My doctoral dissertation looked at how land quality affects technology adoption and cropland land allocation.  I've built on that work to examine land use in a number of contexts.  More recently, I've been looking at how land use regulations affect the allocation of land--in particular, the provision of open space--in suburban residential subdivisions.  I've also been studying the relationship between economic growth and conversion of farmland to urban uses in China, a topic of considerable interest to the Chinese government because of its concerns over food security and because of the social unrest that farmland conversion has been causing in areas undergoing rapid economic growth.

Some research highlights in this area are:

Research Results


Land to accommodate urban development in China is provided through requisitions by government officials, suggesting that land availability may be a constraint on urban economic growth.  An econometric model of urban GDP growth suggests that land has constrained economic growth in coastal areas but not elsewhere.  Elasticities calculated from the estimated coefficients indicate that land availability has a larger proportional impact on economic growth than domestic and foreign investment, labor supply, and government spending.  The estimated parameters provide evidence about arbitrage opportunities created by discrepancies between urban land value and compensation for requisitioned rural land, suggesting rural unrest associated with conversion of farmland to urban uses may have some economic roots.

Chengri Ding and Erik Lichtenberg, "Land and Urban Economic Growth in China", Journal of Regional Science 51(2), 299-317 (May 2011).

Reforms in governance and local government finance during the 1990s have given Chinese local government officials both the means and incentive to act as land developers, creating a bias toward urban spatial expansion relative to redevelopment of existing urban centers and resulting in land use patterns similar to those that would be generated by transactions in markets with private land ownership--even though land in China remains publicly owned.  These reforms have also undermined the central government's ability to control urban spatial expansion (and thus farmland loss) by administrative means.

Erik Lichtenberg and Chengri Ding, "Local Officials as Land Developers: Urban Spatial Expansion in China”, Journal of Urban Economics 66(1), 57-64 (July 2009).

Rapid urbanization enhances the desirability of policies for preserving open space but those policies may expand the urban boundary and create leapfrog development.  We investigate this potential conflict between open space preservation and urban sprawl conceptually and empirically using data from the Baltimore-Washington suburbs.  We find that minimum lot size zoning and forest conservation requirements increase average lot size and reduce density and land devoted to roads and other infrastructure.  Both forms of regulation contribute to sprawl by increasing the amount of land needed to accommodate the current number of households.  The impacts of these regulations on sprawl are modest, however.

Lichtenberg, Erik and Ian Hardie, “Open Space, Forest Conservation, and Urban Sprawl in Maryland Suburban Subdivisions”, American Journal of Agricultural Economics 89(5), (December 2007).

Lichtenberg, Erik, “Open Space and Urban Sprawl: The Case of the Maryland Forest Conservation Act”, Agricultural and Resource Economics Review 40(3), 393-404 (December 2011).

We examine the effects of land use and forest conservation regulations on the provision of open space and the value of land in suburban residential subdivisions.  Our theoretical analysis of land allocation within a subdivision shows that forest conservation requirements can crowd out other open space while minimum lot size requirements force developers to substitute private space for public open space.  An empirical analysis of land use in suburban single-family residential subdivisions in the Washington-Baltimore corridor shows that forested area increases the average value of land within subdivisions but that forest conservation requirements and minimum lot size zoning result in crowding out of non-forested open space.  The empirical results also indicate that developers are not influenced by the presence of open space outside of each subdivision, suggesting that developers act to internalize open space amenities rather than attempting to free ride on their neighbors.

Hardie, Ian, Erik Lichtenberg, and Cynthia J. Nickerson, “Regulation, Open Space, and the Value of Land Undergoing Residential Subdivision”, Land Economics 83(4), (November 2007).

Lichtenberg, Erik, Constant Tra, and Ian Hardie, “Land Use Regulation and the Provision of Open Space in Suburban Residential Subdivisions”, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 54, 199-213 (September 2007).

It has long been argued that tenants tend to overexploit land, but this conventional wisdom has been derived largely without considering how landlords might act.  In some caseslandlords can invest in durable conservation measures in addition to choosing rental contract terms.  When tenants are risk neutral, landlords overinvest in conservation under cash rental contracts but can achieve fully efficient levels of output and protection against land degradation when conservation investment is combined with share rental.  When tenants are risk averse, the first best is unattainable.  In this case, conservation investment combined with share rental results in output levels below the first best, while equilibrium conservation investment may be greater or less than the first best.  These results suggest that contract form and conservation investments are likely made simultaneously, so that econometric studies of conservation practice adoption that treat rental status as exogenous are likely subject to bias.

Lichtenberg, Erik, “Tenants, Landlords, and Soil Conservation”, American Journal of Agricultural Economics 89(2), 294-307 (May 2007).

Contrary to the concerns of the Chinese government, conversion of farmland to urban uses does not threaten China's food security.  But land is not allocated efficiently and the evidence suggests that too much farmland is converted to urban uses.  China's farmland preservation policies are not well suited to rationalizing land use because they ignore local governments' incentives for converting farmland.

Erik Lichtenberg and Chengri Ding, "Assessing Farmland Protection Policy in China", forthcoming in Land Use Policy.

Erik Lichtenberg and Chengri Ding, "Land Use Efficiency, Food Security, and Farmland Preservation in China", Land Lines, April 2006, 2-7.

Bulte and van Soest (JDE 1999) argue that higher agricultural output prices result in greater soil conservation when labor markets function well but have ambiguous effects when labor markets are absent. The latter result is not attributable to labor market failure but rather occurs whenever labor supply is less than perfectly elastic. Consistent with the more general model presented here, empirical evidence from a number of developing countries suggests that well-functioning labor markets are associated with decreases in investment in soils.

Lichtenberg, Erik, "'A Note on Soil Depth, Failing Markets, and Agricultural Pricing': Comment", Journal of Development Economics 81, 236-243 (2006).

Subsidies for conservation on working farmland can worsen environmental problems by inducing farmers to expand the amount of land cultivated and by increasing cultivation intensity.

Lichtenberg, Erik, "Are Green Payments Good for the Environment?", Agricultural and Resource Economics Review 33, 138-147, (April 2004).

Farmers in the Northern High Plains tend to use center-pivot irrigation systems on low-quality land (sandy soils) that is more vulnerable to groundwater contamination.  Commodity price supports may exacerbate problems of groundwater quality and excessive depletion of groundwater stocks in fossil aquifers.

Just, Richard E., Erik Lichtenberg and David Zilberman, "Effects of the Feed Grain and Wheat Programs on Irrigation and Groundwater Depletion in Nebraska", in Richard E. Just and Nancy Bockstael (ed.), Commodity and Resource Policies in Agricultural Systems.  New York: Springer-Verlag, 1991.

Lichtenberg, Erik, "Land Quality, Irrigation Development and Cropping Patterns in the Northern High Plains", American Journal of Agricultural Economics 71, 187-194 (February 1989).