminating component of the study was the Return-on-Investment Analysis executed by Urban3, a community planning consultant with an economic focus. This analysis calculated anticipated future tax revenues in the 10-county region based on different development patterns and intensities.
Urban3's analysis revealed that if regional land use trends don't change, revenues produced by new development will likely not cover even half of the costs to serve it. The more compact development patterns they analyzed were much more fiscally viable.
Additionally, real estate sale analysis shows that neighborhoods with a high walkability score are overall more desirable and highly valued than those with a lower score. And, of course, parks, open spaces, and working farms and forests strengthen local economies.
More dense development in appropriate urban zones is critical to the protection of our region's remaining rural areas and natural resources.
Building with a smaller footprint — growing up rather than out — preserves more greenspace. Directing growth toward existing urban cores helps reduce development pressure on agricultural and rural landowners. Together with conservation initiatives, this method of growth also contributes to the preservation of wildlife habitats, as well as the protection of endangered species (like the Upstate’s bunched arrowhead or Oconee bells) and biodiversity.
Responsible growth is critical to the health of our region’s water, too. Intact riparian buffers (undeveloped swaths of land adjacent to waterways) safeguard water quality by helping to filter out pollutants like litter and pet waste before they enter a river or stream. Buffers also reduce the risk of flooding by slowing down stormwater.
For individuals and families, for communities and natural resources, smart growth is a win-win-win.
Envisioning a new model for Upstate communities may seem daunting and certainly has its trade-offs, but championing responsible development over the next years or even decades will pay dividends for generations to come.
Would you like to stay informed about smart growth and land use planning issues in the Upstate? Visit upstateforever.org/email to join our email lists dedicated to land planning and policy in Greenville and Spartanburg.