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
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.
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