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Smart Growth and Grass Roots Revival of Sound Planning and Traditional Town Design

Talk delivered to the EPA’s Smart Growth Network Washington, D.C., September 9, 1997

September 9, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

I wanted to give you a little tour of Northwest Michigan, which is where I live. It is a place of formidable beauty. The air is clear. The rivers and lakes are clean. There are vast stretches of forest. And in much of the region, the farm community continues to thrive.

At the center of the region is Traverse City, Northwest Michigan's largest metropolitan area. A hundred years ago, Traverse City was a boom town of sawmill owners and manufacturers who built handsome Queen Anne and Victorian homes within a short walk of the main business district on Front Street.

Then for six decades, Traverse City slumbered in a torpid economy based of agricultural commodities and summer season tourists.

Today Traverse City is sporting an entirely new economic feel. A new business frontier based on banking, communications, construction, education, energy development, manufacturing, medical care, professional services, recreation, insurance, government, and transportation has developed. It is transforming the city, and its close-in suburbs into an influential center of information age industries. The economy is deeper, more diverse, more vibrant than at any time in the city’s long history. Traverse City, and the surrounding counties in Northwest Michigan, in short, have become a land of opportunity.

These two remarkable facets about life in Northwest Michigan — the unsurpassed environmental conditions and the flourishing economy — are producing an almost ironic response. The region’s economy, its natural attractions, its low crime rate and cultural richness are now magnets for new residents and businesses. They are spurring fast-paced growth. Every county, township, and village within 40 miles of Traverse City is confronting the same urgent issue. What steps must their community take to strengthen the economy while protecting the number one asset that is bringing people to live and work there?

This issue is not one of growth versus no growth. It’s not jobs or the environment. Its not us versus them. Rather, its a question of how to grow. And answering this question well will determine the region’s prosperity now and in the future.

The same questions are being asked with increasing urgency in many other areas of Michigan, and around the nation. They are generally the most vital questions these regions face. Why?

Because the emerging 21st century economy uses information as its essential raw material and is defined by technology and mobility. Industries and their workers are no longer bolted to a specific place; they can be almost anywhere. As a result, among the critical assets workers and executives increasingly cite in choosing a place to locate are a clean environment, uncongested roads, low personal and municipal costs, and superior quality of life.

That is, the place is even more of an essential resource in attracting the businesses of the future than it’s ever been. Those places that offer business and workers superior living conditions are going to be more competitive. From 1990 to 1995, 1.6 million more people moved to rural areas from cities and suburbs, according to the Department of Agriculture. Half of all the nation’s farm-based counties experienced an increase in population during the first five years of the decade, reversing a decades old trend.

Yet what is an obviously challenging and exciting time for business is also turning into something of a nightmare for government, especially at the local level. As more and more responsibility is heaped on county government, city hall, and township boards, local political leaders are less and less capable of capitalizing on the opportunities. Simply put, the will of local government to establish the public institutions, adopt the policies, and make the investments to appropriately respond to growth is being sapped by rising costs and declining resources.

In too many cases, as a result, communities fail to react to runaway growth and end up overseeing decline. One depressing fact: The Environmental Building News, a widely-read newsletter, recently reported that 35,600 square miles of America is now covered in pavement or compacted gravel, an area equal in size to the state of Indiana.

Another depressing fact: 45 years ago, Los Angeles was the top producing farm county in California. Today, 70 percent of its land is devoted to cars. New York and Chicago have grown 12 times as fast in area as in population.

It seems to me that this ever spreading outward is the central environmental, social, cultural, economic, and political story for the next generation. Recent data from polls and focus groups around the country provide evidence that growth and the potential that it will worsen urban and rural sprawl is on the minds of millions of Americans.

But how to respond to what is becoming a great national lament is confusing. The reason: people seem to like the suburbs even if they are coming to fear suburban sprawl.

The South Carolina Coastal Conservation League in Charleston is one of the great regional public interest groups tackling land use questions. A year ago, the league conducted a series of focus groups and found that the most frequent ideal of a community was a neighborhood of residents living in quiet enclaves with safe places for children to play, easily accessible schools, shops and work.

A Fannie Mae survey found that seven in 10 Americans want to live in a single detached house with a yard on all sides. A survey in Memphis found that buyers don’t like small yards. Good public schools are critical, as is closer access to work.

But people aren’t much enamored with cities. The Fannie Mae survey found that overall, most American believe the quality of life has improved in suburbs, but not in cities. Suburbs are believed to be the site of greater increase in home values than cities. By a five to one margin, Americans believe overcrowding and congestion have increased more in the past five years in cities than in suburbs.

So the message is we like the suburbs, and we don’t like the surburbs. One survey in the west found that more than half of those who responded believed that managing growth was critical to protecting the quality of life. In Michigan, three quarters of the residents polled two years ago believed that more land use planning was needed to curb sprawl.

And around the country, communities are trying a range of different approaches to solve problems associated with runaway growth and development. Several factors are common to their success. They all involved intensive programs of public education. They were established with the help of broad-based coalitions representing the entire community. And somewhere in the heap was a leader with a clear vision and the hide of a rhinoceros. Because adopting a new approach to land management means change.

Maryland lost 145,000 acres of farmland from 1985 to 1990. So last year, a number of Maryland communites responded. Anne Arundel in Maryland slapped a building moratorium on the traffic clogged Pasadena peninsula. Baltimore County extended a construction moratorium on areas where elementary schools were crowded. Carroll County stopped approval of subdivisions in certain areas and Harford rejected a bid by homebuilders to expand the designated growth area.

But I also wanted to briefly describe some of the other promising land management programs we’ve studied at the Michigan Land Use Institute which merit attention.

One is the land use plan in place in Fauquier County, Virginia about 50 miles outside of Washington, D.C. Despite being so close to the capital, the county is still 90 percent rural and has been kept that way by very tight zoning restrictions that are enforced.

The most important provision of the plan: a requirement that developers leave untouched 85 percent of any rural parcel they choose to build on. The second most important provision: a 1967 county zoning rule to restrict development to nine towns and villages that make up 5 percent of the county land. In effect, Fauquier established nine urban growth boundaries. Inside the boundaries, development occurs. Outside remains rural. The result is that Fauquier is one immensely beautiful landscape of horse farms, and hunt clubs and rolling Virginia countryside.

Fauquier’s secret, of course, is that a dozen of the state’s wealthiest people live in there. And those wealthy families have dug deep into their pockets to defend the restrictive land use plan. But the lesson also is that a land management plan, tightly enforced, can effectively guide growth while preserving a rural atmosphere.

A second example is Portland, Oregon. In the early 1970s, Oregon established a statewide land use planning program that set uniform goals and required local governments to prepare land use programs. Central to the programs was installing urban growth boundaries, like the one used in Fauquier County. Cities and villages actually drew a line around themselves which determined where development would occur and where it couldn’t. The intent was to preseve farmland in the Williamette Valley, and ensure the future of the state’s forest industries.

The Oregon plan is a miracle of public policy. Three times its been challenged in statewide referendums, and each time voters approved its existence by successively larger majorities. The reason is that it works. The Portland Metropolitan region, which includes parts of three counties and 24 cities has gained 50 percent in population since 1975, when the urban growth boundary was established. But the city’s land area has expanded by less than 2 percent.

That is precisely the opposite from almost every other metropolitan region. Most major cities have doubled their land area while barely growing in population. Here in Michigan, population is expected to grow 11 percent over the next 25 years. But the amount of land expected to be transformed from farm and field to suburbs is expected to grow by as much as 87 percent. That is, if current trends continue, nearly as much land will be suburbanized to accomodate the next 1.1 million people as took to accomodate the existing 9.3 million people. No other state is sprawling as fast.

Oregon, in contrast, is expected to grow 50 percent over the next 25 years. But cities and villages are talking about expanding their urban growth boundaries by 1 to 2 percent.

When Oregon Transportation Department planners proposed in 1988 to build a 6-lane highway bypass through the wheat and berry fields of Washington County, citizens flocked to public hearings to champion a fundamentally different transportation plan for the region.

The activists, who included farmers, business people, and homeowners and argued that one of the primary causes for the increasing traffic congestion in Washington County, a suburb of Portland, was how land was being used. As suburban sprawl continued to press outward, residents had no choice but to use their cars for even the simplest errands. The way to solve Washington County’s looming gridlock, the citizens reasoned, was to give people more choices for how to live and how to get around.

Among the most prominent proponents of the alternative approach was 1000 Friends of Oregon, a respected land use advocacy group that was founded by former Governor Tom McCall. The group realized that fast-growing Washington County could provide the model for the nation’s first 21st-century transportation and land use plan.

Experts from around the country were invited to help with the plan — among them were Peter Calthorpe, a neo-traditional architect and planner from San Francisco, and ECONorthwest, a consulting firm in Eugene, Oregon.

The visionary program, which proposes a future for Washington County that looks very much like the past, received financial support from foundations and the Federal Highway Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. It is popularly known as LUTRAQ, which stands for "Land Use, Transportation, and Air Quality."

The idea behind LUTRAQ was to establish well-designed, compact neighborhoods with homes, stores, offices, schools, and recreation centers within walking distance of bus and rail transit stops.


The LUTRAQ team was made up of traffic engineers, architects, planners, and other technical specialists. A distinctive reason for the program’s success was the creation of computer models that identify flaws in the conventional reasoning for building new roads. The researchers were able to prove that traffic congestion is lessened by lowering demand, not by increasing road capacity. The LUTRAQ studies further showed that:

  • Building new neighborhoods around transit stops, reachable by a short walk, lowered traffic congestion by more than 10%.
  • Transit-oriented (as opposed to car-oriented) communities sharply reduced household expenses by enabling families to function well with one car, instead of requiring fleets of personal vehicles. The annual savings on car payments, insurance, and fuel averages $5,000 a year for each car a family no longer needs.
  • Transit-oriented development allows twice as many children to safely walk or ride their bicycles to school.

The project helped convince state and local officials to substitute a $1 billion taxpayer-financed highway — that also would have needed millions of dollars a year in maintenance — for hundreds of millions of dollars in privately-financed compact home and business development that is a net contributor of tax funds to municipal coffers.

The LUTRAQ planners also successfully made the case that just as railroad suburbs in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston were popular at the turn of the century, a strong market exists today for modern transit developments. The team projected that during the next 20 years, about 75% of Washington County’s new jobs and 65% of the houses could be supported in such communities.

The computer models were so convincing that the Oregon Department of Transportation last year dropped its plan to build the freeway, and has publicly supported the alternative put forward by 1000 Friends.

The LUTRAQ team also made progress on helping the Portland region implement a new land use transportation concept to begin reversing trends in travel behavior, according to Project Director Keith Bartholomew.

The Portland area’s regional government, known as Metro, has adopted a land use plan that calls for concentrating future growth into town centers that are served by light rail and buses. Early indications are that the approach is working — buyers are snapping up new homes and shops close to transit stops at prices that are lower than in any other metropolitan region in the West.

LUTRAQ, said Mr. Bartholomew, has proved to be "a rallying point for people not satisfied that a high quality of life necessarily includes acres of parking lots and miles of congested roads."

Discontent about uncivilized development in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs prompted Maryland to approve legislation that is leading to a statewide growth management plan. Maryland has now decided that it will confine development subsidies and tax incentives to areas that already are developed. The intent is to discourage development of rural areas.

Several years ago, a researcher at Rutgers University in New Jersey found that curbing sprawl would save state government roughly $2 billion over the next decade in roads, sewers, and other infrastructure.

The study also found that if the state managed its growth better, the value of land on the urban fringe would not increase as quickly. The loss to land owners would be $350 million.

  • Earl Blumenauer, the former Commissioner of Public Works in Portland, Oregon, was elected to Congress a year ago to fill Ron Wyden’s seat. Mr. Blumenauer ran on a platform stressing environmental protection, curtailing sprawl, strengthening neighborhoods, and encouraging alternative forms of transportation. He thus became the first federal lawmaker to run and win on a land use platform.
  • In September, New York City reached an agreement with the state to maintain the purity of its drinking water by protecting a 2,000 square mile watershed, much of it in the Catskill Mountains. Under the plan, the city will spend $275 million to buy thousands of acres of land and purchase development rights on other parcels to serve as buffers around its reservoirs. The city also committed nearly $400 million to support economic development efforts in the small Catskill communities affected by the plan. All told, the agreement ranks as among the most innovative models ever tried in the United States for rethinking the uses of land in order to prevent a costly public works project and solve a long-standing environmental threat.
  • Business is joining the fray. In Traverse City, a regional project to stem sprawl called New Designs For Growth is sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce.
  • When high tech manufacturers in California discovered that one in five young workers were actively seeking employment outside of the Silicon Valley because of high housing costs and traffic congestion, the Santa Clara County Manufacturing Group stepped forward with a growth management plan.
  • In the last election, six California communities approved the establishment of growth management boundaries to serve as a clear demarcation between city and countryside. Development will be confined to land within the boundary, and outside is to remain farmland, forest, and open countryside.
  • In July, President Clinton and Vice President Gore held a two-day meeting in the California Sierras on the environment and development around Lake Tahoe. For the first time in a generation, land use, sprawl, the economy, and the environment will be the focus of political attention at the highest level.

Indeed, sprawl and the issues attached to it are steadily making their way to the top echelons of the environmental and social policy debate. Moreover, the grass roots work to curtail sprawl is pointing the way toward a new organic thesis to help political leaders and social theorists explain the world.

The deteriorating environment, crime, declining education standards, the budget deficit, and even America’s sense of drift can all be explained — at least in part — by the way we’ve designed the places we live. This idea, that sprawl is a huge but eminently solveable problem, has the potential not only to reshape American environmentalism, but to also to transform governance.

Here is why. Solving sprawl means civilizing in a much different way. It means changing investment patterns so that development is focused inward, toward cities, instead of outward to the countryside.

To understand just how deeply this new politic is penetrating into communities, consider what is happening in the Traverse City.

One is the farmland preservation project on Old Mission Peninsula, north of Traverse City, which is led by the agricultural community.

In 1988, as Traverse City’s population was expanding, Peninsula Township took the first important step to address the sprawl problem. It elected Rob Manigold, a cherry farmer, as supervisor. Mr. Manigold then hired Gordon Hayward, a former dairy farmer, as planning director. With the help of dozens of residents, the two set to work on a program to manage growth and preserve the farm economy by protecting 9,700 acres of prime farmland.

The foundation of the plan was to provide growers with an economic incentive to continue farming by buying the development rights to their land. The "purchase of development rights" or PDR program would pay farmers the difference between the value of their land for agriculture, and the value for housing developments. In 1994, the township sponsored a remarkably effective public education campaign, complete with posters and brochures. It helped to convince Old Mission residents to approve a property tax increase to raise an estimated $7 million for development right purchases over the 15-year life of the program. That is enough to safeguard some 2,500 acres of farmland, 1,700 of which are already protected or under negotiation.

Another 2,000 acres of have been protected with funds provided by state and federal grants, and through private programs undertaken by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and the American Farmland Trust. In all, 4,500 acres are on the way to being protected.

Having protected more than a third of Old Mission Peninsula’s 9,700 acres of prime farm land, leaders of Peninsula Township now are taking the next step to safeguard their agricultural economy and rural way of life. They have designed Mapleton Village, a pedestrian-oriented traditional town complete with a central green, narrow winding roads, alleys, and apartments above stores. The idea is to attract more people to live closer together on less land.

Mapleton Village borrows from the planning traditions of Northwest Michigan’s small villages and livable neighborhoods.The master plan also calls for architectural design standards that include pitched roofs, two-story store fronts that come up to the sidewalk, and separate garages with granny flats. The beauty of the Mapleton plan is that no destination in the village is more than 1/4 mile from the town center. And more than 1,000 people could live and work in an area covering just 165 acres.

The intent of Mapleton Village is to provide an attractive destination other than land gobbling subdivisions and luxurious ridge top homes for the growing number of families who are seeking out Old Mission Peninsula as a place to live. For a decade or so, the peninsula’s number one product has been picture windows.

And by establishing a village center, the township’s leaders say, that should reduce traffic on the peninsula’s main highway to Traverse City, thus limiting the need for expensive road widening.

As the Mapleton Village design has taken shape, it has twice been put before Old Mission residents. Supporters embraced the idea of a traditional town that is designed to be safe from cars, neighborly, and self sufficient.

Critics, however, wondered whether Mapleton Village could ever be built. The small stores challenge the retail marketing trend of ever larger discount centers. The cost of designing and building roads and other infrastructure has been estimated at $7.5 million. Nor is it clear that so many families will trade subdivisions for village life.

Peninsula Township leaders are not daunted. They are planning more public meetings this year to gauge whether there is a public will to build the first traditional village in Northwest Michigan in more than 90 years.

The other planning project that shows great promise in our region is New Designs For Growth, sponsored by the Traverse City Area of Commerce and intended to preserve small towns and prevent sprawl in five rural Northwest Michigan counties.

New Designs for Growth is focusing the region’s attention on development patterns that are now smearing the countryside with unattractive strip malls, subdivisions, new roads, fast food fry pits, lube joints, civic centers, mega malls, and the like.

Second, it is aimed at asking new kinds of questions about where and how to fit the 41 percent increase in growth that is expected in the region in the next 25 years when the 5-county population is anticipated to reach 190,000.

Third, it is asking whether traditional zoning is the only practical response to deciding how to design a livable, vibrant community in rural regions, or whether there are there other tools available?

It started in the summer of 1995 when the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce summoned more than 20 organizations, asking them for help in responding to the region’s sprawl. The Michigan Land Use Institute was part of the alliance that met twice monthly for six months to design a growth management program from scratch. We learned there was a need for some basics.

  1. We needed to amass a more extensive database on economic policy and land use management. What was working across America and how could it be adopted for use in Michigan and in Traverse City.
  2. We needed an inclusive public education program to bring in residents, business leaders, and public officials. Everybody must be involved. Generally, northern Michigan has been a region where unlimited property rights have existed. It was going to take some intelligent, reasoned advocacy to convince people that growth management tools were needed to keep taxes in check, to build the economy, and to protect private property investments.
  3. Communities needed to gain access to teams of technically-qualified professionals to help them understand the distinctive growth challenges they face and come up with sensible regulatory responses that work.
  4. And we needed money. Coaxing rural townships into considering new approaches to land management could only be done if somebody was going to help pay for the professional assistance.

Thus New Designs became a project to provide public education and land use planning services to more than 60 townships and local governments in five counties along the coast of Lake Michigan. The Traverse Area Chamber of Commerce is earnest about this effort. It has pledged $65,000 a year to finance it in 1996 and 1997 and is seeking other sources of funding including the local Rotary Charities, which put up $30,000 earlier this year. Recently, the Americana Foundation agreed to spend $16,000 for the community workshops in 1996 and 1997. The Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau and its members have also has committed $30,000 over the next three years.

The principal services offered by New Designs For Growth are:

  1. Organizing workshops to inform township leaders and residents about modern conservation land planning principles. The curriculum of the workshops, which have occurred in all five counties, includes an extensive analysis of modern regulatory tools that safeguard natural resources and encourage orderly development.
  2. Providing professional planners, schooled in conservation planning, to help rural townships develop new land use measures.

One of the interesting exercises that the New Designs workshops uses is to give residents and township leaders the opportunity to participate in a hands-on exercise to design their own town. Paper is spread across the floor. People are handed models of homes, office buildings, churches, schools. And then they are asked to lay out a model community. Invariably, what appears looks like a traditional compact town, with a central green, narrow winding roads, clustered homes, walkable streets, stores and schools and businesses all within a stone’s throw of one another.

Yet not a single zoning ordinance now in effect in Northwest Michigan would allow such a town to be built today. What residents have designed on the floor is impossible in real life. The minimum lot sizes, and minimal parking requirements, and separation of uses, and minimum road widths, and all the other inflexible details of current land use plans make it impossible to design a town that people can care about. And when this is pointed out, it really opens people’s eyes.

New Designs also sends teams of technical experts to assess a township’s land use plan and then provide professional advice, at a shared cost, about how it could be strengthened.

And we are working on providing technical assistance to community leaders for constructing new tax, zoning, and permitting provisions. The rules will be designed to save money and provide economic incentives for protecting small towns and natural resources. For instance, New Designs has begun to work with banks to support lower interest loans to support farmland preservation and small lot developments in town centers.

The intent is to create new policy initiatives so that Northwest Michigan’s built environment of the 21st century does not undermine the region’s principal attributes: new economic opportunities and a healthy natural environment.

New Designs for Growth, which began on March 12, 1996, is still very young. But it is achieving some marked successes already.

It takes its public education mission seriouly. A parade of nationally prominent speakers have appeared in the region to work with developers, townships, the environmental community, and local businesses. In the last year Randall Arendt, author of Rural By Design has come to town. Henry Richmond, founder of 1,000 Friends of Oregon who helped to install that state’s model land use program, has come. So has Peter Katz, author of The New Urbanism and executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Recent speakers have included James Kunstler, author of Home From Nowhere, and coming up next month is Thomas Hylton, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials on land use in the Pottstown, Pa. Mercury.

Most importantly, New Designs has changed the tone of the land use discussion in our region. Having the business community leading the charge has given growth management a visibility and respectability that it could not have achieved any other way. It has opened the eyes and the minds of skeptical township leaders who might otherwise reject any discussion of improving land use as talk promoted by outsiders or people who want to stop growth.

The groups involved in New Designs For Growth believe there is a deep political resolve in Northwest Michigan to blaze a new path to improve the region’s economy, preserve its small towns, and sustain its clean environment. Putting ideas into effect to realize this goal means years of persistent, thoughtful work. The result, though, is likely to be a prize cherished by generations that follow — a matchless natural landscape of green hills and blue water, and a handsome, prosperous community like none other. Thank you.

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