Toward More Livable Land

Regional trends of 'smart growth' must continue

What does better mass transit in Utah have to do with saving open land in Illinois and Missouri?

Both are examples of a trend among neighboring cities and towns to cooperate as regions and turn "sprawl" into "smart growth."

Last week, voters in three adjoining districts in Missouri and Illinois approved a plan for a regionwide open space district. It would, for instance, create hiking and bike trails, and manage natural resources on both sides of the Mississippi. In Utah, voters in three counties decided to upgrade a regional bus service, originally for skiers, to better serve businesses and an airport.

Is this "smart growth?" Yes, especially when sprawl ignores borders. The term is often used differently, as is "sustainable development." Still, it's a short-hand reminder of the need for more intelligence and consideration when adding roads, houses, or businesses that threaten livability.

Few would argue with "smart growth" (or "new urbanism" and "livable communities"). Such terms are on the lips of both civic leaders and developers. But getting through the complexity and contentiousness of implementing the idea often remains an obstacle.

Still, in a booming economy, most communities are struggling with difficult decisions on effective growth, such as allowing "executive mansions" (or "starter castles") in older neighborhoods with smaller homes.

Some 35 states and hundreds of communities had growth-related initiatives on their Nov. 7 ballots. Clearly, Americans need help and encouragement as they experiment with new rules on development and land use.

Growth-related ballot initiatives

So-called "open space" measures that set aside land for aesthetic and recreational purposes were popular, notably in Ohio, Rhode Island, and Florida, where voters passed bond measures to buy up land.

A broader vision of transportation beyond highways could be seen in measures passed in Florida and California that included expansion of light rail or high-speed monorail. Moreover, the federal government has done a smart thing by telling states they can shift highway money to mass transit.

In Washington State, voters rejected a measure to award transit funding solely to highways, pointing to a growing movement away from the 1950s notion of "the more roads the better."

In Colorado and Arizona, however, two contentious growth-restricting state initiatives went down to defeat because they were too stringent, too sweeping, and perhaps perceived as too local. Both ballot proposals required most towns to create their own strict growth boundaries. Regional growth boundaries simply make more sense because people live in less-definable areas. And as metropolitan areas increase, agreements are also harder to come by because more parties are involved.

Going regional

There's no easy template for regional cooperation. Hometown identities and institutional competition can get in the way. Still, why not work toward taking the general goals for smart growth and tailor them in ways that accommodate local and regional infrastructure, cultural and political differences?

Standing in the way of progress doesn't fit the American way. Yet progress can come at a price. One man's progress is another man's vista blocker. Or traffic snarl. Or noisemaker.

Eye-popping sprawl, especially - and ironically - in the West, where people moved for more, not less, elbow room makes this clear. Stronger regional cooperation - and the resulting economic boost from slower, smarter growth - will do much to help the US stay competitive.

Civic leaders must balance the natural and regulatory landscapes as well as fight off bend-the-rules developers and homeowners with a knee-jerk rejection of any development. A smarter, mixed-use development in the suburbs is long past due, where more office space now exists than ever before. Regional approaches to land use are a starting strategy, connecting workers to jobs, transportation, and affordable housing.

Smart growth may come slowly. But better growth patterns will emerge with wider vision. Greater recognition of the interconnectedness of issues such as economy, education, transportation, zoning, along with a collective sense of preserving the scenery and keeping the feel of places, is needed.

Then we will grow together - smartly, and by choice, not chance.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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