In 1667, the few dozen families living in the Massachusetts town of Reading declared the town closed to newcomers.Even in colonial days, people worried about congestion, or what we moderns call sprawl.
Today, that town is a thriving Boston suburb of some 20,000 people. And it still worries about sprawl, only now it's defined as traffic congestion, strip malls, oversized "executive mansions," "big-box" chain stores, and loss of nature and farms.
The head-scratching question of how to control a community's growth and development for the greater good is not new. But these days, tax-paying businesses and houses are welcomed only if they're NIMBY (not in my backyard) and don't distract from what is loosely defined as "quality of life."
In urban and suburban areas across the US, sprawl is now a bigger issue than crime - or any other public issue. (See story, page 3.) Even presidential candidates are squaring off over how to promote "smart growth" - as if the federal government can be a white knight for what should usually be a local concern.
People want the free market that brings Wal-Mart's low prices, but they also don't want to see their old downtown stores go under. They want a quick way to the mall, but not the snarly traffic. They want to buy a big, new house on former farmland, but then save the farmland nearby.
Each day, millions of individual market choices are made that ignore the collective impact of those choices.
That's a rational system to people who see markets as more efficient than whatever schemes government imposes on growth.
But it's irrational to those hurt by those choices, or to environmentalists, planners, and others who try to see the long-range impact of growth.
So now that "anything goes" growth is a big issue, how do communities go about putting limits on people's freedom? Perhaps freeways and free parking shouldn't be so free. Perhaps, if suburbs are wasteful, we should raise the cost of government supports - including tax breaks - that promote such growth. Perhaps nonprofit groups and the private market can take the lead.
At the least, solutions to sprawl must be as consensual, democratic, and as local as possible. Regional governments, which are set up to even out the local differences on growth, have not always worked.
And if sprawl is now a prime political topic, perhaps many apathetic but complaining homeowners will jump into the process and not just let town hall or "the other guy" make the decisions on how a community evolves.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society