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Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

Taking it to the Streets | Political Animal | Talking Trash | Updates | Mythbuster

Taking it to the Streets

Al Gore wades intot he sprawl debate

Ronald Reagan battled a distant Evil Empire, but presidential contender Al Gore is taking on an enemy right here at home: suburban sprawl. In January, the vice president outlined the Clinton administration's "livability agenda," whose centerpiece is a "Better America Bonds" program that would use $700 million in federal tax incentives to generate $9.5 billion. States and cities could use that money to reclaim polluted land, protect green space from development, and create urban parks. The same week, the administration proposed the largest-ever federal budget for public transportation, and $1 billion for a "lands legacy initiative" to preserve parklands.

Why would the federal government wade into issues that are traditionally local matters, carried out by planning commissions and zoning boards in endless hearings? Gore has never shied away from arcane topics, but in deciding to make sprawl a theme of his presidential bid all he had to do was pay passing attention to the last election. In November, there were some 240 state and local measures on ballots coast-to-coast to preserve parks, open space, farmlands, and watersheds. More than 70 percent of them passed, many with the help of the Sierra Club.

State politicians caught on even before the V.P. In 1996, Maryland Governor Parris Glendening (D) unveiled an initiative to discourage development in rural areas and channel funds into urban areas. In November, Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman won voters' approval to dedicate about $1.4 billion to help preserve half of New Jersey's remaining 2 million acres of undeveloped land over the next decade. Newly elected Georgia Governor Roy Barnes (D) has proposed a regional transportation authority to unclog Atlanta's gridlocked suburbs. Twelve states have adopted growth-management plans, and seven more plan major land purchases to protect open space and farmland.

Compared with the effort it takes to educate voters about issues like global warming, convincing people of the ills of haphazard development is a walk in the park. Sprawl is an issue that hits suburban voters every time they find themselves stuck in traffic trying to buy a half-gallon of milk, or spend their weekend looking for open space in which to recreate. Those frustrations mean plenty to candidate Gore: about half of American voters live in suburbs.

But anti-sprawl efforts resonate because they affect more than just the residents of Willowbrooke Estates. Cities stand to gain if tax dollars that might be spent on new infrastructure in expanding suburbs were redirected to the needs of already developed areas. Farmers find new allies and resources that enable them to keep farming. (According to the American Farmland Trust, the outward growth of metropolitan areas consumes one million acres of farmland each year.) And government agencies struggling to control pollution have a new way to address seemingly intractable issues. In an effort to reduce auto pollution, for instance, in February the EPA began its own anti-sprawl campaign in New England.

There are even signs that real-estate interests might join the coalition. It's easier and cheaper to build on undeveloped land beyond the cities than it is to rebuild older areas, which usually have stricter rules regarding development. Yet in February the National Association of Home Builders agreed to construct a million new homes in the nation's cities and "close-in" suburbs over the next ten years in exchange for a federal pledge to streamline building-approval processes.

On this issue, Charles Ruma, the builders' association president, beams like an energetic big-city mayor: "Once housing returns, commerce, retail, jobs, and the deli down the street will follow. Step by step, block by block, we will begin to see the rebirth of our nation's urban centers." Ruma's cheerleading ends, however, when the discussion shifts to new construction on the urban fringe. He is "leery" of government efforts to keep farmlands out of the hands of developers.

The administration's anti-sprawl message is also designed to assuage conservative fears of federal intrusion in local issues. The bond program, Gore says, will simply deliver money to state and local governments to spend as they see fit, not cast the federal government as "beauty commissar." Still, detractors worry that Gore is peddling "social engineering," exemplified on-screen by Seahaven, the mind-numbing planned community that Jim Carrey's Truman Burbank eventually flees in The Truman Show.

Government involvement in land-use decisions is hardly new. Since the end of World War II, federal subsidies and spending (particularly on the interstate highway system) have encouraged growth outside urban areas. In many cities, zoning laws mandating large-lot "ranchettes" have contributed to sprawl by forcing developers to look to remote areas for developable land. According to Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, the administration's proposal "reverses a 50-year trend that helped create sprawl."

In the end, Gore's sprawl program provides more options than restrictions. No homebuyers who crave a three-car garage and a half-acre lawn are going to be herded against their will into "cluster" housing within-gasp-walking distance of a grocery store and public transit. But for suburbanites who want to spend less time shackled to automobiles, city dwellers who hope to revitalize once-flourishing neighborhoods, farmers who want to continue working their land, and activists and government officials striving to reduce air pollution and protect parkland, Gore's attention gives national shape to issues they've been struggling with locally for years. -Reed McManus

For information about the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl campaign, including The Dark Side of the American Dream (a report on the costs and consequences of sprawl) and the Campaign Tool Kit (an activist's guide to running a local anti-sprawl campaign), go to the Club's sprawl page on the Web (

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