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Smart Growth is Opportunity for Candidates to Galvanize Voters

Across the nation, more governors get it

June 10, 2000 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Here we are on the cusp of another election season, and yet there are no signs of reversing a trend we’ve been wringing our hands over for decades: Less than a majority of the American people vote. If political candidates are to change this ho-hum attitude toward voting, they must connect to issues that affect people’s daily lives.

At the state level, a growing number of governors have found one way to do exactly that. They are making the connection between sensible land-use policies, a better quality of life, and much higher standing with citizens. They are speaking out against the wasteful, dysfunctional sprawl development that has condemned so many Americans to tiresome lives of sitting in traffic and the diminishing experience of watching the distinctive identity of our communities utterly destroyed.

New York’s Republican Governor George Pataki laments the decline of once bustling Main Streets and earlier this year pledged to “seize every opportunity to move state offices from remote campuses to the Main Streets of New York.” Utah’s Michael Leavitt, a Republican, says growth will be the dominant issue in his state during the next decade and consistently asks in public appearances, “Will we continue to grow without plan or purpose? Or will our course be guided by wisdom and logic?”

Maine’s Angus King, an Independent, oversaw new state policy to curb sprawl-spawning highways in rural areas and has encouraged local school districts to reinforce existing communities by maintaining schools in town sites that allow children to get there by walking. This policy contrasts sharply with the preference given elsewhere to gigantic, impersonal facilities in middle-of-nowhere locations.

Says Kentucky Governor Paul Patton, a Democrat: “Let’s not abandon our 100-year-old downtowns, leaving [the town center] to decay while expanding outward into our natural areas.” In keeping with this philosophy Mr. Patton recently decided to locate Kentucky’s new state transportation office in downtown Frankfort, where it can reinforce the city center, instead of on the outskirts of town, where it would contribute to sprawl.

Public opinion polls, moreover, are giving governors a much bigger comfort zone from which to speak out for Smart Growth. In 1998 Maryland’s Democratic Governor Parris Glendening easily won re-election by running on the strength of his comprehensive Smart Growth Program to curb sprawl and rebuild cities. Glendening’s program doesn’t prevent developers from building sprawl. It simply pulls the plug on state taxpayer subsidies for sprawl.

More recently a poll released in June revealed that 84 percent of New Jersey voters believe the state is fast running out of land and three quarters say the state should give spending priority to existing communities over new development. Some 70 percent of residents recently surveyed in Florida said sprawl was the most serious growth problem. Sprawl and unfettered growth outstripped such traditional public concerns as crime, the economy, and education, according to polls taken in Denver, Philadel-phia, and Tampa earlier this year. And in the 1999 election dozens of ballot initiatives, local referendums, and new programs were approved to protect farmland and open space and establish new land protection initiatives.

Smart Growth, which holds that older cities shouldn’t be discarded like Kleenex while the sprawl juggernaut replaces farms with vast expanses of asphalt and endless traffic, may well be the first significant political movement of the 21st century. Governors see that and are using the bully pulpit to establish task forces, re-examine state policies, and fashion new programs that recognize how pervasively land-use patterns affect our quality of life.

Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and an outspoken critic of sprawl, says the recognition comes none too soon. “Almost everything we care about is affected by land use: The character and economic health of our cities, towns, and suburbs; the length of time it takes to go places; the amount of time we have for our families; the quality of our air, water, and wildlife habitats; the fate of our cultural heritage; our ability to feed ourselves; and above all, our ability to preserve — or create — a sense of community.”

That’s a message that candidates for public office should embrace. Voters understand the stakes in failing to address sprawl. They also flock to leadership on the issue, which is what the country could really use right now.

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