The Rio Grande Valley was once a region full of citrus trees and an abundance of crops from onions to cabbage to sunflowers; there was no need to drive far to see these bountiful fields.

But today our rural scenery has been devoured by suburban neighborhoods and business parks. This is the result of economic development certainly, but this ‘successful’ expansion comes at a heavy cost, both monetary and environmental.

The Rio Grande Valley is one of the most highly productive regions for vegetable crops in the country, bringing in $1.6 billion per year. It helps Texas rank third in the nation in yearly agriculture revenue and to support 14 percent of agriculture-related jobs in the U.S. Having so much agricultural land around helps us in other ways, too. It ensures food security, it protects our ground water, and it provides wildlife habitat in a place where more than 95 percent of the native wilderness has been destroyed.

But urban sprawl, the expansion into unpopulated areas far from the city, only makes room for new developments by destroying our fertile croplands.

Nationally, urban sprawl has claimed farmland at a rate of 1.2 million acres a year; this is about 50 acres of land lost every hour in the United States. If our cities continue to spread and take over fertile land, our supply for fruits and vegetables will decrease, causing us to depend on other countries for vital foods.

Sadly, when farmland is lost, wildlife also suffers. Agricultural lands act as habitat for many species. When open land is replaced by streets and buildings we will see a subsequent decline in our biodiversity. In the case of birds, bats, and insects that act as pollinators for crops, this directly impacts us. Forty percent of pollinators are already threatened by the loss of habitat.  Losing these species means yet a further a decrease in our production of food.

A desire to preserve farmland is one of the reasons the latest urban planning innovators have moved away from establishing remotely located communities that create sprawl.  Instead, they have begun operating on a new model of urban planning which avoids wasteful land use. They focus on infilling municipalities, building multiuse developments, and making sure that communities are walkable and bike friendly.

However, we seem to be living in the past here in the Rio Grande Valley because the new McAllen development of Tres Lagos ignores these innovative methods of urban planning in order to establish a brand new community hub in a rural area 12 miles north of the city’s center. This retro community is a “master plan” that will incorporate a Texas A&M satellite campus, new homes, new churches and new businesses on what was once fertile Valley cropland. (How ironic that Texas A&M is an agricultural teaching institution, yet they will be building right on top of what used to be fertile fields.)

The community will be constructed on 2,571 acres of land, with single family homes taking up a whopping 1,105 acres while multi-family homes will only take up 118 acres! If we continue to follow this pattern of sprawling into rural areas, our local farmers will no longer be able to continue their harvest. Our region will not be able to contribute as much to the nation’s food supply. Taking all of this into consideration, one begins to think, is sprawling into rural areas really a wise investment?

In order to implement strategies to avoid urban sprawl developments such as Tres Lagos, we must become aware of the big picture—not just the land itself but the ecosystem it supports, not just economic growth, but the role our region plays in the country as a whole. The environment is not infinite, though we tend think otherwise and go by the saying “ignorance is bliss.” Losing farmland to development will not be good for our cities in the long run. Our Rio Grande Valley cities must recognize this and begin operating under the new principles of urban planning.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of guest columns written by students studying environmental studies in a course run by lecturer Stefanie Herweck at UT-Rio Grande Valley. For more information about the environmental studies course, contact Stefanie Herweck at [email protected]