by Donella Meadows
— February 18, 1999 —
This time around the hot term is “sprawl.” During previous outbreaks of concern about America’s spreading cities it was “strip development” or “slurbs” or simply “the growth problem.”
Whatever we call it, we worry about it toward the end of every economic boom and try to stimulate it again during every recession. We try to control it with zoning, impact fees, urban growth boundaries, conservation easements, growth moratoria. We don’t come close to succeeding.
Drive around Oregon after 25 years of urban growth boundaries, or Vermont after almost 30 years of Act 250 development review, or Maryland with its “smart growth” program. They look much like the rest of the nation. Shopping centers, fast-food strips, traffic jams. Prime farmland turning into suburbs while inner cities stagnate. Trophy houses sitting proudly on five-acre lawns. Longer commutes, more roads, less nature, polluted air, rising local taxes, miles of ugliness.
We “develop” 160 acres of land in the United States every hour. Much of it is prime farm land. At the current rate of loss, California’s cropland will be half gone in 20 more years. One-fourth of the land lost to sprawl becomes road or parking place. The number of vehicles is growing six times faster than the number of people.
When something keeps happening that no one much likes, and it happens in many different places, and it goes on happening despite all kinds of measures intended to stop it, and we all do things — shop at the malls, move our families further out of town — that contribute to the mess, though we know we’re contributing to the mess, then we don’t have a simple policy problem, we have a system dysfunction. If we want to fix it, not only do we have to do things differently, we have to think differently, so differently that we create a different system. Tinkering a bit, raising a tax here, throwing in a subsidy there, downzoning here, buying open space there, is not enough.
I’ve seen only one contribution to the recent sprawl discussion that begins to attack the problem at the level of complete re-thinking. It’s a book called “Better, Not Bigger” (New Society Publishers, 1999) by Eben Fodor, a city planner (not a development planner, he carefully notes) from Oregon.
To treat you to just one excerpt from this book, here’s the quiz with which it starts:
1. How much more traffic congestion would you like in your community?
A. There is already plenty of traffic, thanks.
B. Just a little bit more, please.
C. A whole lot more.
2. How much more air and water pollution would you prefer?
A. We have too much already.
B. Just a little more pollution, please.
C. Give me toxic soup!
3. How much more farmland and open space do you want to be developed?
A. It would be nice if we could save what we have left.
B. I suppose we have to sacrifice this land in the name of “progress.”
C. I can’t bear the sight of undeveloped land going to waste.
4. How much higher do you want your taxes to go?
A. For what I’m getting, I think I’m paying enough already.
B. I’m happy to pay more, even if I can’t see any benefits.
5. How much more of your local natural resources (fresh water, electric power supply, forests, aggregates and minerals) do you want consumed?
A. I’d like to conserve our natural resources and use them as efficiently as possible.
B. We have to sacrifice our resources to create prosperity.
C. We should sell all our natural resources for a quick buck.
6. Would you prefer that your city government continue to subsidize new development, or should they use the money to fund schools, extend library hours, offer day care at community centers, create cultural and recreational programs, and still have enough left over for a tax cut?
A. I’ll take the expanded services and the tax cut, please.
B. Let’s keep the development fire stoked with my tax dollars.
7. How much bigger do you want your community to be?
A. It’s already big enough.
B. Let’s just keep growing and see what happens!
C. I love big cities but am too lazy to move to one.
This quiz seems funny, because it so blatantly points to the obvious, all-around-us, elephant-in-the-living room negative effects of sprawl that we never hear about in the boosterism for the next mall or condo complex. We never hear about them because they call into question the myths that create and fuel the urban growth system. The greatest of these myths is the idea that growth is always good for all of us.
The myths are listed in Fodor’s book. I’ll go into them in next week’s column. The reasons why the myths not only persist but are actively promoted will make up the following column. What to do to create a better system will be the column after that.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1999