The next time you are sitting bumper to bumper in rush-hour traffic, or pass by a blighted inner city neighborhood, or see a new housing development replacing what was just recently farmland remember this word: SPRAWL.
These phenomenon are simply different facets of sprawl, the low-density, unplanned patterns of development that have largely defined American life since the 1950s.
Sprawl lies at the heart of urban decline, racial polarization, worsening air and water quality and the erosion of community.
Do not despair! The Sprawl monster can be contained. Many of the bad trends associated with sprawl can be reversed. Writer, thinker, civic philosopher David Bollier has just completed a new monograph, “How Smart Growth Can Stop Sprawl.” Bollier does a remarkable job of bringing all the diverse strands of the sprawl problem into focus and then outlining practical steps that citizens can take to stem the tide of problems produced by Sprawl.
Not surprisingly, one of the major factors exacerbating Sprawl is the automobile. We subsidize the use of automobiles through our highway budgets and tax subsidies for parking facilities. We also pay for automobiles through military expenditures to ensure the flow of oil from foreign lands and through cleanup costs of gasoline and oil spills that harm the ecosystem.
Sprawl problems are compounded when local jurisdictions in a metro region compete rather than cooperate with each other. The “favored quarter” suburbs uses zoning rules to keep out low-income residents and minorities — while reaping a disproportionate share of government money for new schools, highways, sewer lines and public services.
Even though the city remains critical to a region’s economic fortunes, competition among towns ends up draining the city of its vitality, making it the region’s poorhouse. But the exodus of people forces outlying suburbs to build new infrastructure, raising tax rates to crushing levels. According to Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, every new classroom costs $90,000; every new mile of new sewer line costs roughly $200,000; and every mile of single-lane road costs at least $41 million dollars.
But that’s not all. Farmlands get destroyed as sprawl moves ever outward. Commuting times grow longer and longer.
The environmental consequences of sprawl are also appalling. Governor Glendening notes that 5,000 people left Baltimore in the first six months of 1997 — and that during this same period over 3,000 new septic tank permits were issued in the Baltimore suburbs. This kind of growth means more water pollution from storm runoff; more flooding, as pavement interferes with natural water flows; and the faster disappearance of wildlife and plant life.
Fortunately, citizens from Portland to the Twin Cities are introducing some effective remedies.
Regional tax-base sharing offers some hope for metropolitan areas to more equitably share tax dollars and allocate infrastructure costs, and thus to reduce the pressures propelling sprawl.
Site value property taxation may also spark greater development in cities by taxing land, not buildings. Unlike traditional taxation, which rewards developers who put up cheap, tacky housing and strip malls, site-value taxation give developers the incentive to build gracious, durable buildings. Allowances for affordable housing, however, need to be part of site value schemes.
Several Bay Area communities have adopted “Urban Growth Boundaries” (UGBs) to channel new development into areas with existing infrastructure, so that open spaces and farmlands can be preserved. UGBs help force a community to set long-term priorities and develop more rational approaches to development.
Eliminating the subsidies for new suburban highways, sewer lines and schools could also help arrest haphazard development. Some anti-sprawl activists are even advocating that federal programs that promote sprawl be revamped to actively encourage more compact development.
Most of the anti-sprawl agenda is rooted in common sense, and is sound from an economic, environmental and civic prospective. The problem is, such long-term public concerns are often shunted aside by the short-term private concerns of the market.
Some of this agenda still needs work. It is important, for example, that the reclaiming of “brownfields” — polluted or abandoned urban sites — be done with the full participation of the neighborhood. This means meeting prevailing clean-up standards and avoiding a two-tiered standard for pollution abatement. Discussion about regional government must be broadened to include concerns about scale and democratic accountability of these new city-suburb amalgams — and how they would affect minority representation.
Fortunately, there is a new upsurge of interest in combating sprawl. Activists realize that solutions are at hand. What’s been missing is the political will of people to reach across geographic and racial lines.
What’s needed are new civic coalitions that unite the inner city and suburban populations with farmers and environmentalists. Together they have the ability to fashion an agenda that respects nature and community and at the same time saves tax dollars and improves the quality of life.