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November 1999 Planet Main
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Solving Sprawl
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The Planet

Sierra Club Rates the States
Solving Sprawl

Sprawl is not inevitable. There are actions that citizens and public
officials can take to rein in sprawl.

Growth 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 more than 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.

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. For a more detailed look at the criteria, see the full report at www.sierraclub.org/sprawl/report99.

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.

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.

Transportation Planning

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.

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.

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.

An abbreviated version of more specific solutions in each of the four categories appears on these pages, along with the state rankings and a short profile of each top-ranked state.

This Planet special report is an excerpt from "Solving Sprawl," a Sierra Club report released in October 1999. It recognizes and ranks the programs adopted by state governments to manage growth, and showcases and promotes effective smart-growth solutions.

The full report is available on the Sierra Club's Web site at: www.sierraclub.org/sprawl/report99

Campaign Stresses Solutions

Sure, sprawl continues to spread like wildfire, consuming 1 million acres of productive farm land and open space every year. But the Sierra Club's campaign to curb sprawl is expanding as well.

Though chapters and groups have been fighting sprawl for decades, the Club board of directors designated sprawl as a priority campaign for the first time in November 1996. Today, more than 80 percent of chapters and groups are working on sprawl in some form. At least 15 chapters have issued "Sprawl Costs Us All" reports, which catalog the costs to taxpayers of poorly planned development. Activists have organized "tours de sprawl" in 20 states -- most have used bicycles and/or buses to showcase the good, bad and ugly, but this year, one campaign took to the river ("Tour de Spalsh") and another to airplanes ("Soar de Sprawl").

In 10 states, the Club issued a "Permitting Disasters" report, spotlighting how government-issued permits to drain and fill wetlands have contributed to both sprawl and flooding.

Smart-growth measures have passed in Maryland, Tennessee and Georgia, thanks in part to Club activists. More than 150 sprawl-taming ballot measures were passed by voters around the country in 1998 and many local candidates have been elected to office on anti-sprawl platforms.

Last year's Sierra Club sprawl report, "Dark Side of the American Dream," generated almost 1,000 media stories. This year's report, "Solving Sprawl," released on Oct. 4, has gone gangbusters: In the first few days after its release, it gained front page coverage in dozens of cities.

This year, the Club hired its first national staff member dedicated solely to the sprawl campaign -- Deron Lovaas. Two longtime field staffers -- Joy Oakes and Brett Hulsey -- work primarily on sprawl. And sprawl work makes up a big chunk of many of the Environmental Public Education Campaigns.

In Washington, D.C., we're working to keep federal jobs in the District. In Florida, we're fighting the sprawl-inducing Suncoast Parkway. In Michigan, we're encouraging the urban-core mayors to work together to promote reinvestment in their cities. In North Carolina, the Club is supporting the acquisition of 1 million acres of open space by 2010. In Rhode Island, the Club is urging the governor to back away from a huge port expansion in Narragansett Bay. In Utah, the Club is fighting the proposed Legacy Highway and pushing for more compact, walkable and transit-oriented communities.


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