Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Earl Blumenauer: In His Own Words

Earl Blumenauer: In His Own Words

Text of interview with Congressman Earl Blumenauer

June 28, 2002 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Keith Schneider: Congressman, what is happening out there with Smart Growth?
Representative Blumenauer: The most encouraging trend is that over the course of the last half dozen years the grassroots have been galvanized and interest has risen to a peak.

In the last cycle of state legislatures there were a thousand bills dealing with land use planning, smart growth, and livable communities.

There were 550 ballot measures in the last election cycle. Those have been going up, up, up since 1996. The majority of them passed.

For me, watching this I realize that even though the federal government has been slow to address Smart Growth in any sort of systematic and comprehensive fashion, the public at the grassroots level, and to a lesser extent the state level, is driving the movement forward.

The result is that politicians actually are going to have to address it over time.

Federal role for Smart Growth
The second area that really captures my imagination and makes me feel very optimistic about the future is the range of ways that the federal government can help make this movement be much more successful.

It does not require the federal government to issue a lot of edicts, and rules, and regulations like passing massive national land use legislation.
To the contrary. The most important thing is to have the federal government model the behavior that it expects of the rest of America: to clean up after itself and to find ways to make sure that federal agencies are models for stewardship as the largest landowner, landlord, and employer in America.

My sense is that we’re seeing these forces converging.

The private sector understands the public cares, particularly as it relates to transportation and water resources.

We’re finding out that benign neglect and some of the development policies of the past that are aggressively negative simply don’t work.

Transportation reform
There is not a single community that has paved its way out of traffic congestion. We’re finding, for instance, that areas that have moved to providing more transportation choices, particularly as it relates to rail and street car, are doing very well. People love it.

Salt Lake City. The Olympics would not have worked without the construction of light rail in Salt Lake.

Denver had a rail line to nowhere. All of a sudden conservative and liberals alike see that this is a positive way to drive some redevelopment and take some pressure off transportation. You couldn’t beat the politicians away with a stick with the last ribbon cutting of the extension in Denver.

We’re seeing it in Dallas; light rail and street car in a number of California communities. In Portland we’re finding that in this last year we have opened rail to the airport, a street car line, and completed 50 percent of the construction of a third light rail extension.

With each one we’re learning more, saving money, and providing a range of choices for communities that wouldn’t be possible with just simply moving ahead with auto-oriented solutions.

Smart Growth and September 11
With the aftermath of the tragedy on September 11, there is an unprecedented opportunity to take these issues to a new level from two regards. The public really wants to do something.

The administration has challenged people to shop more and look out for suspicious neighbors. That’s not satisfactory. The American public would be more willing to change. They would accept more fuel-efficient vehicles. They would work together to help make their communities better. They want to work together to know their neighbors.

People instinctively know that communities are more important. They look at the connections with one another. They are starting to look at the bigger picture globally and at home in terms of our quality of life, our patterns of consumption, our care of the environment, what legacy we’ll leave for our children. Our relationships with foreign governments. These are bigger issues that people are focusing on.

At the same time we look at just the practical implications of public safety and the economy. If on September 12 the only way you could move on the East Coast was by air or single occupant vehicle it would have been gridlock up and down the eastern seaboard, from Alexandria to New Haven.

But Amtrak was there. Ridership skyrocketed. There were 100,000 people taking to the streets of Manhattan with bicycles the week after September 11. Metro in Washington DC allowed people to leave and avoid panic and gridlock. And if there had been more serious problems it would have saved lives.

People are starting to understand that transportation balance and choices make a difference. The combination of the practical implications at having a balanced transportation system, and the notion that people are taking a longer term view, being more reflective, and really investing in their communities is a terrific convergence of circumstance.

Why then do we continue to elect people who aren’t much interested in any of this?
It’s very interesting to contemplate the change that is taking place politically. The last election in 2000 was basically fought to a draw: 50/50 in the Senate. It was almost exactly dead even in terms of votes cast in the House, the closest margin in 50 years.

In the presidency, one candidate won the popular vote, the other candidate was judged the electoral victor.

It’s a tie. The issues of how communities work are at a very direct level that deal with economic development, with water quality, transportation, with revitalizing frayed first tier suburbs, protection of farmland. This is an agenda that Americans can actually get behind. That isn’t polarized. But actually adds value and enables people to move forward.

I think that we’re starting to see the American public move beyond the politicians. It may take a little longer because of some of the structural incapacity of our national government. Our capacity to change government policy is not as well developed as the political capacity to maintain the status quo, to get the traditional benefits of government action. But that does not mean the public is satisfied and our problems will not wait.

So events are moving past the elected leadership in Washington, D.C. The combination of environmental threats, problems with the economy, and the breakdown that we’re seeing in infrastructure operation and development will demand the sorts of solutions that citizens at the state and local level are developing.

What do you mean?
We have a situation around the country where we are billions and billions of dollars short from being able to just meet the minimal requirements of the Clean Water Act, for instance. We have 1,100 communities that are wrestling with issues of combined sewer overflows. We have spent hundreds of billions of dollars in the last decade dealing with surface transportation. Despite the flexibility and opportunity afforded by ISTEA [the federal transportation policy law] and its successor, TEA-21, there was little capacity to flex all that could have been flexed.

The planning, to be charitable, has been uneven. And citizens are still struggling with how to fully use it. So we have been involved in too much investment in building questionable projects at the expense of investing and maintaining existing infrastructure. And it has not been equitably distributed. We are prisoners of outmoded thinking in terms of everything from school standards and design, where it is easier to throw something on farmland than it is to rebuild and energize existing neighborhoods with school facilities.

In most communities the majority of kids can not get to school safely on their own which requires parents to have two rush hours in the course of their morning commute. These are all part of what I view as a crumbling infrastructure, of capacity, of the ability of people to get the quality of public services that they want. The predictability in our every day lives.

If we’re successful in this work what does America look like in 20 years or 40 years?
If we’re successful in this work the results will be evident within a decade. It will mean the typical family will have more choices about where they live, work, and how they move. It means some of our more vulnerable citizens, particularly our children and senior citizens, will not be captive, more dependent on other people. They will be more self-reliant.

We will be able to reclaim millions of acres of land that has been off limits because it has been polluted or abandoned.

We will be able to protect the urban-rural interface, to protect farmland so that families can continue farming and not have to sell out to larger entities either for development or for agricultural production. We will see a difference in terms of the large industrial farming operations. They will either not be there or be much more compatible for the environment.

Each and everyone of these areas, the way we apply our environmental protections, our infrastructure dollars, and the community’s ability to plan for and protect the quality of life will be enhanced with these partnerships between federal, state, local and the private sector. It will be visible within the next decade.
Will we ever kill sprawl?

I’m much more concerned about what we’re for instead of what we’re against. Sprawl is a symptom of an inability to plan for our future, to protect what we really want, and to be able to give people a reasonable collection of choices. The notion that if we do our job right we will not replicate what we saw in the 1990s where we urbanized an area the size of West Virginia in terms of falling victim to development.

There is no reason that we won’t succeed given our demographics where America is a nation of aging baby boomers wanting less pressure of a suburban lifestyle and seeing the consequences of abandoning our inner cities and our first and second tier suburban rings. A Detroit with an infrastructure that once supported two million people with a pretty vibrant quality of life, is too precious a resource to turn our back on.

Is this the first important social policy movement of the 21st century?
Being able to preserve quality of life and make a community more livable is really at the core of what’s driven so many social, economic, and technological revolutions throughout American history.

At its core, Smart Growth is a way to make our families safer, healthier, and more economically secure in a world that is at once larger than it’s ever been, connected to every corner of the world, but also smaller because we’re affected in ways we’ve never seen before. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this is the most important set of public policy initiatives now before Congress. At its core Smart Growth expresses what most people want in connecting to their communities and their fellow citizens.

When does it begin to drive public policy in the same way that our politics were driven by lower taxes, social security, abortion?
I truly believe it is driving it right now. What is lacking is a good cohesive way of capturing and expressing it. We need to synthesize that message. It is so all encompassing that it’s hard to put into words.

This is how I’ve spent my entire professional career, my entire adult life. It is hard to be concise and focused, and very easy to get carried away. The other thing that is lacking is a good system of communicating the rhetoric we’re developing.

In both cases we’re making progress. There is more consensus about tools and language.

In every community that I go to I get that day’s newspaper and the next day’s. Everywhere the newspapers are filled with articles about water quality, air quality, health, affordable housing, transportation, open space. It is a mosaic of issues that relate to livability, which people in Chattanooga, Hartford, Saginaw, and Bakersfield can all relate to and all care deeply about.

Michigan Land Use Institute

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