Pro & Con: Finding Common Ground in a Suburban War
by Carl Pope
Thursday, February 25, 1999
Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club.
Now that Washington has turned its attention from scandal and to the problems faced by "real people," suburban sprawl has gained prominence on the national agenda. Environmental organizations, community groups and politicians including Vice President Al Gore are supporting smart-growth policies to combat sprawl. Either from knee-jerk objection to anything Gore says or from fear of big-government intrusion, anti-environmental reactionaries have launched an attack.
Reflexively objecting to environmentalists, these right-wing extremists spoke before they considered their own arguments. To hear the attacks, it seems these conservatives believe broad ribbons of highway, long commutes, unrestrained development, strip malls and Wal-Marts are not merely our birthright as Americans, but they are the much-desired fruits of the exalted "American dream."
In fact, in their eagerness to attack, these reactionaries have turned their venom on people working to accomplish goals conservatives usually hold dear: reducing misguided governmental intrusion in community life, cutting taxes, protecting small-business owners and resurrecting the family-based neighborhoods we remember fondly from our childhood.
The consequences of sprawl
For most Americans, home ownership is at the heart of their American dream. In this dream, the homes are in cozy neighborhoods, with quiet, intimate streets that are not always clogged with traffic. Around the corner is a grocery for milk and bread. The children walk to school on safe sidewalks every morning, and families swim and fish in nearby lakes. That is the dream we want to protect in our fight against sprawl.
Unfortunately, that dream is not the day-to-day reality most people live. Across the nation, sprawl is destroying our parks and our farms, crowding our streets with more cars, and polluting our air and water.
On the surface of suburban development, people seem to just want their own piece of peace and quiet, but with sprawl comes insidious problems. Scattered sprawl gives people no choice but to drive farther to get from home to work.
In Washington, D.C., the time commuters spent stuck in traffic climbed 69% between 1982 and 1994 -- and you can bet they did not make up for that increased time by working fewer hours. Longer commutes lead to parents who are more tired and have less time for their children.
Sprawling suburbs burden local communities by demanding higher taxes for new water and sewer lines, extra school buses, expanded police and fire protection. In Minneapolis-St. Paul alone, planners estimate that it will cost $3.1 billion for just the new water and sewage services needed to accommodate projected growth between now and 2020.
Who pays for the big sewer line out to the middle of nowhere? Residents in the existing parts of town. Sprawling growth costs our cities and counties lots of money, and those costs are not offset by the taxes paid by the new users. Instead, sprawl forces higher taxes on existing residents. What conservative would support pricing a senior citizen out of the home she has owned for decades?
A creation of bad government
The sprawl defenders counter by saying, "But people want to live in these suburbs." Do these families really want long commutes and higher taxes? I don't think so. This pattern has been forced on suburbanites by government programs run amuck.
Generations of laws and tax incentives designed to promote growth led us to today's sprawl. Local government regulations made the close, intimate suburban street of 1920s suburbia illegal, banned the neighborhood corner store and mandated excessively large lots.
Federal and state highway grants fed local politicians' desires to build endless ribbons of six-lane superhighways, and sewer subsidies made wild lands suitable for housing. Foolish fiscal policies like California's Prop. 13 led cities to zone too much land for industry and commerce and not enough for housing, forcing more suburban expansion.
These government programs created and exacerbated suburban sprawl. To take the first step toward better communities, the government must restrain itself from creating more problems.
Government should stop building highways that encourage sprawl and induce traffic, stop subsidizing construction in flood plains where year after year losses are costing taxpayers billions of dollars, and stop giving grants and tax incentives that encourage developers to fragment wildlife habitat and countryside.
Local communities also can adopt smart-growth planning solutions that are appropriate for their areas. In the November election, voters from California to Cape Cod, Republicans and Democrats alike, approved more than 200 ballot initiatives dealing with growth management, land use and urban revitalization. In New Jersey, under GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's leadership, voters -- even in the tax-averse Republican counties of the state -- overwhelmingly approved the use of $1 billion in tax revenue for the conservation of open space and farmland.
The rewards of smart growth
The voters' actions were not simply stabs in the dark. Communities that used smart-growth policies to guide their growth have seen great rewards.
A study by the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments showed that Michigan communities with smart-growth policies saved $53 million in road costs and $33 million in sewer costs, cut housing costs by 6.4% and reduced the destruction of open land by 12%. That is the kind of success applauded by environmentalists and conservatives alike.
Healthy, livable suburban communities are not an impossibility. They simply will require that we discard the anti-environmental reactionaries' tired rhetoric and learn from the mistakes caused by decades of unplanned growth. Conservatives and environmentalists then will find common ground to start debating plans to save money, reduce taxes, rein in government and promote family-friendly communities.