The End of Sprawl?

Grassroots efforts for sustainable growth are finally bearing fruit


| September-October 2000


In Loudoun County, Virginia—the country’s third-fastest-growing county—officials had been planning to add 40,000 houses over the next five years. Then the public spoke. In a striking case of voting booth activism, voters installed eight anti-sprawl candidates to the nine-member Loudoun County Board of Commissioners last fall.

"It was an astounding victory," Joe Maio, director of Voters to Stop Sprawl, told Linda Baker in E Magazine (May-June 2000). "It was a complete repudiation of the way business is done around here."

Increasingly, grassroots activists are succeeding in their efforts to stop sprawl, which eats up precious land, generates pollution, and soaks up tax dollars by extending roads and sewers to the outer edges of municipalities. Last year, for example, voters approved more than 70 percent of the 240 local ballot initiatives that preserved open space, in the process earmarking $7.5 billion for land conservation, Baker notes. And more than 200 land-use-reform bills were enacted by state legislatures. In addition, several states have approved comprehensive growth management plans, including the adoption of urban growth boundaries.

At the federal level, President Clinton’s 2000 budget included the $1 billion Lands Legacy Initiative, the nation’s largest one-year investment in land protection. And then in January, he and Vice President Gore unveiled their Livability Agenda, a set of initiatives to curb sprawl and promote quality of life. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate Smart Growth Task Force is looking at how federal policies encourage sprawl.

Past policies—especially those implemented in the heavy-growth years following World War II—are easy to identify. "For years, Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans encouraged people to purchase homes in the suburbs," writes Baker.

"Simultaneously," write Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck in Feedmag.com, "a 41,000-mile interstate highway program, coupled with federal and local subsidies for road improvement and the neglect of mass transit, helped make automotive commuting affordable and convenient for the average citizen."