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Stop Sprawl
Solving Sprawl: 1999 Sierra Club Sprawl Report

Land Use Planning Land Use Planning
Traffic in D.C.
Regional Plannng
Focus on: Oregon
Rate Your State


Land Use PlanningSuburban sprawl seems to happen by default in many places. A subdivision pops up, a new road is built, a strip-mall opens. This leads many people to believe that sprawl is inevitable. But this is false -- we can manage sprawl by better planning our future growth.

States and communities can choose to grow on their own terms and at their own pace. And places like these are often more economically successful, environmentally sound and nicer to live in than areas that sprawl without limit.

Some states have discovered a powerful tool to control sprawl: land-use planning. Sound planning can help communities grow efficiently by encouraging development where infrastructure -- like roads, schools and water treatment facilities -- already exists. This type of planning helps keep city centers alive and established communities vital. The best planning efforts also steer development away from wildlife habitat, wetlands and other crucial natural resources.

In our analysis, we often found that the top states have been using these planning tools to deal with growth for decades -- tools that the laggard states haven't even put on the books.

In this category, we used three main measurements based to determine our rankings.

Growth Management Laws

First, using data from the American Planning Association (APA), we determined what kind of land-use act a state had on the books:

States received a lot of credit for having a comprehensive statewide growth-management law that establishes a framework for guiding local efforts to manage new development. Only 11 states have passed such statewide planning legislation.

Those states with growth-management acts covering only part of the state, or with statewide acts covering just certain components of land use planning, received less credit.

Next, using the results of a 1997 APA survey, we identified and gave credit to those states that:

  • require local communities to prepare land-use (or comprehensive) plans,
  • review those plans for consistency with a set of state goals, and
  • play a strong role in plan development.

The best states have established such a framework and plan an ongoing role in helping communities address growth issues. The states that fall down in this category provide little or no statewide standards or resources, resulting in local plans of wide-ranging quality in those communities that have even drafted them.

Unfortunately, some states have remarkably strong growth-management laws on the books, with almost no implementation. While Florida, Georgia and Washington all have had strong acts for over a decade, one look at the Tampa, Atlanta or Puget Sound areas tells you that growth-management laws don't work unless they are implemented. These states need to do more than use the rhetoric of smart growth, and begin implementing the tools they have available to curb sprawl.

Statutory Link to Implementation Tools

In most cases, growth-management plans are only effective when they are coupled with a strong implementation program. To gauge this, we looked at whether states encouraged or required a selection of implementation techniques.

We gave credit to states that had statutory links to one or more of five implementation tools:

  • urban growth boundaries
  • public participation requirements
  • impact fees
  • regional coordination requirements
  • mandatory implementation

A key question is whether states require communities to establish sprawl growth limits or an urban growth boundary. An urban growth boundary is a line that identifies which areas will become urban or suburban and which areas will remain rural. Usually associated with Oregon, this concept was first pioneered in 1958 by Kentucky. Fayette County, which includes the city of Lexington, adopted this boundary to protect the horse farms on the west, north and east of the city. Top-performing states require such boundaries, allowing growth without creating land-gobbling sprawl.

Next, we asked whether states require communities to actively involve citizens in the planning process. The states making the best effort to manage sprawl offer regular opportunities for public comment and participation. The worst performers lock the public out of the process, keeping decisions away from scrutiny.

We also examined whether or not states have authorized the use of impact fees. This tool allows local governments to charge developers fees to help pay the costs of new roads, schools and utility lines. By requiring developers to pay their own way, rather than forcing existing taxpayers to bear the full cost of sprawl, states can better grow on their own terms.

Another factor in determining our rating was whether or not states foster regional cooperation. The best planning efforts recognize that dirty air and polluted water don't stop at the county line. It is critical that local units of government communicate and cooperate in their planning and growth-management efforts, preferably through formal regional planning agencies. States have an important role to play in building this cooperation, which is why we gave credit to those that do so.

Planning statutes, as with any other statutes, are most effective if implementation is spelled out and mandatory. States received credit based on the quality of their implementation language.

Reforming the Capital of Congestion

Metropolitan Washington, D.C., is not only the center of the federal government, it's at the heart of a regional struggle against suburban sprawl. This tussle involves five counties, two state governments, the federal government and the District of Columbia.

In a region infamous for urban blight, there are signs that the District's core is beginning to make a comeback. Home sales in the District are brisk, with young professionals rejecting long commutes and discovering the advantages of living in the city. With its well-defined neighborhoods, parks, restaurants and other amenities -- all within reach by foot, subway or bicycle -- the District has some nice advantages over the 'burbs.

Newly elected Mayor Anthony Williams and the City Council are reinventing District government to make it more business friendly as well as more responsive in providing public services to its citizens. But, while the District itself is striving to make the city a better place to live, the need for sound policies from the surrounding counties and the federal government is becoming all the more apparent.

For instance, despite an executive order that requires that 65 percent of federal jobs be located within the District, agencies continue to leave with the blessing of members of Congress eager to bring them to their own districts. Most recently, the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to move its offices -- and some 700 jobs -- from the District to a site that consolidates most of the agency on a sprawling campus in suburban Maryland. This location, beyond the reach of public transit, will force thousands more to use already crowded highways instead.

While many Virginians acknowledge the need to manage growth, little is being done to make this happen. Instead, office buildings and housing developments are springing up like weeds in the outer suburbs.

Sprawl opponents agree that for all the strides being made against sprawl, real progress will be made only when regional cooperation prevails over regional competition.

Regional Planning

Regional PlanningLike a ballet without choreography, growth without planning is an accident waiting to happen. Though individual communities may try their hardest to fight sprawl, many problems related to unplanned growth extend beyond city and county borders. Regional planning is an ideal solution to this dilemma, but it requires an organization with the power and authority to coordinate development on a larger scale.

One city that is taking strong steps to strengthen regional coordination is Atlanta -- and for good reason. With the longest average daily drive in the nation, serious air-quality problems and traffic that is beginning to harm the business climate, leaders in Atlanta have decided they need to take action.

Early this year, the state legislature passed a bill to create a new regional organization called the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA). The agency has the authority to require any county in the community that has violated federal air-quality standards to develop a transit system if it doesn't already have one. In addition, GRTA will have the ability to help develop a regional transportation plan.

Also of significance, GRTA will have some say over land-use issues, with the authority to review very large projects such as regional shopping malls and giant subdivisions. If it disapproves of the project, GRTA can withhold all state and federal transportation funds. Public and private advocates alike hope GRTA will provide a level of regional coordination previously unseen in the Metro area.

While each region will have to devise its own means for building regional cooperation, the public and private leadership that spawned GRTA exemplifies the kind of bold action that will be needed if we are to begin to undo the problems of suburban sprawl.

Focus on: Oregon

OregonOregon remains a beacon for how to manage growth and a best-case example of how to tame sprawl. In 1973, the state took the simple but radical step of requiring every city and town to establish a plan for future growth.

By developing statewide standards, Oregon stopped sprawl from spreading. And, by allowing communities to implement these plans as they saw fit, the state struck an intelligent compromise between local control and common protection.

As part of the planning process, each community had to determine where development would stop and open space begin. Known as urban growth boundaries (UGBs), these limits have been key to Oregon's success.

Close on the heels of this landmark move, then Gov. Tom McCall -- along with other activists -- established 1000 Friends of Oregon. This watchdog group has helped open the planning process to public participation and has helped build and maintain the wide-spread public support that Oregon's innovative land-use laws have enjoyed. Though UGBs have been challenged many times since their inception, they have proven to be extremely popular with the citizens of the state and have survived both referenda and lawsuits.

In 1978, Oregon took another key step in improving its land-use planning by creating the only directly-elected regional-planning organization in the country. "Metro," as this council is known, coordinates planning for land use and transportation in a three-county area that includes Portland, the state's largest city.

Has all this worked? Clearly. Instead of losing jobs, the state has attracted a bevy of high-tech businesses. Downtown Portland, once underused, has become a thriving community. The area surrounding the city, served by an excellent light-rail system, has managed to escape paralyzing traffic congestion.

Outlying areas have benefited too. Some 25 million acres of farm lands and forests have been preserved. Where Oregon once lost 30,000 acres of agricultural land a year, it is now losing only 2,000 acres a year. And, 20 minutes from the heart of downtown, green space and natural beauty are abundant.

Despite the success Oregon has enjoyed, challenges remain. The pressure to grow is unrelenting and more needs to be done to promote smart-growth solutions. Portland recently allowed 1,000 homes to be built in a floodplain and more than 200 of those were flooded in 1996.

Rate Your State: Land Use Planning

1 State Act
2 State Role
3 Implementation Tools
4 Field Expert Input

: very effective
2: moderately effective
3: not effective
Rank State 1 2 3 4
1 Oregon 2 1 1 1
2 Vermont 1 1 2 3
3 Maryland 1 1 2 2
4 Georgia 2 1 2 3
5 Washington 2 1 2 3
6 Tennessee 3 2 2 1
7 Maine 2 1 2 2
8 Hawaii 2 1 3 2
9 California 3 2 1 3
10 Rhode Island 2 1 2 3
11 Florida 2 1 2 3
12 Idaho 3 2 2 3
13 New Hampshire 3 1 2 3
14 Minnesota 2 2 2 2
15 Delaware 3 1 2 3
16 Kentucky 3 2 2 3
17 New Jersey 2 3 2 3
18 Nevada 3 2 2 3
19 Massachusetts 3  2 2 3
20 Alaska 3 2 3 3
21 Arizona 3 3 2 3
22 Indiana 3 3 2 3
23 New Mexico 3 3 2 3
24 Pennsylvania 3 2 3 3
25 West Virginia 3 2 3 3
26 Illinois 3 3 2 2
27 Wisconsin 3 3 2 3
28 Virginia 3 3 2 3
29 Colorado 3 3 3 3
30 Louisiana 3 3 3 3
31 Mississippi 3 2 3 3
32 Arkansas 3 2 3 3
33 Iowa 3 3 3 2
34 Nebraska 3 2 3 3
35 South Carolina 3 2 3 3
36 Montana 3 3 3 3
37 Texas 3 3 3 3
38 New York 3 3 3 3
39 Missouri 3 3 3 3
40 Oklahoma 3 3 3 2
41 South Dakota 3 2 3 3
42 Alabama 3 3 3 3
43 Kansas 3 3 3 3
44 Connecticut 3 2 3 3
45 Utah 3 3 3 3
46 Ohio 3 3 3 3
47 North Carolina 3 3 3 3
48 North Dakota 3 3 3 3
49 Michigan 3 3 3 3
50 Wyoming 3 3 3 3

Introduction | Transportation Planning | Open Space Protection | Community Revitalization | Land Use Planning

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