Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / A Mayor Speaks Out on Sprawl

A Mayor Speaks Out on Sprawl

Grand Rapids leader decries "insidious" threat

April 25, 2002 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


"Our rate of sprawl is behind such hyper-growth communities as Las Vegas, Austin, and Tucson, but well ahead of Cleveland, Chicago, and Portland."

Urban sprawl is alive and well in Grand Rapids, my hometown.

The term refers to the insidious way that webs of suburbs, manufacturing plants, roads, and subdivisions are expanding in unplanned, ever-widening circles around our city. Other symptoms of sprawl include longer commutes, pollution, and the loss of undeveloped land. The American Farmland Trust reports that 70 percent of the country’s prime farmland is now in the path of rapid development.

On the list of 30 of the most sprawling cities in the entire United States, Grand Rapids, which has experienced a 48 percent increase in its urban area between 1990 and 1996, ranks right in the middle. Our rate of sprawl is behind such hyper-growth communities as Las Vegas, Austin, and Tucson, but well ahead of Cleveland, Chicago, and Portland.

Some sprawl apologists say that’s the American Dream and any problems are easy to fix. They say there’s plenty of land left in America. They say congestion would go away if we just build more roads.

But sprawl matters. Pollsters say it’s the most important issue in the country.

Distress about urban sprawl arises from many factors: Loss of open space, traffic congestion, economic segregation, a lack of affordable housing, and a lost sense of community. According to Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam, the longer people spend in traffic, the less likely they are to be involved in their community and family.

To solve these problems, it takes a combination of land conservation and real free market economics, which can actually provide smaller lots for those who want them. However, many communities try to maintain what they believe are high property values by allowing only large-lot homes to be built. This effectively excludes several types of households, including singles, some empty-nesters, single-parents, and the elderly, along with lower-income people.

And the favored "middle-class family" with kids today represents just 25 percent of new homebuyers. Only 11percent of U.S. households are "traditional" families with children and just one wage earner. One size no longer fits us all.

We need smaller houses in walkable clusters, town homes in real "towns," lofts in vital urban neighborhoods, and affordable housing just about anywhere. The development of compact communities that offer urban amenities and street life will show that the market actually supports more density and more housing diversity — not less.

For every 10 percent increase in new freeway miles, a 9 percent increase in traffic is generated within five years. You just can’t build your way out of gridlock. More importantly, today we can no longer afford to keep building new freeways. The key is building more walkable communities.

All this depends on promoting different land-use patterns and not just building new roads. Property rights advocates argue against regional planning, or any planning for that matter. They say that people should have a right to develop their properties as they please.

As a historic preservationist, I have heard that for years. But what if one person’s development decision adversely impacts another’s property, or the whole neighborhood, or the whole region? What if certain choices require more public tax dollars to pay for infrastructure and services than others?

At the regional level, it is public dollars that enable development on private property. Without highways, roads, sewers, water systems, and public services, development cannot occur. Therefore, we must seek out and implement the most cost-effective public investments which creatively and positively support growth but discourage sprawl.

My name is John Logie, I’m the mayor of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

John Logie, an attorney and political Independent, was first elected mayor of Grand Rapids in 1991 and has been re-elected twice since. Under his administration, Grand Rapids has achieved national recognition as a Smart Growth leader in the Midwest. Mayor Logie is reachable at logiejh@wnj.com

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org