More than anytime since the 1960s, America's suburbs are in the cross hairs of reform.
Once the outer limits of decaying urban centers, to which the affluent escaped for more green space and better schools, many suburbs long ago started to become the ragged image of the urban areas they left behind. A decade of uninterrupted US prosperity has made matters worse as cities across the country have added concentric rings of development that have brought rush hour to farm, mountain, and prairie.
Now hundreds of moves are afoot to curb unrestrained suburban growth and encourage better planning. For example:
Twelve states have adopted growth-management plans, and seven more have planned major land purchases as a way to halt suburban encroachment into farm and open spaces.
A "smart growth" plan adopted by Maryland is being copied by other states such as New York, and key principles are being mimicked by scores of local communities.
In 200 open-space ballot initiatives last November, voters approved more than $7 billion for open space, according to State Resource Strategies, a consulting firm in Washington.
"We like to think that all of this adds up to a major turning point," says Russ Shay, public-policy director for the Land Trust Alliance, a land conservation group.
Because the issue is so unwieldy - involving highways, mass transit, open-space protection, planning, and regional cooperation by government agencies - Mr. Shay says suburban growth "has long been an issue without a home in the federal government."
Now that is changing, too. The Clinton administration is seeking in its current budget to commit $10 billion to local governments and communities for programs that preserve open space, tackle traffic problems, and rethink the way they promote economic development.
With the White House highlighting the issue, as well as asking for funds to both coordinate and expand programs from more than 12 agencies, Shays says, "this is a great moment that creates a federal role around which others can coalesce."
Ideas to limit growth
Beyond Washington, many ideas are already off the drawing boards. Led by Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R), New Jersey has committed $1 billion over 10 years to purchase 1 million acres of undeveloped land before developers do.
In Rhode Island, 68 percent of voters approved a $15 million bond issue to protect open space from farms to forest. Fifteen towns on Cape Cod in Massachusetts passed a 3 percent surcharge on property taxes to create a land bank to purchase open space, as did five towns in eastern Long Island, New York.
Grass-roots land trusts have been socking away land as well, doubling the amount of land protected from 2 million to 4.7 million acres - an area greater than Connecticut and Rhode Island - over the past decade.
One of the highest profile suburban fix-it programs has been put forward by Maryland, which is trying to protect 200,000 to 250,000 acres of contiguous land in the next 15 years. Signed into law in 1996, the so-called smart growth project has tried to control growth by designating funding-priority districts that the state feels could be helped by growth. State aid would be given to such areas and declined to others.
A key component of the idea, say officials, is that city and county authorities be allowed to create similar designations, and that the state create incentives rather than stringent requirements.
"People here were complaining that their environment was changing so fast they didn't like it," says John Frece, special assistant to Gov. Parris Glendening (D) on smart growth. The final legislation was drafted with the input of 400 organizations shocked by the statistic that 1980 to 1997 saw a 22 percent increase in Maryland's population but a 66 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled.
Among the areas to protect: buffer zones around farmland, waterways and reservoirs, key Civil War battlefields, and the Chesapeake Bay.
"People found themselves tied up in traffic getting to places that were previously off the beaten track," he says. "They saw their favorite farmhouse replaced by a strip mall or a favorite forest turn into a housing development. They are beginning to realize there are limits on what you can do before your state is gone."
According to a spokesman for Vice President Al Gore, a key component of the administration initiative - called the "livability agenda" - also allows localities to do as they see fit, rather than be dictated to from above.
"The livability agenda is trying to make the point that the federal government is not telling local communities how to grow, but trying to respond to local efforts by making options available," says the spokesman, who asked not to be identified.
Key components of the agenda, proposed for the 2000 budget, include:
A five-year, $700 million plan to allow states and localities to issue no-interest bonds to lenders. The money would be used to protect water supplies, develop abandoned industrial sites, and preserve parks and open space.
$6.1 billion for public transit, an increase of $724 million over last year. The funds are intended to help alleviate traffic congestion.
$1.6 billion, up $341 million over 1999, to support state and local efforts to ease congestion and reduce air pollution. Eligible projects include high-occupancy vehicle lanes, ridesharing, and new bicycle paths.
The proposals have been greeted openly by key environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, which call them a "good first step" in reversing five decades of sprawl.
"Compared to what we spend on bombs, it's a blip. But these are good ideas, very good ideas," says Rich Hawley, president of the Cambria Land Trust in California. "They are dovetailing with recommendations made by all kinds of groups over the past decade. The federal government is definitely catching up with society. It shows they are listening."
High cost of growth
Part of the reason key components include mass-transit and transportation money is that the wastefulness of sprawl has become more apparent to city planners. Mirroring the Maryland situation, developed land in the New York City area increased by 65 percent between 1970 and 1990, while the population increased only 8 percent.
"We are realizing that we can't just build more highways to get out of congestion," says Frece.
Some developers criticize the initiative because they say that building inside established city and community limits is three times as expensive as in outlying areas. The Clinton proposals and many of the new initiatives will make it more difficult to develop such areas.
"Homebuilders don't like [the proposed program] because it's not as easy to be lucrative for them," says Teresa O'Donnell, director of the Las Vegas Planning and Development Services Center, which oversees development in the fast-growing city. "But the proposals produce incentives to control that sprawl that we like because the city council does not have to adopt measures that are punitive."
Other business groups have embraced the ideas, noting that they are not solely about the environment but include quality-of-life issues important to businesses as well as families.
Behind many of the initiatives is studies showing the economic impact of helter-skelter growth. It contributes to access-problems, smog, and crime that often undercut the reason people move to outlying areas to begin with. Too much growth adds to fire, police, and sewage costs as well.
"We think that the livability agenda is the model for 21st century growth in the US," says Carl Guardino, president of a Silicon Valley-based manufacturing group. "We've realized that if these issues are not tackled in this valley and elsewhere, information-based companies are going to go somewhere else."