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Smart Talk

The Verdict on Smart Growth

November 14, 2005 | By Hans Voss
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Brian Confer

Hans Voss is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s executive director. Reach him at hans@mlui.org.

“I’m really busy. I’ve got to get out of this!”

That was my first thought when the Grand Traverse County Circuit Court called me to jury duty this fall.

But by the time the case ended, I was glad for the experience; it actually made me a better citizen and Smart Growth advocate.

Grand Traverse is not known for diversity, but we 12 jurists were definitely diverse: A recent high school graduate, a few seniors, a handful of young parents—liberals and conservatives, city and country folk, the religious and the agnostic. It was quite a cross section.

Painstakingly, we reviewed the evidence. We agreed on the facts, but when it came down to deciding the case, it struck me how much people relied on their values and feelings. Their hearts, not their heads, guided them.

As I peddled home after the verdict, I wondered: What would happen if sprawl was on trial? The evidence is indisputable: Traffic increases. Farmland disappears. Lakes and rivers suffer. Downtowns fade. And taxpayers pay—big time. What would a jury do?

In a way, we intend to find out. As Keith Schneider explains in our cover story, we are now bringing the Institute’s energy, skill, and experience to the Grand Traverse region in a more focused, proactive way. We plan to make the region the best example of Smart Growth in the country and, as we have long been doing, apply what we learn to our larger, statewide programs.

Why are we so optimistic about that strategy? Because whether they’ve lived Up North for several years or for several generations, whether they’re backwoods hermits or downtown hipsters, farmers or cubicle dwellers, most people live here because they love the land, the openness, the fresh air, the lakes, the sunsets. They are connected to each other not through their heads, but their hearts.

And that’s why Smart Growth works: After all of the facts and figures, it remains an affair of the heart that, as Keith points out in his great piece, unites a remarkably diverse group of people. That’s no small comfort in these terribly fractious times, and one more big reason for us to work harder than ever—Up North and all across our great state.

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