The End of Sprawl?

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.”

Now, however, such policies are under unprecedented attack as anti-sprawl activists are joined by traffic-weary suburbanites and government planners who are finally recognizing the negative consequences of sprawl, both on fiscal concerns and quality-of-life issues. “That suburban dwellers share a sense that something is wrong in their communities is reflected in polls that place transportation at or near the top of public concerns for residents of the Bay Area and other low-density metropolitan areas,” writes James B. Goodno in Urban Ecology (Spring 2000). “It’s also reflected in the growing popularity of transit-oriented design amongst planners, architects, and some suburban and urban officials.”

“Sustainable development” is one anti-sprawl buzzword. Activists say that sprawl is unsustainable primarily because the cost of providing services to low-density developments must be subsidized. In Loudoun County, for example, the cost of providing services to 1,000 new development units exceeded their tax contribution by about $2.3 million, according to a report by the Trust for Public Land.

“When we compared subdivisions with single-family homes to housing around light rail, our findings showed that suburban development would strain the city’s fiscal resources,” Laurel Prevetti, San Jose’s principal planner, told Goodno. In response, that city has reversed decades of costly, low-density planning by now encouraging construction of apartment complexes, condominiums, and mixed-used developments at light-rail stations.

“The reason for sprawl in the United States is that it is legally mandated,” says Robert Liberty, executive director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a land-use and environmental group. “In most suburban communities, it’s against the law to build apartment buildings, it’s against the law to build duplexes, it’s against the law to have small lots.”

But policies are changing in Loudoun County, where the new board of commissioners is busy revising its comprehensive plan. They’re also changing in Tysons Corner, Virginia, a classic “edge city” located eight miles west of Washington, D.C. Developed in the 1960s and 1970s, the suburb features low-density residential subdivisions, shopping malls, and industrial office parks whose glass office towers are surrounded by a sea of parking. Mid-1980s highway expansion did nothing but attract more development, which further jammed highways.

But the suburb’s new master plan calls for future buildings to be placed closer together, nearer roads and linked by tree-lined sidewalks, according to Michael Massing in The American Prospect (May 22, 2000). It also urges the creation of urban parks and plazas offering varied recreation opportunities. Parking, it says, should be located alongside, in back of, or beneath office buildings, with housing units built within walking distance. Finally, the plan envisions several new transit stations surrounded by offices, shops, and housing.

Already, the document has inspired one local developer to incorporate New Urbanism principals into the design of two new office towers. Despite such promising signs, Massing cautions that a recession could bring the anti-sprawl movement to a screeching halt.

“When jobs are scarce, people do not care how far they have to drive to reach them,” he writes. “Even now, in economically sluggish states like Pennsylvania, smart-growthers are having a hard time getting their message across. Meanwhile, SUV sales remain brisk–a sign of how entrenched America’s car culture is.”

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