While writing my prior blog post regarding John Steinbeck’s thoughts on urban America, I began pondering the concept of “highest and best use.” It is a term that is so often thrown around by realtors, assessors, appraisers, and even planners. I imagine if you asked five different people what the “highest and best use” is for an individual site, you may very well receive five different responses.
The inherent problem I see with “highest and best use” is that it assumes change is inevitable and whatever is there now is somehow insufficient (from a profit perspective). Whenever you throw money into the picture and the equation gets severely skewed towards development (or redevelopment) and away from remaining undisturbed.
I would argue that in many instances a lovely park or undeveloped green space is a much higher and better use than a commercial building or warehouse – for starters is reduces noise, air pollution, and the heat island effect. The problem comes with trying to quantify the value of intangibles like fresh air, bird songs, peacefulness, quiet, relaxation, beauty, scenic views, recreation, and mental health.
So, let me propose an alternative to what I think is the archaic concept of “highest and best use.” I propose “rational use.” Humans are rational beings, or at least we like to think we are rational. As rational beings we ought to be able to come to a consensus on the use(s) that is best (or most rational) for a given property. Granted, not everyone will have the same opinion, but that is seldom true even under highest and best use. The difference between “rational use” and “highest and best use” is the removal of the monetary influence.
In a perfect world no zoning or planning decision is supposed to take monetary issues into consideration. That is a basic tenet of planning. But, as we all know, it still happens – the minute economics are brought into the discussion. By affixing a rational set of non-monetary standards to each land use decision, the goal would be to substantially reduce (or preferably eliminate) the greed/profit factor in making land use decisions.
Is my suggestion of rational use a Pollyanna notion? Perhaps. In a capitalist and materialist society, getting past the notions of monetary value, profit, and greed is difficult. But, without a concerted effort to move beyond “highest and best use,” we, as a society will continue to gobble up land like hungry caterpillars (both the bulldozers and the insects), will continue to see many of our cities and inner suburbs decay, will lose historical and ecological treasures, will continue wasting our precious and limited resources, and will continue focusing on unhealthy living habits cocooned in metal cases both during our lives and six feet under after death. Not the Wall-E kind of future I prefer. How about you?