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Hip Deep in the Big Muddy

Cedar RapidsIt is curious how much two disasters can have in common.The most recent, the midwestern U.S. flood of 2008, is an affliction on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. The second, much smaller but catastrophic nonetheless for those affected, is the almost annual river flooding in Bucks County, PA.

The common element for both is the way that misguided (or nonexistent) land use planning helped pave the way for calamity.

Joel Achenbach, a staff writer for the Washington Post, presents impressive evidence that a combination of farming and residential development on flood plains, wetland drainage, and manipulation of the water table contributed to the flooding and very likely made it more severe than it might otherwise have been. Without heavy spring rains, there would have been no flood. But even with them, human mistakes had helped to prepare the way for the catastrophe that did in fact happen.

It would be unfair to blame the farmers for the disaster. Farming is a hard, precarious profession. Farmers have little choice: they must grow what is profitable, and they need land to grow it on, even if that land is a wetland that should never have been drained.

Developers who build on flood plains and create subdivisions from farms bear some responsibility—but not all. The American style of residential development is based on profligate use of the land, but land use decisions, like decisions about draining wetlands, are matters of public policy. Better policies might have saved enough wetlands and farmland to make a difference.

The best way to minimize floods and their human consequences is thoughtful, informed land use planning. If our planning is flawed or—as is sometimes the case in the U.S.—we have no effective planning mechanism at all, there will be consequences. And those who pay will seldom be those who made the policies.

Consider the plight of riverside residents in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. For years, going back to the 1950s, local governments in Bucks County have been helping the county's economy to grow by approving projects that pave over land for shopping malls, destroy local farms to build suburban subdivisions, and put parking lots almost literally everywhere in the county. This has meant problems with water runoff, which in turn has made flooding on local rivers more likely—and entire towns close to the rivers have suffered.

In Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, and, on a smaller scale, Bucks County, residents are suffering because in the United States we have traditionally regarded land use planning as suspect. We must do better in the future.

(For some suggestions about land use planning, see the third part of my essay on dead space and suburban development.)