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Stop Sprawl
Solving Sprawl: The Sierra Club Rates the States

1999 Sierra Club Sprawl Report

Solving Sprawl Introduction
Transportation Planning
Open Space Protection
Community Revitalization
Land Use Planning

Solving Sprawl: Introduction

by Carl Pope, Sierra Club Executive Director

Solving SprawlGrowth is good. At least that's been the American credo up to now. Blessed with lands that seemed limitless, challenged to "go west" and tame the wilderness, our history, our "manifest destiny," has been to clear the forests, cut roads through rock, pave and plow our country, and create cities. The American mission to conquer and settle the land shaped our character. And we got good at it. Too good.

Now at the start of a new century and a new millennium, Americans no longer reflexively equate progress with development. In fact, because the costs and consequences of poorly planned development have become clear and common, Americans are clamoring for better, smarter ways to grow.

The good news is that suburban sprawl is not inevitable. We are not doomed to a future of traffic congestion, air pollution, overcrowded schools, abandoned city centers, and lost open space and farm land. America does not have to be known as a nation of parking lots, subdivisions and strip malls. There are solutions. Right now, communities and states across the nation are working hard to rein in sprawl and manage growth so that it enhances and does not undercut our quality of life.

In 1998, voters passed over 70 percent of some 240 local ballot initiatives that sought to tame sprawling growth and created over $7.5 billion in new funding to protect open space. Governors and legislatures across the country are launching smart-growth commissions and passing smart-growth legislation.

In This Report

This report is designed to recognize and rank the programs adopted by state governments to manage growth, and to showcase and promote effective smart-growth solutions. We rate each of the 50 states by measuring progress in four categories: open space protection, land use planning, transportation planning and community revitalization. The selection and relevance of our criteria is discussed in greater detail in the introduction to each section.

As part of our report we also include individual case studies of successful states:

  • In Maryland, the state has earmarked $140 million for the purchase of open space.
  • In Oregon, communities are designing growth on their own terms, encouraging development inside the urban area and protecting the green space outside their city limits.
  • In Rhode Island, the state has made a serious commitment to breaking the strangle hold of the automobile by improving access to alternative forms of transportation.
  • And, in Vermont, a team of housing advocates and environmentalists put together a fund that has saved more than 165,000 acres of farm land while offering affordable housing for 10,000 people.

National Trends

In researching and ranking state efforts to manage growth, trends emerged to create a national snapshot:

Open Space Protection:
Twenty-five states have taken steps toward protecting farms and 20 states have agricultural conservation easement programs. These programs compensate property owners for giving up the right to future development. Overall, open-space protection enjoys extremely broad public support. Yet few states have preserved enough land to protect our wild places and keep them in good health.

Land Use Planning:
Only 11 states have passed comprehensive statewide growth-management acts. These laws mandate or encourage comprehensive local planning according to statewide standards and enable the use of tools such as impact fees and urban growth boundaries.

Clearly, the overwhelming majority of states are lagging behind in adopting these powerful and effective tools -- perhaps because political leaders have yet to understand that sensible growth management isn't antithetical to economic prosperity. Indeed, as business leaders are increasingly recognizing, managing growth helps ensure a strong economy.

Those states that have had growth management acts on the books for a decade or more offer a lesson to those states just now passing laws or considering doing so: Enforcement is the key. Oregon is, by and large, enforcing its Act. Florida, by and large, is not. The difference is visible and tangible: Florida continues to sprawl while Oregon is managing its growth.

Community Revitalization:
Twenty-eight states now have brownfields redevelopment programs to clean up abandoned and often polluted industrial sites. These programs are a big step in the right direction as long as, in implementation, environmental and public health standards are not watered down.

Unfortunately, some states have created weak brownfield programs or have eviscerated them before they can be implemented. Michigan, for example, has a brownfields program on the books, but the public health and environmental standards have been gutted since the law's passage.

From 1996 to 1997, 21 states spent over half of their federal transportation dollars on new road construction. New highways are sprawl magnets -- once built, they attract more cars and more development. Better to invest in repairing and maintaining existing roads, and building transportation alternatives. Unfortunately, from 1993 to 1997, 26 states spent less than $10 per urban resident per year on mass transit construction. Twelve states spent less than $5 per urban resident per year.

Thanks to changes in federal highway spending and state-level leadership in places like Rhode Island, a few states are beginning to provide better transportation choices by investing in bike paths, buses and rail lines. There is a movement among a growing number of states to make the transportation planning process more transparent and participatory -- a move that will ensure that transportation systems are actually designed to suit their users.

Limits and Restrictions

This report does not deal in the ideal. It compares the states with each other, not against an absolute. And a good thing too: In the open space protection category, only two states received at least half of the possible points. In land use planning, only eight states did, and in transportation planning, only 12. Clearly there is still much work to be done to curb sprawling development and manage growth -- even in states where progress is being made.

In addition, this report does not take into account future growth. Though most sprawl can be traced to poor planning and inefficient development, the impact of a growing population should not be ignored. While we work to rein in growth, we must also remain committed to population stabilization.

Finally, this report acknowledges there are no quick fixes that will solve the problems of sprawl and its consequences. Many of the solutions showcased here are new or recently enacted. While they represent progress today, their true effects on our quality of life will not be evident until tomorrow.

Expert Contributors

This report features the work of in-house experts and knowledgeable guests. Richard Moe of The National Trust for Historic Preservation writes on the links between preservation and smart growth. Miriam Axel-Lute of the National Housing Institute discusses how community development corporations can become allies in the fight to control growth. And Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist discusses how tearing down freeways and increasing transportation options can help save a city from traffic. Our thanks to these contributors.

Wrong Way

This report is about the statutes, programs and policies that states have created to deal with sprawl. There is at least one yardstick per category that measures how well such initiatives have been implemented. Unfortunately, a handful of states that aren't keeping their word still rise to the top of the rankings because they made big promises.

Georgia and Florida have had "landmark" growth management acts on the books for a decade or longer. But sprawl is rampant in places like Tampa/St. Petersburg and Atlanta.

Pressure for new highway building in our booming economic times is taking states like Washington and California down that slippery road to more sprawl.

Brownfields programs, which aim at redevelopment of abandoned land in cities and towns, have recently been passed in many states. While these programs are an important tool in the fight to tame sprawl, what happens as they're implemented will tell whether or not they produce a net gain for the environment.

States must keep their promises. Citizens need to remain vigilant and hold decision-makers to their word. Passing laws and initiating programs is meaningless unless they are fully and forcefully implemented.

Slowing sprawl requires deeds, not just words. It's up to all of us to make sure our states don't head the wrong way.

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