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Smart Growth and National Security

Katrina exposes urgent need to fix America’s obsolete way of life

September 20, 2005 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

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When investigators dig into Katrina’s muck of blame they’ll find a national security crisis: The obsolete American way of life.

Years ago, as a young reporter in Washington, I first came to understand how swift changes in environmental, technical, and political conditions affect national security when I led a team of New York Times correspondents that spent months uncovering the decrepit state of America's atomic weapons industry. The secretive plants had fallen into such obsolescence and disrepair that communities in a dozen states were seriously contaminated with nuclear debris, a catastrophic radioactive explosion was possible, and the cost of making repairs was estimated at $200 billion.

As Katrina’s flood waters swirled through New Orleans, and the price of gas here in northern Michigan rose 75 cents a gallon in just 16 hours, I was reminded of that work. The weapons industry’s perilous decline in the 1980s, and the hardships that Katrina caused in the Gulf and nationwide have common roots. In each case government overseers and private industry executives were incapable of responding to evolving operating conditions they knew would inevitably lead to catastrophe.

It wasn’t until the Times reported that national security was compromised by a weapons plant in South Carolina, which could not safely produce a triggering compound used in nearly every American warhead, that the nation roused itself to prevent a tragedy.

Katrina’s victims weren’t nearly so fortunate. When investigators dig into the muck of blame they won’t just discover a dawdling President and impotent bureaucrats. They’ll also find a new national security crisis: The obsolete American way of life.

Gone With the Waves – and the Oil 
For the second time in four years a national calamity is forcing the country to understand that the very resources that made the 20th century’s economy and suburban way of life possible – cheap land, cheap fuel, good working wages, and government know-how – have vanished in the 21st. Yet our zeal to cling to a petroleum-intensive, land-consuming, resource-wasting lifestyle is clouding our vision. We have not yet developed the capacity to recognize and respond to 21st-century global environmental, economic, and political trends that imperil us.  Katrina’s arc of destruction across an area as large as Italy is the most recent case in point.

Consider how environmental conditions contributed to the catastrophe. Louisiana’s storm-buffering and flood-absorbing wetlands had been shredded for decades by our insatiable appetite for oil and gas. A national plumbing system bent on taming the mighty Mississippi blocked replenishing mud. Add to that global climate change, which acted like a hurricane supercharger, warming the waters of the Gulf and transforming a Category One storm into a Category Four monster.

Consider the expensive and wasteful way we build American communities. Much of the Deep South’s explosive population growth has occurred along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Deep penetration into previously unsettled, and often hard-to-access land was made possible by cheap gas, cheap property, and government spending on roads, water systems, and flood insurance. It also meant that the vehicle-dependent, highway-loving, subdivision-craving, big box, fry pit, congested and sprawling communities that resulted were built precisely in the zones that potent hurricanes would strike hardest.

Finally, consider government. The new conservative priorities to lower taxes, drain government resources, and provide for the wealthy at the expense of the poor are simply out of touch with 21st-century reality. Government officials operating according to those priorities were incapable, for instance, of taking into account and responding to any of the 21st-century threats that would turn a Gulf hurricane into a national calamity. Just one smart decision alone, like investing a little to strengthen levees in New Orleans ($300 million), could have prevented the nation from spending 1,000 times more when those  levees failed.

Smart Growth Is Safe Growth
President Bush’s vow to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast invites a real reckoning with this century’s new conditions. It also represents an opportunity to protect national security by putting into effect across a broad region a new development strategy called Smart Growth.

Smart Growth calls for investing private and public dollars to develop markets, neighborhoods, and business districts that draw people closer together instead of flinging them ever farther apart. Doing so improves economic performance and heightens the quality of life by taking into account the developing mismatch between our exploding population – 420 million Americans will be here by 2050, according to the U.S. Census – and fierce 21st-century competition for land, natural resources, money, and time.

Though its principles and values have not attracted enough attention in Washington, all across the country countless communities are putting Smart Growth into effect, with terrific results.

American Cities Get Smart, Stay Prosperous
Salt Lake City is building cost-effective and efficient public transit lines and constructing beautiful neighborhoods in close proximity to attractive business districts and civic spaces. Grand Rapids, Mich., transformed itself from a decaying industrial city into a modern biomedical, recreational, and education metropolis by investing to make public transit, housing, schools, recreational centers, and the business district much more attractive places to be.

Denver is designing its new development strategy around a $5 billion regional system of new bus and train lines. Portland, Ore., rebuilt its city and the regional economy around the new nodes of business and housing that developed around public transit stations.

Putting homes, jobs, schools, recreation, health care, and all the other destinations of modern life closer together is healthier, less expensive, and rebuilds a sense of community. It also relieves families of the need to operate fleets of vehicles fueled by foreign oil, and helps taxpayers overcome the costs of constructing freeways at $50 million a mile. The new light rail line in Minneapolis, for instance, carried nearly one million passengers last month, far higher than anticipated. A similar line in New Orleans would have been capable of carrying many people to safety.

Indeed, Smart Growth is a development strategy whose time has come. Conserving natural systems, like wetlands, that can clean up our waters and bear the brunt of storms means saving money, because the inferior and expensive mechanical systems don’t need to be built. Burning less oil will help solve global climate change which is making tropical storms worse and wreaking havoc on low-lying coastlines.

Building the new communities of this century, by the way, also promotes the high-paying planning, engineering, construction, manufacturing, and professional jobs that can’t be shipped overseas.

Can We Have a Smart Government, Too?
Smart Growth, just as importantly, is prompting a reappraisal of the value of government. Communities are investing to hire and train more first-rate managers to oversee transit systems, schools, public agencies, and other civic infrastructure. That results in more efficiency and lower costs. Government managers who view themselves as a national resource instead of members of a beaten down bureaucracy develop the skills and credibility to help elected leaders respond to fast-changing global trends.

The drubbing that Katrina laid on the Gulf Coast, and everybody’s else’s wallet, is a warning. So was the September 11 attack. More calamities of their magnitude are certain to occur in the economy, in the environment, in suburbs and cities unless America responds to what’s happening in the real world around us.

The nation’s security is at risk. The basic apparatus of nature, land, economy, government, and ingenuity that made America rich and powerful in the 20th century has been transformed. The true costs of America’s gas-guzzling, land-consuming, resource-wasting way of life are coming due.

In countless American communities and more than 35 states, citizens are testing and proving out a more environmentally-sensitive, energy-efficient, less costly development strategy. Smart Growth represents a cogent response to the new global conditions threatening our security. The national government’s duty is to embrace Smart Growth’s principles and values, and participate in America’s rescue.

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

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