As Americans prepare to merge with the new millennium, evidence is mounting that their decades-long use of the "yield" sign for unchecked development may soon be replaced by another: "Wrong Way - Go Back."
Long equated almost reflexively with progress, development has increasingly become a synonym for congestion, pollution, empty downtowns, and lost open space for most citizens, polls show. Accelerated by the longest peacetime economic expansion in US history, development has claimed twice as much land between 1992 and 1997 as in the previous decade, bringing big-city snarls to cities of all sizes.
Now, because their favorite ribbon of remote highway has become a line of cookie-cutter housing tracts or strip malls, Americans in every state are saying, "enough is enough."
*This year, a record 1,000 state land-use reform bills have been introduced in legislatures across the country, with 200 enacted into law.
*Elections last month and in the previous November have set aside $10 billion through bonds and referendums for the preservation of open space. That followed the passage more than 70 percent of 240 local ballot initiatives in 1998, creating $7.5 billion in new funding to protect open space.
*After Maryland joined 10 other states by adopting one of the highest-profile, "smart growth" strategies, several other states have adopted or are considering comprehensive growth-management plans. Seven more have planned major land purchases to halt suburban encroachment onto farms and open spaces. Key principles of these plans are being mimicked by scores of local communities.
"We are seeing a dramatic sea change in American attitudes about development and sprawl," says Stuart Meck, principal investigator for the American Planning Association in Washington, which just drafted a multiyear study of US efforts to design growth plans. After a long history of seeing land as simply a commodity with value, the average citizen is discovering its aesthetic, social, and environmental dimensions, he says.
"The states have become the great laboratories of activist democracy on this issue, and a lot of cooking is going on," says Mr. Meck.
Rhode Island, for instance, is investing in both light rail and bike paths as a way of encouraging more walkable, bikable developments within closer proximity to businesses.
At the same time, Colorado and Arizona are examining legislation requiring cities to draw up urban growth boundaries, and Tennessee has become the first state in the conservative South to pass a comprehensive growth-management act, which includes such a requirement.
"This is one of the most effective things a state can do," says Deron Lovaas, representative for the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl campaign. "Before Tennessee, no other state in the South would ever institute anything so sweeping. It shows that even the most entrenched attitudes are changing."
Besides the general sense of irritation over lost vistas, open areas, and quality of life, the activism is being driven by a growing awareness that certain local, state, and federal policies are having unintended consequences.
Urban tax rates are often higher than suburban ones, for example. Federal property-tax reductions give people a subtle incentive to buy bigger houses on bigger lots. States spend more money building newer roads than on fixing old ones. Environmental regulations for building on abandoned urban sites are often more complicated than those for building in suburban areas.
"These policies were never imagined as a coherent whole," says Bruce Katz, director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy for the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They send a clear signal to employers, householders, builders, and political leaders: build out on open, un-urbanized land ... and bypass older areas."
The building boom
And build they have - at the rate of 3.2 million acres per year nationwide from 1992 to 1997. The rate between 1982 and 1992 was 1.4 million acres per year.
Fed by two-income families who want - and can afford - bigger homes, as well as the live-anywhere workplace aided by telecommuting, the lexicon of sprawl has expanded to include the modifier "rural."
Activists point to one statistic to show the dispersal of America's population: Land developed before 1982 averages a density of 3.2 people per acre, after 1982, 0.8 per acre.
"The message is we are demanding - and getting - a lot more land per person and using it less efficiently," says Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust in Washington.
The antidote, say observers, is citizen activism.
"Politicians and leading environmental organizations are focusing on this issue at the top, but the wave of activism is coming from communities across the country as a real, grass-roots effort," says Mr. Lovaas.
A July nationwide survey of local and state decisionmakers by the American Institute of Architects reflects the growing concern. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said livability and sprawl were the issues they care about most.
Such concerns are giving rise to preventive measures. Many smaller communities are setting up planning commissions and laws to stop problems before they happen.
One such area is the Sierra Nevada region of California, a rural landscape dotted with small towns where population has tripled to 650,000 since 1970. Two years ago the Sierra Business council adopted 16 principles for growth, which include maintaining a clear boundary between town and country, and reinvesting in downtowns.
"It used to be that quality of life was ancillary to economic development," says council president Lucy Blake. "Now everyone has realized that, to insure the long term competitive advantage, we have to maintain the quality of life that draws people to the region to begin with."
Yet some observers say this is all too little too late. Twenty-five states still have zoning statutes based on outmoded federal laws from the 1920s, and the recent doubling of development rates is a sign that new efforts have not done enough.
Despite new laws, they say, there is often a lapse in either implementation or enforcement. Threatened with the pullout of key businesses, bureaucrats sometimes bend rules to avoid confrontation. Washington State is singled out for passing a comprehensive growth plan in 1990 that has largely yet to be implemented.
But overall, most observers see progress in the fact that smart growth has become the accepted middle ground between the past's firmly entrenched battles between pro growth and no growth.
"Scattered, poorly managed sprawl has simply become the [No. 1] social and environmental issue as we move into the 21st century," says Brett Hulsey, regional field adviser for the Sierra Club. "There is finally an awareness that we need to grow smarter, not just bigger or not at all."
Moreover, the increasing importance placed on sprawl by voters shows that it may become a major political issue.
"The second half of the 20th century was characterized by the hemorrhaging of people and jobs from our central cities out into the hinterlands, chewing up a staggering amount of precious open space," says Lovaas. "Candidates and elected officials at all levels ignore the problems of sprawl and its smart growth solutions at their peril."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society