Land-use so an Alien can Understand it

I was out weeding my wildflower garden this week and, I kid you not, a spaceship landed. It was small and looked a little like an outdoor charcoal grill, all shiny and round. When it spoke I realized it was not an errant flying charcoal grill, but a curious creature from a galaxy far away.

“What could you possibly want with us?” I asked. The grill said with a high electric voice that his place back home was so clogged with roads and subdivisions and shopping malls that his people had had sent him on a mission of discovery.

“Why, space visitor, do you look like a cooking instrument?” I asked.

He explained how his people had evolved into suburban appliances in order to save space. He wanted to know from us earthlings how we were dealing with excessive rates of growth.

I told him we didn’t seem to be doing so great a job here where he had landed. I explained how we were in the middle, right this very moment, of trying to decide how much we would plan and how much we would let the forces of the market guide our growth.

“The market?” my visitor asked.

“You know, like gravity,” I said. “It’s something invisible but people trust it to decide almost everything.”

“They trust it without seeing it?” he asked. “It must surprise them from time to time.”

“Oh yes,” I said. “All the time.”

He was interested in how this so called “market” had shaped Spartanburg County, so I rolled this grill-shaped alien up to my pickup truck, and I drove him out for an education in land-use planning. He listened as we drove around:

“Our county,” I explained, “has had a sort of defacto zoning for decades.”

“Oh, I see,” he said. “This must be the “I’m rich enough so I can buy a whole zip code and an asphalt plant will never move in next to me’ zone.”

“That’s right, space visitor,” I said. “Land use here has progressed entirely based on the desires of people.”

“Interesting. What other zones have you developed through this flawed system, earthling?”

We drove around and I narrated: “Over here you’ve got the ‘My treeless church parking lot is so big I could land the space shuttle there zone. And that’s the ‘˜Can you believe how close I put my ugly concrete block business to the road?’ zone.”

He caught on fast and continued:

“And that must be the ‘You will not believe the crap I’ve got piled and buried on my property zone,'” our visitor said. “We have one like that on our planet.

“And here we have the ‘˜This is how many single-wide trailers you can put in an old peach orchard zone,’ and the ‘My empty big box store will probably be empty for a decade because my lease is cheap zone.'”

I took up where he left off:

“There’s the ‘Canopy trees? This is a shopping center parking lot and not a forest’ zone?”

He answered with:

“Yes, earthling, and over there is the ‘If they want to keep farming they ought to find a way to make a living doing it or sell that good flat land and let us put some patio homes there’ zone.”

Before we ran out of time I explained how  I wanted to show him the ˜With a little imagination and a school board ready to deal that high school’s a Wal-Mart waiting to happen’ zone, and the ‘Put this new school out here in this old cow pasture because I own it and we’ll figure out later how to widen all the roads’ zone.”

“You Spartanburgers are a people of boundless imagination,” the space visitor intoned from the pickup truck bed. “I can see we could drive forever through your past zoning experiments, but my fuel cell is low. I need to get home. Let us return to the wildflower landing pad.”

So we drove back past one of my favorite failures of landuse, the “Quick, clear-cut this river bottom before the tree-huggers come” zone and turned into our suburban neighborhood.

“I wish you luck in working out your future,” he said. “It sounds like your County Council has its work cut out for it,” the alien said, and then his grill disappeared into the trees.

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