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America's Farthest-Reaching Environmental Issue

December 1, 1996 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Henry Richmond, chairman of the National Growth Management Leadership Project in Portland, Oregon, believes that sprawl is the primary reason why the United States has been unable to meet what he calls "national consensus goals."

One illustration, says Mr. Richmond, is how failed land use policies have turned robust, thriving American urban centers into desolate Inner Cities. Tax policy and economic subsidies re-directed investment to the urban fringe for new roads, homes, schools, parks, hospitals, libraries, utility lines, sewers, and police and fire protection.

As jobs and middle class families left the city, the poor became marooned. Schools that once educated Nobel Prize winners began to suffer drop out rates of 50%. Joblessness led to hopelessness, drugs, and mounting crime rates, which only hastened middle class flight. This is the story of Detroit, and of many other cities in America.

Mr. Richmond argues that the pattern of subsidizing sprawl further perpetuates this imbalance. In Chicago, for example, most public and private investment has been focused on the northwest suburbs. The result, says Mr. Richmond, is that 80% of the metropolitan region's new jobs were situated in an area where just 18% of the population resides.

Such one-sided spending, with its attendant economic and social costs, is a highly expensive national mistake. From 1970 to 1990 in Minneapolis /St. Paul, 162 schools were shut down in urban and central suburban areas, while 78 brand new schools were built in the outer suburbs, at a cost exceeding $200 million. New school construction occurred even as enrollment in the entire region declined by 77,000 students.

"Land use is the sort of mystery guest at the civic table," said Mr. Richmond in an interview. "There's only a small appreciation of the impact of land use patterns on national goals. We want prosperity. We want equal opportunity, a clean environment, mobility, affordable housing, any number of things.

"Now look at the 320 metropolitan regions of the country, where 80% of the people live," Mr. Richmond continued. "Look at the development patterns of the 20,000 municipalities. Have any of those places achieved any of these goals?"

Americans are coming to recognize and fear the distinctive soul-numbing symptoms of runaway development. The grass roots work to curtail sprawl is providing a new integrated thesis to explain the nation's vexing economic and social problems that for too long have been regarded as unsolveable. It is becoming clear that the intensifying discussion about sprawl has the potential to reshape environmentalism, public policy, community, and democracy in America.u

Upcoming issues of the Great Lakes Bulletin will focus on positive alternatives to sprawl that provide economic opportunities, preserve the countryside, and create pleasant places for people to live and work.


"As freeways and arterials have become our main source of transport... As warehouse-sized big box retailers have supplanted the local grocery and hardware and toy store and bakery and appliance store... As cul-de-sacs have widened, and the garage entries have gone from two to three cars... As our hottest building sectors have become prisons and gated communities...We've been losing our venues for connecting as human beings. We've been losing a sense of where we are, why we belong in a place, who's around us, and why we should even care about where we hail from."

~ Jim Sayer Executive Director of the Greenbelt Alliance, a land use research group in San Francisco

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