In 2014, NASA released a stunning high-resolution satellite photograph of the entire United States at night.
In this photo, (which can be seen on Kentucky.com/opinion), cities appear bright, while undeveloped lands are pitch black. Zooming in, the Bluegrass of Kentucky glows like a constellation of stars while the region's countryside appears like the darkness of deep space.
What this photo really shows us is the condition of the region in lights and darks, like an X-ray. In it, we see that many cities in the region have, at least at night, become indistinguishable from one another and that urban development has spread far out into what was once rural land.
The effect of this sprawl is important, because the Bluegrass is a finite, non-renewable resource. On the entire Earth, there is only approximately 520,000 acres of this magic, irreplaceable landscape. Once transformed from its natural state, in small bits or large chunks, it is gone forever.
Of course, not every square foot of ground that appears to be covered by urban lights in the photo is yet fully developed. And the dark areas show that there remains much vital and productive rural land. And too, many will look at the satellite photo and see economic vibrancy, a thriving region. So all is not lost.
However, this photo might portend an unintended future, where the right land-use balance is not achieved. In that future, the distinctness of our communities is lost, the critical mass of prime farmland is fragmented, and our bio-regional life support system is degraded. Lost, too, would be a myriad of economic opportunities based upon those qualities.
Instead of a thriving, sustainable region, we could be left with a legacy of environmental, cultural and economic degradation. Sadly, this has been the fate of many regions of the so-called Third World. It is safe to assume no one in the Bluegrass desires that.
Fortunately, much good work has been done to direct the region toward a different and, metaphorically at least, brighter future. Many wonderful groups and individuals work to promote economic development in the cores of our cities and towns, to preserve and connect us to farm and environmentally sensitive lands and to retain our culture.
Much work remains, however, if we are to avoid a dim fate, one where nothing but lights are visible from space. To do that will require a renewed commitment to truly valuing what makes the Bluegrass so special: unique land, distinct communities and deep heritage.
To start, the region needs to redouble preservation efforts, not just for land, but buildings as well. It is critical to note that land preservation is about more than simply protecting running-room for certain large, four-legged mammals.
Land preservation is about both saving prime soils for local food production, which will be vital in our low-energy future, and carbon sequestration, important for mitigating global warming. It is also about protecting plant and animal habitats.
Preserving most buildings, not just historic ones, is crucial, too. This is not only important for our heritage, but also is about retaining structures for a time when they can be adaptively reused, saving costs and reducing the environmental impact of new buildings.
At the same time, the region needs to get serious about making new development more land-efficient. Spreading out forever is simply not an option if the Bluegrass is to retain its character and innate health. The alternative is taller and denser development, which, with great design, can become the diverse, mixed-use, walkable places desired by so many.
Finally, citizens must ensure that economic development priorities are not at odds with social and environmental ones. A region-wide "Bluegrass USA" economic development program based on environmental and cultural authenticity would distinguish the region from everywhere else in the world.
Brand the region as its people, music, food, art and heritage, not just horses or generic "quality of life," and then great reasons attach for protecting its health and character long term.
NASA's satellite photo clearly illuminates a choice for the citizens of the Bluegrass: Continue to light more land with sprawl, or embrace the promise and benefits of keeping it dark.