The war against sprawl I

Al Gore's "smart growth" plan: A no-brainer? Think again.

By Rob Gurwitt
January 22, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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When Vice President Al Gore unveiled the Clinton administration's new initiative to curb urban sprawl last week, you could sense both the peril and the promise in the move. That is, if you noticed it at all.

Gore announced the administration's "Livability Agenda" just as the Senate took up President Clinton's impeachment trial, when the Washington press corps was busy chasing down every last nuance of Sen. Trent Lott's ruminations and ignoring everything else. The White House, meanwhile, was busy trying to produce headlines that had nothing to do with impeachment: Gore presiding over a summit on "21st Century Skills for 21st Century Jobs"; Gore announcing 20 new "Empowerment Zones"; Gore convening an international forum on "reinventing government." And of course, on Tuesday came the State of the Union address, in which Clinton once again buried the country in a slew of proposals -- including his "Livability Agenda" -- that would have had trouble competing with each other for attention in even the most placid of times.


But the proposals Gore outlined to curtail urban sprawl are worth noticing. Specifically, he laid out a plan to offer $700 million in tax credits to support "Better America Bonds" that will help restore urban parks, protect green space, improve water quality and clean up old industrial sites; boost spending on public transit and regional attempts to find alternatives to highways; and spend about $50 million to help metropolitan areas figure out how to "grow smarter" -- to avoid sprawl and put money back into existing roads, schools and sewers.

Most media coverage of Gore's announcement played it as the first feel-good moment of the upcoming presidential campaign. But Gore's "livability" proposals were both cannier and riskier than the reporting suggested. For what the vice president has done is to join a battle that is really about the ways wealth and poverty etch themselves on our political landscape.

"Gore is clearly ahead of the curve at the federal level in understanding the intricacies of growth patterns in the country today -- what's motivating them and what the fallout is for cities, inner suburbs, outer suburbs and the countryside," says Bruce Katz, who runs the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The simple fact that the nation's second in command uttered the words "smart growth" is unprecedented: After all, who's for stupid growth? But this is the same federal government whose policies, from its highway bills to its mortgage subsidies to its school desegregation efforts, have encouraged urban flight and the opening up of the hinterlands. (Sometime this spring, we'll get an idea of just how fully the feds encourage sprawl, after the General Accounting Office issues a report detailing sprawl-inducing federal programs. Don't expect a quick read.)


Yet Gore's proposals put him at the confluence of anti-sprawl currents that have been gaining force over the last several years. They strike a chord with urban neighborhood activists who are tired of watching limited public resources get spent on spanking new facilities 10 miles out of town. They appeal to suburbanites who resent spending twice as much time getting to work each morning as they did five years ago, even though the distance they travel is the same. They clearly play to environmentalists, for whom sprawl has become the next big battle. They even have an audience among farmers, who have discovered that their new neighbors in those split-levels next door have been complaining to local officials about manure-spreading at 5 in the morning.

All of that has the makings of a fine electoral coalition. But there's a hitch. "Sprawl" is not just about building indistinguishable new subdivisions with spaghetti-like road systems and houses whose most obvious feature is the garage. It is also about the far more personal matter of where we live and why, and it brings up uncomfortable questions with no easy answers: the fate of central cities, older suburbs and the people who live in them; our conflicted feelings about urban schools; the inequities of public spending and our rank failure to address them; the fact that suburban life, even for committed urbanites, is so enticingly cushioned. And, as is always true when a politician takes on an issue that strikes at the heart of American comfort, it's entirely possible that Gore will discover that the only thing we hate more than the status quo is changing it.

Gore did something else that no one at his level has done before: He made it clear that transportation and smart land use go hand in hand. It's astounding how many public officials, from Washington on down to your county supervisors, have spent money on preserving open space with one hand, doled out billions for new highways and highway interchanges that speed the development of open space with the other and still managed to keep a straight face. True, the specifics of the administration's initiative don't go very far -- as John Norquist, the mayor of Milwaukee, puts it, "There is a lot more to be gained by cutting back on federal spending that causes sprawl, like the big highway pork bill that went through last year, than by just announcing new programs" -- but it's a start.


Gore is clearly trying to turn the federal government into an ally for the sprawl-fighting efforts that have sprung up around the country like so many, well, strip malls. These come from a variety of directions. Inner-city churches have begun to argue in the last few years that there is a direct relationship between policies affecting development on the urban fringe -- from subsidies for roads and schools to zoning that keeps the poor out -- and the flight of resources from their neighborhoods. Officials in older suburbs have begun to recognize that they are bound to lose their never-ending battle to stave off decline unless they can find a way of changing state and county policies that prefer growth on cheap, undeveloped land.

Politicians in some -- though hardly all -- newer suburbs are building careers on slow-growth sentiment. Environmentalists have realized that, as Brookings' Katz puts it, "in theory we won the air war and the water war, but we lost the land war, and the land war was the most important one to win." Farmers and, in a handful of cases, their farm bureaus and Republican state legislators are coming to the conclusion that one of the best ways to preserve their land may be to make the urban core attractive again for working families.


What these various efforts have lacked is any high-profile support. There are only 11 states with growth management acts on the books, and of those, only Oregon's, Washington's and Vermont's are really meaningful. The past couple of years have seen a few other attempts to get at the issue: Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening of Maryland is trying to steer state resources only to already-developed communities; Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman got voters to agree to buy up half of New Jersey's remaining open space; the Tennessee Legislature last year decided to require the state's counties to plan their growth.

But that is hardly a national ground swell. What Gore appears to be trying to do is to use federal largesse to tilt states and localities in an anti-sprawl direction: to discourage local jurisdictions from acting like a bunch of scrabbling communities in which the rich will inevitably eat the poor -- or at least steal their tax base -- and instead begin thinking about how to keep the region healthy; to think more creatively about whether highways and clotted arterials are the best way to move people from one place to another; to find resources to make existing cities and suburbs more attractive places to live.

It all sounds good, until you begin to think about who might be arrayed on the other side. There are, for instance, state highway departments, which, except where a handful of states have tried to change them, are unremitting asphalt lovers. There's the construction lobby. There are engineers, financiers, developers and land-use lawyers. There are state legislators who count all those people among their closest friends and contributors. There are skeptical urban politicians, most of them African-American or Hispanic, who fear regionalism is a cover for diluting their power with white suburbs.


Then there are all those Republican members of Congress who will have to enact this set of proposals coming out of an administration they've just spent the last month telling us they don't trust. There's even Wall Street, which as a result of the savings and loan crisis has become a major player in financing development, and which tends to like predictable, cookie-cutter, sprawl-dependent models for housing, shopping centers and office complexes.

And, of course, there's the market, which is sending mixed signals at the moment. On the one hand, developers are actually paying attention these days to the "New Urbanists," the movement of architects and designers who for the last decade have been arguing for compact, pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented development. "There are significant market segments that are bored, tired and being bankrupted by conventional real estate development," says Chris Leinberger, a national real estate consultant and Albuquerque, N.M., developer. "They're tired of strip retail and having to drive to get everywhere."

On the other hand, somebody is still moving into all those developments out on the urban fringe and shopping at Wal-Mart and bringing their cars into Jiffy Lube and clogging the rush-hour highways. The truth is, many of us act like automotive sheep. Build a road to the middle of nowhere, and we take it. Widen a highway, and the morning it reopens we pack it as full as it was before. Give us a prairie-full of parking surrounding a new mall, and there we are, milling about as we try to find a space.


So what Gore is doing is gambling. He is wagering that he can reshuffle a deck that has been stacked in favor of sprawl, and, by giving aid and comfort to all the local forces that are trying to array themselves against it, begin the hard work of stacking the deck in favor of cities and existing suburbs. As Leinberger puts it, "The market is increasingly saying, 'I want lots of options: Within 1,500 feet of where I live, I want to be able to have a cappuccino, buy a book, buy a gallon of milk, walk to work, have a park, ideally have a connection to nature.' And we in real estate can do that, but it's tough, because the fact is everything works against you. We've made the wrong things easy and the right things hard. What Gore's been talking about is just reversing that; making the right thing easy, and making the wrong thing at least pay its own way."

He may succeed, and he may not. But by elevating the issue to the level of federal policy, he has at least begun a process that will be hard to stop. "This is a fight that is going to go on for some time," says Katz. "We've got decades of embedded rules that have favored a kind of suburbanization that has been harmful not just to central cities but to suburbs themselves. That's why you can't deny the power of this issue. Think of the decentralization of employment, or of the diminished fiscal capacity of cities and inner suburbs. These are crises caused by growth patterns that are having a devastating effect on the ability of cities and inner suburbs to thrive and survive. That's why this issue isn't going away: It has to do with the stark truth of who's winning and who's losing in the new economy."

Rob Gurwitt

Rob Gurwitt is a correspondent for Governing magazine and a contributing writer for DoubleTake.

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