Covering the Land Use Story

By Fulton, William | The Quill, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Covering the Land Use Story


Fulton, William, The Quill


Land use is one of the fastest growing stories of our time. Cities, suburbs and rural regions all face challenges growing out of changing land use patterns. The patterns are consequences of economic and population growth. Rules, regulations and laws are shifting to address changes in land use. Inevitably, there are clashes among competing uses promoted by public and private interests. The outcomes of those disputes affect the economic and social lives ofpeople in inner cities, suburban rings and the countryside. William Fulton, a planner with a background in journalism, offers a guide for reporting the land use story.

The Foundation for American Communications is an independent, nonprofit institution providing education for journalists. Since 1979, 10,000 journalists have attended more than 225 FACS mid-career educational conferences sponsored by news organizations and philanthropic foundations.

Reporters and editors don't usually think of it this way, but the main job of most newspapers is to cover growth and change in the communities they serve. Whether they are in the booming Sun Belt or the declining Rust Belt, communities are dynamic. Murders and fires aside, the best running story in town is usually how that change is taking place.

Although change can take many forms-population increase or decrease, changing demographics, economic cycles-he most visible and controversial way that communities typically change is by altering the way their land is used. Agriculture land is converted to subdivisions. Small retail centers become large shopping malls. Older neighborhoods are recycled for new uses. Cities and other government agencies build new facilities. Often, they subsidize the construction of convention centers, sports arenas, entertainment complexes and other development projects in hopes of stimulating new investment in targeted geographical areas. At its core, the ongoing story about the growth and change of a community are what public-policy wonks call a "land use" story. It is the story of how communities plan to use their land, how private real estate interests (and sometimes public agencies too) propose to alter the way land is used and how government regulators make decisions about what kinds of real estate development projects to permit.

Increasingly, too, it is a story of national importance, as inside-theBeltway lobbying groups and presidential candidates deal with questions about "urban sprawl" and "metropolitan growth." The land-use story is a staple of local newspaper coverage, but because land use permeates the geography of every newspaper's circulation area, it is a much broader and more multi-faceted story than most reporters and editors recognize.

Most obviously, it is a politics and government story. Land use disputes usually arise in the political arena, as neighbors, homeowners and others concerned about their community's well-being fight development proposals they dislike.

It is a story that often emerges on the beat of environmental reporters, because a major change in the use of land affects the environment. A new project may pollute the air, reduce farmland or impinge on habitat for rare plant or animal species.

It is a real estate story about how buildings that people use-including houses-come into being. It is a lifestyle story because how people live on a daily basis affects the need for buildings and the way land is used.

The land use story is a business story. It deals with private businesses making investments and seeking to satisfy market demand. The businesses involved are not just real estate developers. Every development project has behind it business tenants (such as retailers and factories), homebuyers and investors meeting market demand by altering the way land is used. Increasingly, the land use story is even an entertainment and sports story. Multiplex cinemas and stadiums have become favorite vehicles for local economic development. …

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