Responding to Sprawl

Preserve farmland. Control sprawl. Reduce traffic congestion. These intertwined imperatives are growing louder than ever. For millions of Americans, they rival Social Security and public education as issues that strike close to home and sway votes.

The loss of farmland to development can devastate local community and culture. It can also depreciate the social and economic capital of a whole region. That threat may be felt most acutely in a place like Vermont, which lives off its bucolic vistas. But it also furrows brows in California's booming Bay Area, where housing tracts are spilling over the foothills into the Central Valley's prime agricultural acreage.

Responses are as varied as the American landscape itself:

*Leaders in Vermont have formed a state Forum on Sprawl to propose legislation designed to reorient development toward village centers, not the countryside.

*Some Bay Area suburbs, pushed by both snarled traffic and vanishing open land, have taken to giving voters a direct yea or nay on new housing developments.

*Greater Atlanta, where mega-commutes and impossible traffic have long been problems, may be helped toward solutions by the newly formed Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. It has power to override local decisions and mandate projects like rail transit.

*In Washington State, residents of Skagit County, north of Seattle, are trying to deal with increased pressures on their farmland by underwriting the purchase of development rights, so that land will remain agricultural. This approach has been widely used in other parts of the country as well.

Those examples hint at the variety of tactics being applied to the farmland/sprawl/traffic knot of problems. Also important are steps to improve schools in cities and inner suburbs, thus weakening one incentive to move ever further into the hinterlands.

The fabric of efforts to address these issues should gradually acquire a tighter weave. Local programs abound, and every state has some form of farmland preservation law.

Still, residential and commercial development will inevitably continue, as it must. Can it be guided into patterns that cause less gridlock and less loss of productive land? This will require, among other things, convincing developers themselves that these goals are in their civic and long-term economic interests too.

How well this task is done will shape America into the 21st century and beyond. For now, we can at least be grateful the job is under way.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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