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Suburban Sprawl: America’s Most Important Environmental Issue

A new organizing principle for environmentalism

December 1, 1996 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Since Earth Day 1970, two ideas have served as the central organizing principles of American environmentalism. The first is the lesson from Silent Spring that everything in nature is connected. Pesticides sprayed in Illinois bio-accumulated in Mississippi River fish, killing pelicans in Lousiana that ate them. Cutting the rain forest in Central America means that song birds will not show up in New England. A coal-fired power plant in Nebraska releases mercury that contaminates lakes in Minnesota.

The second idea is that there are good guys and bad guys. Almost every great environmental battle of the last generation has been cast as a moral set piece, with environmental groups intervening against the forces of evil. Think Love Canal and the spotted owl.

Both of these messages became part of the civic and political conversation in every corner of the country because they have value and merit, and because they were embraced by the corps of reporters, producers, and editors who covered the movement. There is evidence now, though, that these two central ideas are not reaching people as they once did.

The reason this is occurring, in part, is that as environmentalism matures, the Silent Spring lesson has become more inclusive. In addition to the biological and ecological balance, the movement’s concerns encompass the full arena of human experience. A new environmentalism is evolving that recognizes the importance of making connections with economic, social, and cultural issues; that is, humans need to be comfortable in their own niche and habitat.

These broader issues mean that the good guy-bad guy theme also is becoming more complex with more gray area to navigate in charting the right course. Groups and interests that in the past might have automatically been considered adversaries are often now effective partners. At the same time, there is a justifiable tension within the movement — combining the need to be pro-active and identify workable alternatives, while maintaining a high level of vigilance about being co-opted by polluters and scoundrels.

What’s needed is a new way to look at the story of the environment and a new approach to telling it that combines the sweep that has always characterized the movement’s vision, with the urgency that motivates people and the press. It so happens there is such a story unfolding in the United States. It is the story of how communities are actively reshaping themselves to turn back the destructive effects of suburban sprawl. It is a story that encompasses the social, cultural, economic, civic, and political life of the republic.

Grassroots advocates recognize in the sprawl story a paradigm shift, an opportunity to define a deeper environmental awareness and break out of the current polarized gridlock. Some of the large national environmental groups are having a harder time being flexible enough to modify their course, although they’re trying.


As an idea to define environmentalism and intrigue journalism, the story of America’s junked up countryside couldn’t come at a better time. Evidence of the atrophy of 1970s-style protest environmentalism is everywhere. The national groups are having trouble recruiting new members. Arch conservatives have seized on environmental regulations as the most egregious examples of Big Government excess, with the accusations running from "stifling innovation" to superseding Communism as the next Menace. In poll after poll, Americans express concern about the environment, but find that more pressing issues like crime, education, job security, and quality of life are taking precedence in their lives.

Part of the reason for the diminishing public interest in the national environmental movement is the considerable success of environmental initiatives in recent decades. Strengthened federal laws and standards have reduced air and water pollution, permanently protected tens of millions of acres of wilderness, and improved the waste disposal practices of industry. Environmental protection has became a core value of the American electorate. Few other social movements in this century have been more successful in transforming ideas into new attitudes that improved the human condition.

Even so, while some Americans may have grown complacent, there also is the problem of environmental fatigue. Among those who recognize that more needs to be done to protect the environment, there is a palpable despair. How long can people receive shock treatments about toxic waste poisonings, loss of habitat, ozone depletion, global warming, and suffering wildlife before they numb out?

In effect, the message has become a negative, overwhelming, and predictable monologue. The national environmental movement is losing ground, often reduced to collaborationist deal-making like the notorious Clinton Administration timber plan that is allowing logging of old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. This formulaic and misguided approach to social change is making editors and producers suspicious of environmental stories, which increasingly are taking up residence at the back of the book.


One of the truly promising trends about this new story is that it is reversing the traditional relationship between environmentalists and journalists. On this story, the journalists are ahead, and are pressing environmentalists to expand their vision.

The reporting on sprawl is bringing about an awareness that "the environment" is more than protecting natural resources and preventing pollution. It also encompasses the human habitat. The focus of this work is the alienation that Americans experience in the isolation of their subdivisions, cars, and stressed-out cities. People are translating their discomfort into a search for alternatives. So many people are involved, in fact, that they are providing the energy for a renewed and much broader environmental movement.

Journalists probing this story are finding that misguided tax policies, transportation subsidies, and economic incentives that hollowed out the cities and paved over the suburbs have now become the principal challenge to protecting natural resources. Rural land is being taken over for Wal-Marts and McDonalds, which entice people to drive longer distances. Rivers are filling with eroded sand and the solvents and grease flowing from acres of new parking lots. The progress the country has made in improving air and water quality and protecting biodiversity is now at risk.

The reporting has also gone further in arguing that sprawl is hampering the economy and interfering in the nation’s sense of well-being. Sprawl is becoming the most graphic illustration of the power of technology, capital, and public policy to utterly change the face of a community. As the land has become cluttered outside dying cities, a wave of social problems has swamped America: crime, declining education standards, the lack of confidence in government, harried lives, and incivility. Sprawl has become the embodiment of what Pulitzer Prize winning historian Bruce Catton called the "fearful heritage" of the 20th century.

Enough articles have been prepared on the subject by prominent news organizations that it is becoming one of the most hopeful trends in serious reporting. Newsweek took up the theme, in the cover article "Bye-Bye Suburban Dream" published in May 1995. The New York Times has given articles on urban planning and gated communities prominent display on its front page. The Wall Street Journal has decorated its front page in recent months with accounts of growth management in Oregon, new community designs, and transportation alternatives. The Washington Post has taken special interest in growth issues that are intruding on rural northern Virginia. The Chicago Tribune and the Kansas City Star both published series on sprawl in December 1995. CBS’ 60 Minutes explored a New England community’s battle with Wal-Mart. And High Country News, one of the nation’s best sources of environmental reporting, has published over a dozen lengthy articles in the last two years on how growth is upsetting the ecological and cultural face of the West.

The richness of the subject is reflected in the following trends:

  • Discontent about uncivilized development in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs is causing Maryland to seriously debate a statewide growth management plan. In at least 19 other states, land use has become a major political issue. In fast-developing Colorado and Montana, land use is the major issue.
  • Earl Blumenauer, the former Commissioner of Public Works in Portland, Oregon, was elected to Congress in May to fill Ron Wyden’s seat. Mr. Blumenauer ran on a platform stressing environmental protection, curtailing sprawl, strengthening neighborhoods, and encouraging alternative forms of transportation. He thus became the first federal lawmaker to run and win on a land use platform. He was re-elected easily, and is preparing the groundwork for a Congressional Caucus on Livable Communities.
  • In September, New York City reached an agreement with the state to maintain the purity of its drinking water by protecting a 2,000 square mile watershed, much of it in the Catskill Mountains. Under the plan, the city will spend $275 million to buy thousands of acres of land and purchase development rights on other parcels to serve as buffers around its reservoirs. It will spend $1.2 billion more to repair leaky septic systems and build new sewage treatment plants near streams that feed the reservoirs. The city also committed nearly $400 million to support economic development efforts in the small Catskill communities affected by the plan. The spending will curtail development around the reservoirs, and eliminate the need to build a $6 billion water treatment plant in New York City. All told, the agreement ranks as among the most innovative models ever tried in the United States for rethinking the uses of land in order to prevent a costly public works project and solve a long-standing environmental threat.
  • Business is joining the fray in many parts of the country to stem sprawl. For example, when high tech manufacturers in California discovered that one in five young workers were actively seeking employment outside of the Silicon Valley because of high housing costs and traffic congestion, the Santa Clara County Manufacturing Group stepped forward with a plan. They formed a broad-based coalition in 1992 to work with local government to build new light rail lines and to foster small lot development in order to reduce home prices.
  • Farmland continues to be paved over for housing developments and parking lots at an astonishing rate. The American Farmland Trust estimates that 1.1 million acres of prime crop land are lost to sprawl every year in the United States. In California during the mid-1980s, 500,000 acres of Central Valley farmland, among the most productive on earth, were ruined by sprawl. In Michigan, 10 acres are lost each hour, or nearly 100,000 acres a year, according to a recent assessment by the state Department of Agriculture.

Stories like these are stimulating new thinking in cities and legislatures about how land is used. Sprawl and the issues attached to it are steadily making their way to the top echelons of the environmental and social policy debate. Moreover, the reporting on sprawl is pointing the way toward a new organic thesis to help political leaders and social theorists explain the world. The ideas have generated such interest that at the grassroots curtailing sprawl is becoming a central organizing principle for addressing the vexing environmental and social problems that for too long have been regarded as unsolveable. It has the potential to reshape American environmentalism.


To understand just how deeply this sort of thinking is penetrating into communities, consider what is happening in Benzie County, Michigan. Located along the wooded northern coast of Lake Michigan, Benzie County is still a place far enough out of the mainstream that the sight of European visitors on the beach in Frankfort prompts page one treatment in the local weekly. The barber shop in downtown Beulah, the county seat and home to 400 people, is as reliable a source of community news as the local radio station. Here, the state’s management of the lake trout fishery is more intensely discussed than almost anything coming out of Lansing or Washington.

Yet even in this region so far apart, the very same convergence of economic, technological, and demographic trends that have ruined countless places in America before are now manhandling local leaders. Land is being divided at a dizzying pace. Property values are soaring. School enrollment is growing. Life in this once-slumbering corner of Michigan has the feel of a gathering storm.

The local conversation about how to respond has become quite sophisticated. For instance, residents are worried about water pollution in the sparkling clear inland lakes and rivers. The largest uncontrolled source of water pollution in the county comes from runoff. Solving the problem means improving farm practices, enlarging riparian habitat and wetlands, and slowing the spread of concrete and asphalt — all of which falls under the heading of land use.

Another concern is about increasing air pollution. There is almost no chance that the quality of the air will improve unless people drive less. That can not be done while the population of automobiles in northwest Michigan and in the United States is increasing twice as fast as the number of people, and when households generate an average of nine auto trips a day. Despite more stringent limits on tailpipe emissions, the increase in automobile travel is expected to make air pollution worse in 2010 than it is today, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

So the solution for northwest Michigan will depend on generating the political will to end the building of more roads and highways, and invest in mass transit and other transportation alternatives. It also means creating communities where shopping, services, and entertainment are within walking distance of homes. Again, the answer lies in redefining how land is used.

The discussion about growth also has centered on how to save the region’s forests, world class orchards, and small town life. Benzie County residents recognize that the root causes of the threat have to do with economic trends and public policies that affect the use of land at home and hundreds of miles away. In public meetings, residents grimly predict that growth will accelerate the pace of life, that crime will rise, that taxes will climb, and that big box superstores will replace family-owned businesses. They express their deepest fears about the very pattern of civilization that once was held up as the highest attainment of economic progress. In short, they are rejecting the conventional American dream.

Jim Sayer, executive director of the Greenbelt Alliance, a land use research group in San Francisco, says the dialogue undertaken in conservative Benzie County over the last year is not unusual. "As freeways and arterials have become our main source of transport, as warehouse-sized big box retailers have supplanted the local grocery and hardware and toy store and bakery and appliance store, as cul-de-sacs have widened and the garage entries have gone from two to three cars, as our hottest building sectors have become prisons and gated communities, we’ve been losing our venues for connecting as human beings. We’ve been losing a sense of where we are, why we belong in a place, who’s around us, and why we should even care about where we hail from."


Although he published eight novels and once worked as an editor at Rolling Stone, James Howard Kunstler had, until very recently, attracted precious little literary attention. Then in 1993, he burst onto the national scene with "The Geography of Nowhere," a splendidly conceived non-fiction account of the "trashy and preposterous human habitat" that America has built since World War Two.

Henry Richmond, the founder of 1,000 Friends of Oregon and one of the nation’s foremost land use authorities, has been studying land use and community activism since the early 1970s when he helped install and defend that state’s model land use program. The outcome in Oregon, where leaders use "urban growth boundaries" to decide where development will go and where it will not, is a booming economy, a low crime rate, and a magnificent environment, none of which is an accident.

Of all the men and women who have seized on land use as a cogent diagnosis of the nation’s ills, perhaps none have done more to elevate the issues than Mr. Kunstler and Mr. Richmond. Mr. Kunstler’s writing helped to initiate the wave of recent reporting on sprawl by describing the helplessness so many feel from living in America’s soul-numbing nowheres, and suffering its dreadful consequences.

"Until he came along, there was this inability to describe what was happening and how people felt, because the problem was all around us. It was difficult to penetrate," said Peter Katz, an important writer on the subject in his own right, and the executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism in San Francisco. "Kunstler has helped define how the United States is beginning to move from a discredited model of growth — one that produces places that people hate — to something that will be better. Jim is basically saying that Americans have to decide to become more civilized. There are lots of organizations and people coming forward to promote the process."

Henry Richmond is among the select group of social theorists and policy makers who have devoted their working lives to helping Oregon put into place a growth management program fit for the 21st century. Far from restricting growth, as its opponents asserted, the state land use plan preserved communities, protected the environment, and helped Oregon earn international acclaim as a superb place to live and do business.

Though the two men have never met, their work is changing the country.

A century ago, Frederick Jackson Turner published a famous essay in the Atlantic Monthly that described the closing of the American frontier, and the effect that idea was having on the national character. Turner succeeded in putting into words something the public already knew, but until then had been unable to articulate. The result of the article, published in September 1896, helped to change how America thought about itself.

Exactly 100 years later, in September 1996, Mr. Kunstler debuted the central ideas of his newest book, Home From Nowhere, in a cover essay in the same magazine. In it, the 47-year-old author convincingly argues that subdivisions that have no center, schools that look like "fertilizer factories," town halls that resemble a "wholesale beverage warehouse," and libraries that could be mistaken for "shipping containers" have produced a national "dis-ease." When nothing in the public realm "honors or embellishes it," he says, the result is "crippled civic life," and a loss of civility. It’s no accident, he says, that America’s wrecked towns and empty cities produced guns in schools, eroded standards, and a distrustful, even surly, national mood.

The solution, says Mr. Kunstler, is a promising architectural and community design movement, that has come to be known as the "New Urbanism." New Urbanists are building communities that focus on compact walkable neighborhoods, where bicycles and mass transit are regarded as essential means of transportation. New Urbanist neighborhoods have homes built closer to the street, on much smaller lots. Streets are narrower and connect to each other, unlike the dead end cul-de-sacs that proliferate in contemporary developments. Affordable housing is provided by a mix of home sizes and styles, and by apartments above stores and garages. These neighborhoods also include schools, churches, parks, stores, offices, and small businesses.

In effect, New Urbanist neighborhoods are complete communities, like the traditional neighborhoods of Boston, Charleston, S.C., Chicago, and Philadelphia. They contain all the "civic equipment" necessary to make a place "worth caring about." They also are the same sort of thriving places that were once the norm in the United States.

"This movement, in my view, is one of the most hopeful developments on the national scene," Mr. Kunstler writes. "I share the belief of its members that if we can repair the physical fabric of our everyday world, many of the damaged and abandoned institutions of our civic life may follow into restoration."

As chairman of the Portland-based National Growth Management Leadership Project, Henry Richmond does not consider himself an environmentalist, though he may be the most important environmental leader on the West Coast. In his view, sprawl has become public enemy number one. The key to addressing it, he says, is to define sprawl as an environmental issue and as a corrosive cultural problem that is undermining what he calls "national consensus goals."

One illustration of Mr. Richmond’s thesis is how failed land use policies have affected big city school systems and crime. Since 1966, when sprawl began to explode outside cities, average SAT scores have fallen. Investment on the urban fringe in roads, homes, schools, parks, sewers, libraries and the like was encouraged by direct subsidies, and by tax codes that favored new and bigger homes over rehabilitating older ones. As jobs and middle class families followed the investment out of the city, the poor became marooned. Big city schools that once educated Nobel Prize winners began to suffer drop out rates of 50%. Joblessness led to hopelessness, drugs, and mounting crime rates, which only hastened middle class flight.

The same pattern now is occurring in older suburbs. As subsidies and tax incentives encourage the paving over of farms and forests even further out on the fringes of metropolitan regions, older suburbs and their school systems are beginning to fail. From 1970 to 1990 in Minneapolis/St. Paul, 162 schools were shut down in urban and central suburban areas, while 78 brand new schools were built in the outer suburbs, at a cost exceeding $200 million. New school construction occurred even as enrollment in the entire region declined by 77,000 students.

Mr. Richmond also notes that the territory-gobbling character of American cities is not necessarily tied to expanding populations. From 1970 to 1990 the Chicago region’s population grew by 4%. The land area covered by the city and its suburbs increased by 64%. Cleveland’s population actually fell by 3% from 1970 to 1990, though its land area expanded by 30%.

What is happening is that people and all the businesses and civic equipment they support shifted, first from the urban to suburban realm, and now from suburbia to rural communities. Such shifts are enormously expensive — new highways, for instance, cost $5 million to $10 million a mile — and cause business and cultural dislocation. Money invested in new roads is money removed from other accounts for public services and maintenance. As civic infrastructure crumbles, housing values decline, businesses leave, joblessness sets in, and with it deteriorating behavior.

Mr. Richmond argues that, far from helping the nation, the pattern of subsidizing sprawl benefits a wealthy minority at the expense of almost everyone else. Some 80% of new road construction in Minneapolis/St. Paul from 1970 to 1990, for instance, took place in the wealthier suburbs where less than 25% of the people live.

In Chicago, most public and private investment has been focused on the northwest suburbs. The result, says Mr. Richmond, is that 80% of the metropolitan region’s new jobs were situated in an area where just 18% of the population resides.

Such one-sided spending, with its attendant economic and social costs, is a national mistake. "Land use is the sort of mystery guest at the civic table," said Mr. Richmond in an interview. "There’s only a small appreciation of the impact of land use patterns on national goals. As a people, as a Congress, we have established consensus goals through the political process. We want prosperity. We want equal opportunity, a clean environment, mobility, affordable housing, any number of things.

"Now look at the 320 metropolitan regions of the country, where 80% of the people live. Look at the development patterns of the 20,000 municipalities. Have any of those places achieved any of these goals? Precious few. Almost every one of those governments is encouraging sprawl through disincentives to investing almost anywhere except the outer fringe."


In the last year, a new progressive movement has developed around land use in Washington, D.C., focusing its work on transportation alternatives, the environment, and efforts to alter policies that encourage development of farm land and sensitive ecosystems.

Among the most effective groups:

  • The Surface Transportation Policy Project, a national coalition to end America’s 50-year-old program of building new roads. The Coalition wants to focus resources on repairing old roads and encouraging cheaper, less damaging alternatives, like rail.
  • Taxpayers For Common Sense, which uncovers federal subsidies and pork barrel projects that not only waste billions of dollars, but disfigure neighborhoods and the land.
  • The American Farm Land Trust, which has saved thousands of acres of prime crop land from being engulfed by suburban sprawl. AFT is the fastest growing national environmental group, doubling its membership in the past three years to 30,000.


Americans are coming to recognize and fear the distinctive community-killing symptoms of runaway development. Small business owners worry about the dislocating effects of national chains that set up shop on their community’s fringe. Aided by property tax abatements and other incentives not available to existing businesses, the newcomers have a built-in advantage beyond their enormous size.

Farmers tremble at the subdivisions, convenience stores, and parking lots closing in on their fields. Woodlot managers find it ever harder to maintain productive stands as acreage is fragmented by suburban sprawl. And families are spending more time and money than ever before to maintain and drive a fleet of vehicles, as crazy outdated zoning rules require schools, stores, factories, and housing to be separated by miles of clogged roads. It is a story that is attracting considerable notice from the news media, and merits much more diverse and insightful attention.


Sidebar ~ Discovering Land Use

The coldest winter in decades seized northern Michigan in 1994, and in February of that year a stranger came to the door of my cabin in Manistee County. He was dressed in heavy wool pants, carried a clipboard, and introduced himself as a landman representing a natural gas company. He said the company was drilling test wells in the area, and it was interested in leasing the minerals that lie beneath my 90 acres of forest and meadows.

Just three months before, my wife and I had moved from Bethesda, Maryland, to begin what we hoped would be a less hectic, more genuine life in northwest Michigan. I was a national environmental correspondent for The New York Times, and the plan was to broaden my reporting, discover new issues, and do it from a magnificent region in the nation’s heartland. Part of the plan also included making time for gardening, hiking, canoeing, and our new community. None of that was a staple of life during the previous eight years, when I was based in the paper’s Washington bureau.

That February day, though, as the bright afternoon grew dim, I recognized that our plans for a simpler life were on hold. The landman was saying that lying beneath much of northern Michigan was a dense layer of shale that contained a motherlode of natural gas. A competing company had just tapped two of the highest yielding wells ever discovered in the formation, and they were located about eight miles south of my place. In short, he said, energy companies were setting their sights on turning our quiet corner of the world into a vast natural gas field. My head ached when he left.

I’ve spent almost half my life exploring the politics, the economics, the communities, and the lives made unrecognizable by struggles over the use of natural resources. Now one of those stories was happening to me. Although the obvious conflict of interest made it impossible for me to tell it in my own newspaper, I notified editors in New York of the unexpected turn of events, and that I was becoming involved.

For the next month, I used every moment between assignments for the Times researching the development. I learned that northern Michigan has been the most heavily drilled region in the United States since 1989. More than 5,500 wells have been installed here, with 800 to 1,000 added every year. The energy industry has invested $1.4 billion in a labyrinth of roads, pipelines, and processing stations. The federal and state governments have subsidized the development with inane tax policies and production write-offs that have cost taxpayers more than $500 million.

This enormous, subsidized industrial infrastructure has invaded the solitude of 600,000 acres of forest, and ruined miles of trout streams. Narrow dirt trails, once navigable only on foot, have been turned into noisy, muddy highways. One of the nation’s last intact forest ecosystems, half of it publicly owned, is being systematically carved up to produce a commodity that is in worldwide surplus. Yet this extraordinary story, the North Woods gas rush, was almost a non-issue in the environmental community, and the state press.

How could that be so? Because the development was occurring beyond the geographical and political mainstream, and because it did not yet fit on the segmented list of the environmental movement’s top priorities in Michigan. The gas rush wasn’t only a water quality issue, a habitat issue, an energy issue, a forest fragmentation issue, or a regulatory issue. Rather, it was all of these. Without question, natural gas drilling was causing more scarring of the land, and more nuisances for communities, than any single industry in the state. Yet recognizing the extent of the mess meant understanding the whole. In sum, the gas rush was a land use problem, and it could only be solved by unifying its various components.

And that’s when it came to me. Almost every story I had ever covered as an environmental reporter had this common element — the use of land.

I moved to northwest Michigan unaware of the richness of the land use debate. It has now become the source of my career ambitions and a primary intellectual interest, so much so that in May 1995, after a ten-year career, I resigned from the Times to take up a new role as an advocate.

Together with my wife and several other talented people who care deeply about this place, I helped organize a professionally-staffed research and policy group known as the Michigan Land Use Institute. Our offices are located in the county’s original one-room school house, which came very close to being demolished by the McDonald’s Corporation.

The Institute is focused on improving land management practices, strengthening the rural economy, and protecting our clean air and water. By broadening the definition of environmentalism to encompass the spectrum of land use issues, we are attracting diverse partners and building momentum for change.

Our project to gain greater oversight of natural gas drilling in the North Woods joins county and township governments with hunting groups and environmentalists. Some 20 member organizations, representing 200,000 state residents are now part of our coalition. We also are part of a regional growth management project in nearby Traverse City, which links realtors and home builders with educators, business leaders, planners, and conservationists.

Nothing is more exciting for those of us who write for a living than to discover and embrace new ideas that make such good sense. The land use debate is a fresh story. It affects all citizens. Advancing it takes careful investigative reporting, insightful policy analysis, and a connection with trendsetters and visionary leaders. It’s the richest realm I’ve ever explored, as it draws the environmental debate into the full story of American civilization.

Michigan Land Use Institute

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