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The American Dream Does Not Look Like Sprawl

As Smart Growth gains momentum, opponents plot against it

February 17, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Office of the Governor
  Smart Growth is influencing the outcomes of local and state elections coast to coast. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, here opening her new office of Constituent Services, won last year due in part because of a promise to combat sprawl.

Developers, free market economists, and property rights activists will gather for three days in Washington next week to figure out how to defend a conventional vision of the American Dream that is based entirely on cars, cheap fuel, and suburban sprawl.

The organizers of “Preserving the American Dream” conference have billed the gathering as the starting point of a new battle to advance what they view as their right to build anything, anywhere. Attendees will learn how to form coalitions, reach the media, elect sympathetic candidates, influence legislation, and “protect freedom.” How? By opposing public transit, ending zoning, paving over farmland, and taking other measures to ensure that sprawl survives.

What’s really striking about the conference is not only its preposterous goals but also the timing. The event comes as the work to tame sprawl in thousands of communities and more than 30 states has grown into the new century’s most influential civic movement. From Massachusetts to California, Minnesota to Florida, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who never before got involved in the give and take of government and public policy are now showing up before city commissions and state boards. Their mission: To protest traffic congestion, water pollution, neighborhood deterioration and other consequences of sprawl, and propose new steps to make communities safer, friendlier, and more prosperous.
National Movement, Local Success
So many people in so many places are involved that Smart Growth is now recognized as a distinct set of governing principles that have transcended traditional political party allegiances and are influencing the outcomes of local and state elections. In Michigan, for example, Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm won last year due in large measure to a promise to combat sprawl, which helped her gain significant voter support in fast-growing Republican counties in the state’s western and northern regions.

In Massachusetts, new Republican Governor Mitt Romney appointed Douglas Foy, the former head of the Conservation Law Foundation and one of New England’s most prominent environmentalists, to lead his office of Commonwealth Development. Gov. Romney is contending with sprawl by giving communities more authority to decide how and where state money for roads, bridges, and other construction projects is spent.

Indeed, such high profile decisions by governors of both parties indicate that Smart Growth has evolved from a promising idea primarily informed by environmental concerns into a much larger social movement motivated by economic and historical necessity.

Smart Growth Seen Helping Close State Deficits
Advocates have already marshaled impressive evidence that deciding where growth is appropriate and where it is not will strengthen cities, improve the environment, and enhance the quality of life. New adherents like Gov. Romney and Gov. Granholm also are convinced that Smart Growth will reduce government costs, improve economic competitiveness, and help close massive state budget deficits.

Why? Because Smart Growth is principally focused on investing taxpayer funds for economic development inward, toward the center of existing communities, and not outward to undeveloped land. It simply costs states less if new plants are built where roads, sewers, and schools already exist.

The fact that these ideas have gained significant political momentum has alarmed the movement’s opponents. Governor Granholm and Republican leaders just appointed a bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council to recommend ways to solve sprawl, reduce government expenses, and improve the state’s economic competitiveness. The panel’s 26 members include representatives of farm, business, civil rights, environmental,  and local government groups.

Earlier this month in South Carolina, Republican Governor Mark Sanford’s Quality of Life Task Force, a similarly diverse panel, issued 62 recommendations to improve government efficiency, encourage more cooperation between state and local governments, and even discourage building new schools far from town centers because they spur sprawling development.

Opponents Are Not Convincing
Smart Growth, in short, is now a force in society because it shows promise of making the American experience better just as the great social movements of the 20th century --  labor, environmentalism, civil rights, and feminism.

The problem for opponents of Smart Growth is that their ideas lack the same factual authority and they represent a minority of well-financed special interests. One wing of the opposition, for instance, is the relatively small number of landowners and business executives who depend on development at the urban edge for their livelihood. Another wing is composed of theorists, ideologues, and right wing scholars who view any interference in the use of property as a violation of the free market and personal liberty.

But those arguments are a ruse. There is nothing free about the market that supplies sprawl. It is almost entirely dependent on billions of dollars in public spending for roads, sewers, and other services that make it possible for rural land to be developed profitably.

Similarly empty is the rhetoric about liberty and property rights used by homebuilders, realtors, and rural residents. The real victims of sprawl are millions more Americans marooned in cities and inner suburbs who’ve seen their jobs disappear and property values diminish as taxes they invested for highways, new factories, and new schools spurred development that swept by them. In other words, urban residents subsidized their own ruin. 

The Smart Growth movement is gaining momentum because it helped people understand the consequences of such spending. In contrast, there is a scent of desperation surrounding the movement’s opponents.

It is expressed, for instance, in the marketing materials for next week’s Washington conference, which starts on February 23. Words like “threaten” appear alongside "freedom" and "rights," as though sprawl is somehow a sacred measure of liberty. The language not only suggests weakness and fear, it also invites images of 1920s business bosses plotting to impede the American organized labor movement, or Deep South police chiefs figuring out how to confront the Freedom Riders.

The organizers of the Washington conference can’t stop Smart Growth because their idea of the American Dream is to perpetuate arrogant social values, wasteful government practices, and harmful economic trends that history is passing by.   

Keith Schneider, a regular contributor to the New York Times, Detroit Free Press, and Gristmagazine.com, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. See more articles from the Elm Street Writers Group.

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