Breaking the Sprawl Addiction
A twelve step program
March 1, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
By all appearances, suburban sprawl is a natural, free-wheeling outgrowth of healthy economic activity. Conservationists even contribute to this misconception by calling it "haphazard," "unmanaged," and "runaway." But nothing could be farther from the free market at work -- sprawl in fact is dictated by minutely detailed zoning plans, and is heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars. Why do we choose to live this way? Could it be we're hooked on business as usual?
THE OLD FOUNDATIONS FOR SUCCESSFUL AMERICAN COMMUNITIES ARE crumbling. For 50 years, success was seen as developing new office complexes, building new homes, and providing for shopping, schools, and plenty of parking miles outside of the city. Success also included designing buildings just one and two stories tall, spreading everything miles from the city center, and financing seemingly endless new roads to get from one place to another.
But what happens when the foundation develops gaping cracks? More and more people loathe what's happened to their communities. And why not? Decades of building malls instead of downtowns, subdivisions instead of real neighborhoods, and highways instead of public transit produced places where kids can't walk anywhere, commutes are a waste of time and a financial drain, neighbors don't know each other, the air is increasingly difficult to breathe, and taxes are rising to support more sprawling construction that almost no one but the builders admire.
There's a moment in every human circumstance when enough people come to the same conclusion that old formulas aren't working, and that new ones are needed. For thousands of Michigan residents and millions more people across the country who are seeking more economically efficient, environmentally sensitive, and spiritually healthy places to live, that moment is now.The nationwide movement to rebuild cities, and design the prosperous, charming, sought-after communities of the 21st century, represents one of the most influential social movements in America today.
No movement, though, can achieve its goals without fully understanding why the old foundation failed, and then developing well-informed and reasoned solutions. That need is especially strong in rural America, where long-held views about the benefits of adding jobs and population and almost any sort of economic development now are clashing with the reality of ugly sprawl, increasing traffic congestion, pollution, and rising civic discontent about how communities grow.
In other words, why do so many quiet, personable, and beautiful rural places insist on paving themselves over? And how do caring individuals and governments deal with it?
During the past six months the Michigan Land Use Institute undertook an intensive research project to understand the causes of sprawl in rural communities, and to recommend solutions. We were particularly interested in whether sprawl was the result of a "free market" at work, as the state Home Builders Association insists, or whether it's caused by decidedly "central planning" factors, such as tax breaks and public spending for roads, water, sewers, and jobs. We also were intent on developing recommendations for preventing sprawl that are reasoned, readily understandable, and will work in rural regions.
Our research focused on Garfield Township, which borders Traverse City and is the fastest growing region in scenic northwest Michigan. The project was designed as a journalistic X-ray of a rural area's development over three decades. It also was meant to help other communities make informed decisions about how to grow and still avoid the traffic congestion, environmental degradation, and rising municipal and personal expenses that accompany conventional patterns of growth.
From its findings the Institute reached the following conclusions about the causes of sprawl in Garfield Township:
• Garfield planned for a sprawling pattern of economic growth. The township's emergence as northwest Michigan's retail and manufacturing center is a result of township leaders using the land use planning apparatus as an economic development tool. They mapped out a conventional zoning plan in the early 1970s that devoted thousands of acres to new businesses, subdivisions, malls, and one-story office complexes (see map on page 15).
•An array of taxpayer investments for job training, industrial park infrastructure, bond funds, and road and sewer construction grants were necessary for Garfield's plan to work. For an initial taxpayer investment in the township -- $22 million from 1970 to 2000 -- Garfield built a suburban economic engine that caused its population to more than double since 1970, to 13,000 people, and which daily draws tens of thousands of workers, shoppers, and visitors from the five-county Grand Traverse region and beyond.
•The blush of prosperity that followed the initial public investment is deceptive. Today sprawl, traffic, and population growth are overwhelming Garfield's public facilities, especially roads and sewers. Modernizing and expanding public infrastructure to support more sprawl-dominated development in Garfield will require a taxpayer-financed investment approaching $100 million.