Michigan Land Use Institute

Thriving Communities / News & Views / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Breaking the Sprawl Addiction

Breaking the Sprawl Addiction

A twelve step program

March 1, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

    6. End the pattern of developing isolated and sterile cul-de-sac subdivisions plunked down across the landscape. Build real neighborhoods on linear street grids, and require that the roads within neighborhoods, shopping areas, and manufacturing centers be connected to each other.

Places like Garfield are both spread out and remarkably congested. The reason is that people live in subdivisions that are unconnected to anything else. And in order to gain access to the other parts of their lives, they drive on local roads that are not very efficiently connected to each other.
Unlike traditional neighborhoods that are built on a grid pattern of streets connected to each other and to commercial and civic centers, cul-de-sac subdivisions have just one entrance to the outside world. The result is that in order to get anywhere, even to the subdivision right next door, you have to use a car and a major road.
In replicating this development pattern Garfield and other suburbs are ensuring that their road network becomes increasingly crowded with traffic, since everyone uses the same roads, often at the same times. Many suburbanites are all too familiar with the backup at the light at rush hour.
By improving what transportation planners call "connectivity" drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists have more than one way to get to their destinations, which means that traffic on major thoroughfares becomes more manageable.

    7. Establish local farmland and open space conservation funds to protect agricultural land, forests, and valuable natural resources.

Each year sprawl in Michigan permanently ruins over 100,000 acres of farmland and tens of thousands more acres of forests and wetlands. The state's agricultural and natural heritage is being bulldozed at a rate more than three times faster than population growth.
Among the reasons for such swift rates of development is that like Garfield, sprawling suburbs are not setting aside nearly enough forests and fields for parks and recreation. Garfield owns just two parks, totaling 130 acres. The township's recreation areas are largely confined to the bottomlands and forested corridors along the Boardman River and its tributaries, which are protected by state environmental law. Every acre of farmland in Garfield is zoned for housing at a density of one house per acre.
Michigan has two major public funds to preserve open space: the $25 million-a-year Natural Resources Trust Fund, which derives its revenues from oil and gas royalty income on state lands, and a farmland preservation program that has a total of $17 million to purchase the development rights of a handful of farms around the state. Neither fund is large enough to make a real difference in slowing the loss of open lands in Michigan. At least $75 million in state funds need to be invested annually to preserve farmland to make a difference in Michigan. At that level of public financing for farmland preservation, the state would be a leader nationwide.
Local governments also can play an important role in protecting farmland. In 1994, for example, voters in Peninsula Township north of Traverse City agreed to raise their property taxes to pay for preserving nearly 10,000 acres of orchards spread across scenic rolling hills above Grand Traverse Bay. By protecting its agricultural base and rural quality of life -- at an average cost of less than $100 a year per home -- Peninsula Township also ensured that its population will remain at manageable levels.
That, of course, reduces the need for much larger tax increases for schools, public buildings, emergency services, and new roads and sewers. In effect, Peninsula Township residents made a sound social and economic decision to spend a little more in taxes now so that they would save a lot more money later.

    8. Encourage bankers to finance neighborhoods instead of subdivisions, downtown construction instead of malls.

More than 80% of the home and commercial construction in northwest Michigan is financed by local banks, and bank officers are indirectly encouraging sprawl through lending practices that focus on reducing risk. They favor the familiar. Unfortunately, the familiar is generally architecturally undistinguished, environmentally damaging, and demoralizing. It's not something bankers say they are proud of, but that's the way it is. "Anything that's novel, it makes us uncomfortable," said John Pelizzari, President of Old Kent Bank in Traverse City. "In this region, when somebody is really pioneering, say they want to build big city condominiums downtown, then we really take a hard look at it. Bankers don't like a lot of risk."
Economic studies by the Urban Land Institute, the respected Washington-based trade organization for developers, show that consumer tastes in housing and shopping are changing. The most profitable new housing developments now are designed like traditional neighborhoods and located in or near existing downtowns.
Last year the annual Emerging Trends in Real Estate, a widely watched survey for property buyers published by Price, Waterhouse, Coopers and Lend Lease Real Estate, reported that malls are falling out of favor.The study said that almost one in five malls operating in 1990 would be out of business by the end of 2000. The rate at which new malls are being built is the lowest in two decades.
Meanwhile, downtown development for homes, offices, and retail stores is climbing. That trend is reflected in downtown Traverse City, where new apartments, offices, and stores are being built at a pace not seen in decades.
Mr. Pelizzari noted that much of the new downtown development is financed by Old Kent and other regional banks. He added that the attitudes of bankers are changing as they learn along with everyone else that sprawl is costly and damaging, and that other patterns of development are more profitable and successful. "We're a cautious group," he said, referring to the banking profession. "But we also live here. I look at new projects from the point of view of what do I want for this community. I think about what it will look like down the road. It's in the bank's best interest that our community look good and function well. And like everybody else I'm learning about what really works and doesn't work."

Michigan Land Use Institute

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