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Forces Gather to Combat Sprawl

Crowding, housing opportunities, living costs concern nation

May 3, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

As Detroit hosts the National Town Meeting on Sustainable Development it is useful to recall how our cities were once designed to foster human well-being. Detroit and Grand Rapids. Kalamazoo, Lansing, and Saginaw. These were places with full sets of civic equipment: thriving downtowns, handsome courthouses, tree lined streets, clapboard houses, good schools, and miles of surrounding farmland. They were self-contained communities, entirely coherent, satisfying, and complete.

The public’s growing sense that important values have been lost as cities emptied and the countryside became a smear of malls and mini-marts is now the foundation of a powerful grassroots movement to halt sprawl in Michigan and in almost every other state. The backyards of millions of Americans are being affected by bulldozers, new highways, subdivisions, crowded schools, and the congestion and stress they thought they could avoid by living in the suburbs. Legions of people who rarely if ever participated in government are turning up at city council, township, and county commission hearings to help supervise changes in law that produce new patterns of development.

The idea that economic growth and neighborhood stability are compatible goals is the primary focus of the Town Meeting. But the gathering of 5,000 people also features an equally important subtext: a search by leaders of both parties to harness the stunning electoral energy that has massed around the work of changing America’s wasteful patterns of development.

In Michigan, serious campaigns to manage growth, protect farmland, and strengthen downtown economies are thriving in Traverse City, Grand Rapids, Macomb County, Kalamazoo, Petoskey, Marquette, and Ann Arbor. Republicans in the state House are preparing legislation to form a task force to develop formal statewide planning goals. In the state Senate, legislation is being proposed to protect farmland and strengthen the land use laws that prevent erosion which damages lakes and streams.

Michigan Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, teamed up in January with Senator Jim Jeffords, Republican of Vermont, to form the bi-partisan Senate Smart Growth Task Force. The 25-member group, which is designed to “explore and promote community-focused development policies,” includes Sen. Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska and one of Capitol Hill’s staunchest conservatives.

In other states there is just as much interest. Governor Christine Todd Whitman, Republican of New Jersey, gained a $1 billion bond in November to preserve 1 million acres of open space and farmland. Arizona’s Republican Governor, Jane Hull, signed legislation last year that established a state commission to advance smart growth principles and provide $20 million annually for community planning. Utah’s Republican Governor Michael O. Leavitt is actively promoting the Quality Growth Act, which he approved last year to establish a state commission to design incentives that enable cities and towns to control sprawl. Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor Tom Ridge launched a five-year $1.3 billion “Growing Greener Initiative” which includes $900 million to promote sound land use across the state.

Never before, not even during the early 1970s when federal land use legislation was first proposed, and states like Oregon put growth management programs into effect, has taming sprawl, protecting open space, and rebuilding cities achieved such attention. Last November, voters approved 70 percent of the more than 200 local ballot measures around the country that called for public investment in preserving open space, protecting farmland and historic resources, and strengthening planning and zoning.

In January, the Clinton Administration announced two programs — the “Livable Communities Initiative” and the “Lands Legacy Initiative” — which the President described in the State of the Union as programs to “help communities save open space, ease traffic congestion, and grow in ways that enhance every citizen’s quality of life.” Vice President Al Gore, who is scheduled to address the Town Meeting on Tuesday, is highlighting sprawl as a component of his run for the Presidency.

Though both parties are diving in, neither has gained command because the sprawl issue doesn’t shake out along traditional left-right, conservative-liberal, Democratic or Republican lines. The work to tame sprawl overlaps so many other facets of American cultural and economic life that it is attracting broad coalitions of untraditional allies — builders and religious leaders, urban and suburban residents, the rich and the poor, farmers and environmentalists, whites and people of color. Moreover, the anti-sprawl coalitions embrace messages from both parties. Cleaning up the mess we’ve made of our communities demands the local control that Republicans have talked about for 30 years, and engages the Democratic ideals of shared responsibility and community cooperation.

Above all, it requires eliminating the wasteful and damaging subsidies to business and individuals that drive sprawl, and sharply increasing investment in housing, transit, walkable neighborhoods, farmland protection, planning, public schools, and urban redevelopment. Halting sprawl and redeveloping cities means putting civic values ahead of the “business and jobs at any price” paradigm that has dominated government for more than 50 years. None of America’s leaders have yet displayed the vision and courage to truly guide changes of this magnitude. The National Town Meeting, though, is another hopeful step toward new ways of governing that enhances the economy even as it restores community character and sense of place.

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