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Detroit Archdiocese Tackles Sprawl

Church strengthens Michigan’s Smart Growth movement

October 11, 2001 | By Arlin Wasserman
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Prompted by economic, cultural, and demographic trends that are causing rising costs and declining conditions in urban and suburban parishes, the influential Detroit Archdiocese this month is launching a multi-year campaign to curb Michigan’s sprawling patterns of development.

At the top of the Archdiocese's priorities is changing state polices to encourage new urban development and slow runaway growth at the suburban fringe. The Archdiocese, which has 1.5 million members in southeast Michigan, also wants to invest considerably more in public transit and to repair existing roads instead of building new highways.

These and other ideas are on the agenda of the church’s fifth annual Salt & Light conference, which begins on Oct. 15, 2001. The two-day conference is expected to attract 1,000 public policy experts, smart growth advocates, and active clergy and laity.

Each year the Salt & Light conference brings together community leaders who seek to bridge religious, racial, ethnic, economic, and geographic boundaries. This year’s conference is intended to build a larger civic movement to preserve southeast Michigan’s natural and cultural resources, attract new investment, and sustain a high quality of life.

"The church has mirrored the experience of the metropolitan region," said Dan Piepszowski, the Archdiocese’s Director of Christian Service. "We have experienced the pressure of suburban sprawl. We are increasingly pressured to not abandon the city and older suburbs. But at the same time we must meet the needs of those who choose to migrate to developing areas on the fringe. The Catholic community has a strong connection to place as our family histories are often intertwined with our parish identity. This positions us uniquely to raise the question of how urban sprawl has cut to the very core of what it means to live out our faith in the context of a community."

Among the specific changes in public policy that will be discussed at the conference, and then put before lawmakers in Lansing are:

  • Committing 10 percent of the state’s transportation budget each year to public transit services and to regionalize public transit in southeast Michigan.

  • Coordinating land use planning across government boundaries to stop sprawl and encourage new development in city centers and older suburbs.

  • Sharing the cost of schools, housing, and public services throughout the metropolitan region.

  • Directing state agencies to work more closely with local governments.

  • Providing communities with more influence and authority to guide state infrastructure investments.

The church also wants the next governor and Detroit’s next mayor to use their bully pulpits to lead a statewide effort to stop sprawl.

Ann Serra, the Metropolitan Equity Coordinator for the Archdiocese, said the Salt & Light conference will galvanize church leaders and members. Cardinal Adam Maida, the Archbishop of Detroit, will conduct evening vesper services on Monday for the Detroit area’s catholic leadership. At the conclusion, church leaders will pledge themselves to a long-term campaign to achieve metropolitan equity.

"We hope to intensify the dialogue in our parishes on issues related to equity," said Ms. Serra. "This conference has brought together a diverse coalition to build a public mandate for change that increases the quality of life for all the members of our metropolitan community. We fundamentally believe that together we can attract new investment, accommodate growth and preserve our assets for generations to come."

Ms. Serra added that the church’s involvement adds a vital moral dimension and religious authority to the growing Smart Growth movement in Michigan. "The Archdiocese of Detroit crosses jurisdictional political boundaries as a regional organization," she said. "This positions us to live our calling through mediating relationships between the secular and religious community, increasing activism in the public arena, and understanding policies related specifically to land use and transportation that disproportionately impact the least advantaged."

Tackling complex economic and cultural issues is nothing new for the Detroit Archdiocese. In previous years, church leaders and activists have significantly influenced state policy on civil rights and segregation, restructuring schools, health care, the right to life, the right to die, gun ownership, and gambling. The church’s new focus on sprawl and urban reinvestment is likely to tip the balance of power on both issues in Lansing, where debate has been stifled by groups representing home builders and realtors.

The Archdiocese’s focus on sprawl is prompted by the factors that also are driving local government leaders and citizens to take action. The Archdiocese provides many of the same services as local governments — hospitals, schools, social services, and churches that serve as public meeting places. In recent decades the Archdiocese has made a painful choice to close some inner city churches as congregants move to new suburbs. Cardinal Maida, preparing for a revival in Detroit, has chosen to mothball the buildings for future use rather than sell them.

Meanwhile, developers who build the best housing at the urban fringe are taxing the Archdiocese in the same way that other governments are. The church, forced to provide services ever farther from city centers, is spending limited funds to build new schools and churches.

Among the citizen and business organizations that the Archdiocese has turned to for technical and strategic support for the new campaign is Transit Riders United. The Detroit-based public interest group has carefully studied southeast Michigan’s ailing bus systems and created a vision for a modern regional system. The Archdiocese has also worked with the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, and MOSES, a social justice group, to improve public transit services. The local advocacy has prompted Democratic state Representative Kwame Kilpatrick, the House Minority Leader and a candidate for mayor of Detroit, to craft legislation to finance a new regional transit system.

The Archidiocese also is turning to policy experts, among them Kelly Thayer, the transportation project coordinator at the Benzonia-based Michigan Land Use Institute.

"What Michigan lacks is a commitment to public transit and good financing," said Mr. Thayer, who will speak at the Salt & Light conference. "We need ten percent of the state’s transportation budget to support local programs like a regional transit authority in Detroit. And we need more money to build transit systems that connect our city centers and to repair our existing roads. A focus on helping existing communities is a real change for an administration that’s seen building new roads as its greatest accomplishments."

Minnesota Democratic state Senator Myron Orfield, a national authority on developing public policy to slow sprawl and reinvest in cities, also is involved in the Archdiocese’s campaign. Two years ago, at the invitation of the Archdiocese and several other religious groups, Mr. Orfield studied demographic and economic trends in southeast Michigan. 

In a striking report, Mr. Orfield discovered what he called "a dangerous social and economic polarization" in metropolitan Detroit. "Poverty and social and economic need has concentrated and is deepening in central-city neighborhoods, in older, inner suburbs and in many outlying communities," said the study.

Mr. Orfield concluded that southeast Michigan needed a regional commitment to stop sprawl and reinvigorate Detroit. Mr. Orfield is convinced that the key to increasing new development in cities, and not at the surburban fringe, is for communities to share the costs of housing, schools and public services.

What’s also needed, said Mr. Orfield and other advocates, is a commitment by state leaders to take seriously the costs of sprawl on cities and suburbs, and to develop real solutions. With the Archdiocese’s decision to focus on sprawl the pressure on the legislature to act is significantly heightened.

Arlin Wasserman is the policy director at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at arlin@mlui.org, or 231-271-3683.

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