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Stop Sprawl
Fall 2000 Sprawl Report

Smart Choices or Sprawling Growth

Growth. Expansion. Progress. For two centuries, they have been synonymous. And they have been the American way. Until now. The consequences of unbridled, haphazard growth -- traffic congestion, air pollution, overcrowded schools, lost farm land, forests and open space -- are forcing us to reconsider how and where we build.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, sprawl tied with crime as one of the most pressing concerns for Americans at the local level. A quick glance at the hundreds of recent state and local ballot measures on the issue confirms the fact: Americans want to find a better way to grow.

smart growth sucess story
The Vermillion Project, located in Huntersville, NC, epitomizes smart growth.
The good news is that some developers and communities are coming up with answers. Across the country, smarter, better-planned developments are being built that are walkable, accessible to public transportation and that strike a balance
between jobs, houses, shops and open space.Even the most sprawl-choked cities -- Atlanta, Denver, Houston and Los Angeles -- are experimenting with innovative ideas to rein-in poorly planned development. And good planning isn't confined to big cities -- suburbs like Somerville, Mass., and smaller cities like Boise, Idaho, are also making an effort to grow more intelligently.

Clearly, the demand for smarter growth and planning is strong. Market research backs this up: Smart-growth developments across the country are selling well and light rail has taken off in such unlikely places as Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. The bad news is that old habits die hard.

There are still developers who don't care a whit and communities that haven't caught on yet. And in too many places, poor planning, out-of-date laws and petty politics make building better developments an uphill fight. Since 1997, only 22 states have updated their planning codes and laws to encourage smarter growth.

This report, "Smart Choices or Sprawling Growth: A 50-State Survey of Development," is the Sierra Club's third annual survey of sprawl. It looks at development in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Our goal is to help define what's good and what's bad and to present evidence -- and hope -- that we can change the way we grow, protect our environment and strengthen our communities in the process.

Smart Growth's Success Stories

Looking at the projects we've assembled, one trend is clear: Smart growth is behind many of the most successful examples. Some refer to this work as "New Urbanism," or traditional neighborhood development. And though the range of developments that fall under these headings is wide, they all share certain essential traits. affordable housing in Louisville, KY
In Louisville, smart-growth planning has created affordable housing.

Smart-growth projects seek to make neighborhoods friendly to people on foot, offer residents public-transportation options, and create a healthy balance of shops, jobs and housing around a downtown or main street. Proper smart-growth planning also invites residents into the process, empowering them to participate and, instead of starting with a blank slate, looks to an area's history and architecture for inspiration.

A unique partnership between the University of Louisville, non-profits, city officials and developers shows how smart-growth ideas can be used to build affordable and livable housing. The success of many smart-growth projects has created a profitable niche that developers are beginning to fill. And community developers, long expert in using public/private partnerships to help create affordable housing, are now turning their sights to smart-growth projects that provide low-cost houses and apartments. Residents of East Russell -- once a down-and-out neighborhood in Louisville, Ky., -- participated directly in the planning process and, after years of neglect, hundreds of houses have been built. Now the neighborhood is enjoying a resurgence that is bringing new businesses to the area.

Ohlone-Chynoweth Commons in San Jose, Calif., is another good example. This project will turn an underused parking lot into almost 200 units of affordable housing, a play area for kids, on-site day care, a community center and a computer-learning facility. Residents will have a landscaped pedestrian walkway that gives them easy access to San Jose's 21-mile-long light-rail line.

Public Transit Gains Speed

Another key trend that emerges from this report is the importance of public transportation to a healthy community and the growing acceptance of light rail, commuter trains and high-speed buses -- even in unlikely places.

The Legacy Highway in Utah, an expensive new road that will create more sprawl and air pollution.

The Village Green in Los Angeles is one of a new breed of transit-oriented developments that have been taking root on the West Coast. Though not known in recent years for its public transportation, Los Angeles has slowly begun moving in the right direction, adding subways, high-speed "smart buses" and commuter trains to the mix. Developers are responding in kind, building housing, jobs and stores around these newly energized corridors.

In Salt Lake City, the recently built light rail, dubbed TRAX, has been very successful as well. It has exceeded its ridership goals, and plans are in the works to further extend the system.

Protecting Open Space

Cutting-edge developments are also using smart-growth ideas to protect open space, and using urban green spaces to link neighborhoods to each other and to their natural surroundings.

The community of Vermillion, located on 360 acres of land in North Carolina just outside of Huntersville, preserves open space and provides residents with a 1.5-mile greenway along a creek.

The Hoboken Waterfront project in Hoboken, N.J., is restoring a waterfront park that will then be linked up to a coastal trail. Farther up the coast, the community of Peter-borough, N.H., plans a "river walk," giving pedestrians safe and aesthetically pleasing access to downtown businesses.

Sprawl Threatens Coast and Country

Now the bad news. The Cahaba River outside Birmingham, Ala., is one of many coastal or riverside places threatened by careless planning. Developers have recently fought to reduce a protective buffer along the river to a mere 50 feet. Much development along the Cahaba abuts this buffer and threatens riverside habitat and open space.

lone cart
Despite heavy flooding in 1993, Chesterfield Commons is being built on a floodplain.
Impossible as it seems, a developer in Biloxi, Miss., has actually one-upped Alabama's river sprawl problem -- by proposing to fill in 65 acres of the Mississippi Sound and 3.6 acres of nearby wetlands. This newly filled wetland would be the site of six floating casinos, eight hotels, parking garages and other resort amenities,

requiring thousands of new septic tanks. Habitat for fish, crabs and other marine organisms will be jeopardized or destroyed by stormwater runoff and sand mining for construction.

In neighboring Florida, the massive development of Nocatee shows that developers still haven't learned that building on flood-prone areas is dangerous business. Its placement, smack-dab in the middle of a floodplain, will increase the risk of flood damage.

And in Southern California, Newhall Ranch, which dwarfs most other projects in this report, is threatening to chew up 12,000 acres -- including 300 acres located in the floodplain of the Santa Clara River.

The Impacts of Sprawl

All this sprawl is a huge threat to the environment and, in some cases, to human health.

One of the biggest impacts of sprawl relates to how we get around. Research by transportation experts shows that sprawl forces us to take more trips and drive more miles. Multiply the tens of millions of cars on the road by the air pollution each creates and you have some inkling why many of our major cities are choking under a haze of smog.

Colorado's Aurora development
Colorado's Aurora development has gobbled up open space and turned acres of drought-resistant prairie grass into water-hungry lawns fed by the Colorado River.

Another sprawl-related impact stems from roads. As of 1997, we had built more than 4 million miles of roads -- almost 80 percent of which are located in rural areas. Experts estimate that one-fifth of the land area in the United States has been affected by road building. And sprawl itself wreaks massive destruction on our wildlands and wildlife. According to the American Farmland Trust, we continue to lose nearly 1 million acres of farm land and open space each year.

Careless development also entails harsh economic costs. From 1988 to 1998, destruction caused by flooding cost American taxpayers more than $473 billion in local, state and federal funds. In this same period, the Federal Emergency Management Agency moved more than 17,000 damaged homes and businesses out of floodplains.


Making sure our states have the proper tools needed to discourage haphazard development and encourage smart growth is an essential first step. Getting local planners and elected officials to see the problems of sprawl and respond effectively is also crucial.

Thousands of local ordinances and codes actually encourage or even require sprawling development by preventing developers from building different types of housing -- like apartments and townhouses -- or different types of development -- like shops and housing -- in the same neighborhood. While over 100 communities have adopted smarter codes in recent years, there's a long way to go in reforming local development guidelines.

Eliminating the subsidies that make sprawling development easier and cheaper to build than smart growth is also key. (Our 1998, 1999 and spring 2000 sprawl reports looked at these issues respectively. See Resources for more information.)

Our efforts to stem suburban sprawl will go nowhere until the private sector puts its substantial creativity and muscle behind smart growth. The good news is that some developers are leading the way by coming forward with smart-growth models. Overall, however, these projects are still few and far between.

The demand is there for a change in business as usual. Public-opinion research shows that people are yearning for the sense of community that comes with traditional neighborhood development. Visual Preference Surveys, which ask participants to choose either images of traditional neighborhood development or suburban sprawl, turn up the same results time and again: Most people would prefer to live in a place with a convenient mix of places to work, shop and relax.

Where there's demand for smart growth, there's a profit to be made. And, as this report shows, the environment benefits when we build alternatives to sprawl.

We hope this report will demonstrate why we don't have to settle for more poorly planned growth. There are dozens -- if not hundreds -- of examples of well-planned, innovative smart growth that point the way out of our destructive patterns of suburban sprawl. Now it comes down to whether we have the courage and vision to follow through. 

States at a Glance | Introduction | Resources | Acknowledgments

Photo credits:
Lone cart: Claralyn Price-Bollinger; Aurora development: Albert Melcher

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