Contemporary comprehensive plans for municipalities throughout the country often incorporate the pursuit of “green,” or “sustainable” urban places. Nationally, Congress is considering dedicating billions of dollars to support such initiatives in a massive tax-and-spend bill as “environmental justice” and equity advance in lockstep with other progressive policies. As an outdoor enthusiast, I can appreciate and understand the desire to conserve natural resources and find ways to sustain life. Unfortunately, the tendency of government officials toward overbearing control and increasingly despotic power hinders the individual pursuit of innovative sustainability.

The relentless rhetoric of environmental activists, bureaucrats, and celebrities is often focused on costly government-imposed solutions. Such initiatives range from renewable portfolio standards and a ban on the sale of gasoline-fueled automobiles to allocating billions of public dollars to planting trees or subsidizing the wealthy who purchase electric vehicles. While the media is replete with calls for big-government programs, notably absent (or intentionally excluded) from the environmental dialogue is the voice of liberty. It is a voice that calls for private property rights, that places its faith in people doing what’s best for themselves and, by extension, communities as a whole. It is a voice that recognizes the power of individual initiative and private ingenuity in solving society’s problems.

Rather than increasing the tax burden to fund big-government programming, wasting billions of dollars on ineffective proposals, government officials should focus on eliminating current policies and regulations that obstruct private action, education, and innovation. Allowing individuals and private organizations the freedom to take meaningful action could more effectively and efficiently address environmentalists’ concerns than bureaucracies mired in red tape.

In the effort to create greater freedom for private action through deregulation, zoning would be an excellent place to start. To illustrate the obstacle that zoning regulations present to conservation, innovation, and self-sufficiency, consider a hypothetical resident living in Oklahoma City.

Like many of you, this resident has seen depictions of food deserts, heard the apocalyptic tales of climate change, and read about the allegedly devastating effects of carbon dioxide. He has struggled with the shortage of essential goods and services that resulted from COVID-19 policies. Concerned with the state of things and as an advocate of personal responsibility and self-reliance, he sees an opportunity to make a positive impact on himself, his family, and maybe even the environment.

Motivated by a desire to support his family, ensure some degree of food security, and achieve a level of self-sufficiency by better utilizing his property, he begins to investigate his options. He explores urban homesteading, small-scale food forests, permaculture techniques, soil regeneration, rainwater harvesting, and animal husbandry. Excited by what he’s learned, he will likely become discouraged if he looks into what the government says are permissible uses of his yard. As they often do, the zoning district in which he resides either allocates an unnecessary administrative burden on his ability to use his property or prohibits it altogether – even when the proposed uses in no way harm others’ property rights.

Oklahoma City makes environmental protection and natural resource conservation a key element of its comprehensive plan while its zoning ordinances frequently discourage private action – actions that could accomplish some of the plan’s objectives without government intervention. Generally, an Oklahoma City resident who wants to plant a garden, harvest rainwater, compost kitchen waste, or start an urban farm, will need the government’s permission in the form of a conditional use permit.

Additionally, the city’s zoning code will prohibit him from raising animals on land less than an acre, including a small brood of hens. However, to the credit of several members of the city council, the city could be taking a positive step toward allowing greater self-sufficiency and sustainability by amending an overly restrictive ordinance. This is positive momentum that should continue.       

By prohibiting such uses by right when they do not impinge on the property rights of others, municipal ordinances sacrifice real, achievable, private solutions to identified problems for political legacy projects that may never produce tangible results. Urban gardens or suburban food forests located throughout a metropolitan area could help the city achieve its conservation goals. For example, several residents growing a permaculture garden or micro-farming could help address the city’s goals of increasing locally sourced food, eliminating food deserts, increasing the tree canopy and biodiversity, and providing natural habitats for beneficial wildlife. Such practices could also improve soil quality, address water runoff problems, and minimize erosion. Yet, zoning makes this difficult or impossible.

The answers to many of our societal problems, including conservation, are deregulation, promoting individual liberty, and protecting private property rights. Governments can address nuisances that infringe on others’ rights while simultaneously allowing individuals to maximize the benefit they get from using their private property. Let people use their property as they see fit. If they desire, let property owners grow well-managed food forests instead of well-manicured lawns. Let them raise a few hens. Let private innovation lead the way, free of government intervention and manipulation.  

Contrary to current trends, Government needs to relinquish control, promote freedom, and secure individual property rights. Have faith in people and natural incentives and allow people to make beneficial use of their property. Combined with the efforts of numerous nonprofit educational organizations dedicated to sustainable agricultural practices, free people possessing sufficient property rights can solve actual problems efficiently and effectively – no government necessary.  

Brad Galbraith is Land Use Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.