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Making Urban Sprawl Solutions More Popular

yellow tram, bicyclist, and attractive pedestrian environment in Berlin

People have to really make their opinions known to put urban sprawl solutions on the agenda in your community. Otherwise, working on such a difficult problem feels too risky to most of the folks who have to be elected.

Sometimes those of us who are clear about the inefficiency of dispersed development forget what we're really supporting. The solutions include:

  • Working to preserve enough attractive, affordable, updated housing choices within the already developed area, or to allow construction there if demand exceeds supply
  • Creating a real sense of place, a sense of being somewhere unique and interesting, everywhere in the existing metropolitan area (this point implies that suburbs work to maintain or create an exciting environment, and that rural portions of the metro area remain rural in appearance and ambiance)
  • Supporting neighborhood planning and problem-solving to keep older neighborhoods vibrant and prevent housing decline and obsolescence
  • Assuring that public policies favor development where infrastructure already exists
  • Forging metropolitan-level planning mechanisms that prevent or retard major public investment in infrastructure and systems that promote sprawl
  • Enacting laws or voluntary agreements to provide that tax incentives given by one suburb do not penalize other suburbs or the central city
  • Making available quality walking and biking facilities for transportation, using zoning and other land use regulations to create development patterns that favor these active transportation methods for short trips
  • Emphasizing quality public transit that maximizes the convenience and minimizes the cost of trips within the established urban area, while discouraging sprawl patterns that radial lines out to distant suburbs sometimes create (as detailed on the transit and sprawl page)
  • Preserving pristine open space within a short drive from the central city, without the intrusion of suburban-style developments into that area
  • Strengthening the ability of existing suburbs to govern themselves well and to survive financially
  • Eliminating the environmentally wasteful practice of tearing down older buildings and starting over, except when buildings have been allowed to deteriorate to the point that demolition is justified and even the best solution
  • Reaping the public sector fiscal dividends of not going into debt for new infrastructure when the older infrastructure is available and under capacity, resulting in a lower tax burden for individuals and businesses

Urban sprawl solutions need to present themselves in the attractive garb of what we really want as a society--choices in housing and transportation; attractive, interesting, and unique destinations bristling with personality; pristine mountains, valleys, lake, and streams; and the leisure time to enjoy them.

Any remedy will have some immediate self-interested opponents, although there is some hope you can tie your cause into the current interest in green communities.

I don't think I can sugar coat this. It's going to be hard, unless you're among the fortunate few that have a municipal or state government behind you forcing people to do the right thing.

Or a regional governance structure that really works, at least when major developments are proposed. They will do the wrong thing unless the public is so outraged at me-first behavior that the big players will be embarrassed.


Urban Sprawl Solutions for Citizens

When citizens become outraged by the economic inefficiencies and the high taxes we're suffering because of sprawl, that's about when politicians will begin to look for urban sprawl solutions.

The challenge is that urban sprawl is really a hard thing for the average citizen to wrap his or her head around. That's where aerial photos and video become useful.

Most people living in the central city and inner suburbs are absolutely shocked to see the extent of new construction at the edges of the metropolitan area, because they don't go there. If they do happen into one growing suburb, they think it's an anomaly.

And it would take all day to give them a tour, so try a hard-hitting video.

Form a citizens group right now if that's what you have to do. First you should look to your local Sierra Club, if you have one, as they do an excellent job with the sprawl question.

If you have a "smart growth" organization, it's the same as a sprawl-fighting organization. If you have a local League of Women Voters, ask them if they have a local or state position, compatible with their excellent national position, under which they can take action.

If you have an existing organization, first investigate whether you can join its efforts before expending the effort it takes to build an organization. But chances are you're going to need an umbrella organization for your efforts anyway, so reach out to these other organizations, but don't expect to find a ready-made solution.

The exception is that if you have a solely local smart growth or anti-sprawl organization, do your best to join, enliven, and reform it into your dream campaign machine.

Best Arguments for a Compact Urban Form

The first order of business must be to craft your message in a way that gives urban sprawl solutions a chance to be heard. In my part of the country, sprawl is a dirty word, and if I campaign against it, I'm campaigning against progress, freedom, and the American way.

So I have to be against government inefficiency and waste. I have to be against excessive spending on infrastructure. It's getting to be OK to be green, as long as we don't go overboard.

So be sure you're not spending so much time talking with people who agree with you that you've forgotten that the word sprawl is incendiary to people who live in the outer suburbs, and to the substantial real estate and construction industries.

Even though it's the technical word, and we use it freely on this site because we deal in reality, when it comes to politics, watch your language.

Couch your urban sprawl solutions in terms of solutions to tax abuses, inequities, and excess spending, and you'll win more friends.

Frame the issue very, very carefully, depending on your own area's concerns. Try to avoid the framing that says "we should do this" or "we should not do that."

Frame it from the open-ended perspective of seeking urban sprawl solutions together. Find the people in your community who are skilled at conflict resolution and at minimizing conflict in the first place through careful framing.

Develop a discussion guide, and then enlist a number of moderately trained individuals to conduct discussions community-wide. Ideally you would meet weekly for about four weeks, taking up no more than four major dimensions of the spectrum of urban sprawl solutions practical in your area.

New Political Alliances for Smart Growth

To win this battle, you will need to make some unlikely friends. In some places, central city people have spent so much time railing against the suburbs, they fail to recognize that the inner ring suburbs are definitely their friends when it comes to sprawl.

You have to educate those inner ring leaders, often, because they haven't considered the fact that they are facing limited reinvestment because the bucks are going into new housing at the fringe.

The suburban leaders too have focused on the central city as the enemy for too long, so new friend-making is in order.

Find the most absolutely knowledgeable and persuasive speakers you can locate to talk about the sprawl issue (calling it "unregulated development," "expensive development," "expansion of the urbanized area," or "tax-supported development" if you have to avoid calling it what it really is).

Invite people to a large meeting, and invest major time and effort into organizing it.

After you explore a bit, it will be your call about whether you try to make a huge splash with your first event, or whether you need a long, detailed series of early meetings with various sub-groups. Take the latter approach if you expect more opposition.

If the public is already discussing urban sprawl solutions, you probably can afford to jump right to the big rally, with a huge amount of preparation surrounding it.

Enlist at least one respected journalist to champion the cause through interviews and/or personal involvement. Most journalists in a metropolitan area should understand the concept of sprawl, and if you give them someone well-versed in the impacts, you should get good mileage. Try of course for celebrities, media or otherwise, at your event.

Put effective social media activists at the top of your contact list as well. It's fairly easy to dramatize some region-specific impacts of sprawl.

Let's make a list of potential allies:

  • City neighborhood groups, community-based organizations, and community development corporations
  • Inner suburb leaders and organizations (and "inner suburb" might be two or three layers out from the central city, depending on the layout in your particular situation)
  • Urban studies and urban economics professors and students
  • Urban planners and landscape architects
  • Social workers sensitive to concentration of poverty issues and solutions
  • Church and synagogue groups, especially from Jewish, Roman Catholic, and the more liberal Protestant backgrounds
  • Tax efficiency groups
  • Environmentalists of every stripe
  • Farmland preservation folks (unfortunately, not your average farmer, since some farm groups take a very paranoid approach to all threat of land use regulation)
  • Historic preservation organizations
  • Affordable housing, public health, and neighborhood revitalization umbrella groups
  • Transit proponents
  • Good government groups
  • Proponents of metropolitan-level action

As usual in what is going to ultimately be a political campaign, identify people in local and state office who are sympathetic somehow to urban sprawl solutions or to environmental issues. Talk with them personally to try to line up a key ally.

Another source that may or may not be helpful is your Metropolitan Planning Organization, a local agency federally designated for transportation planning.

These frequently are ensconced within a multi-purpose regional organization or council of governments, and their attitudes and willingness to flex their power muscles vary widely.

Depending on personality, politics, and state law, this entity could provide the muscle for urban planning solutions all by itself if it were so inclined. So it's worth a visit from your steering committee when you have one.

I hesitate to say this, because some of my best friends fall in this category. But try to avoid packing your steering committee with a bunch of idealistic environmentalists whose views are nearly always half a bubble off, in the view of the establishment. Find some really mainstream people who have studied the issue in your area and can speak with authority.

This might take some time, in fact a long time.

The Power of the Careful Wording and New Friends

All well and good, but how are we going to actually implement urban sprawl solutions?

The answer depends on whether your area is somewhat amenable to doing so, except for the development community, which rarely agrees. If so, simply campaign very hard for very deliberately arrived at measures:

• Look at a regional mechanism for determining whether major new housing, shopping, and employment centers can be built.

• Consider an urban growth boundary, based on models in Portland (Oregon), Florida, or elsewhere.

If you need to share revenue from new shopping centers regionally, figure out the mechanism for doing so and pass enabling state and local legislation.

• If you need to share revenue from new employment centers regionally, an earnings tax can be treated the same way. Don't let what government gets the tax revenue determine where development should go.

If your metro area is resistant, which apparently applies to the majority, follow an urban sprawl solutions process more along these lines:

• Create a shared vision and shared language, embracing unlikely new allies.

• Seek out respected community leaders and organizations to lend prestige to the effort.

• Focus on one short-term accomplishment at a time and shine glory on any political leaders who spend political capital helping you.

• Systematically build genuine public support through solid research-based education and user-friendly printed and web-based materials, so that it becomes less and less risky for a politician to support you.

• When you gain enough recognition that people in power are seeking you out, collaborate with them on a series of baby steps that will lead to urban sprawl solutions over time.

• As you progress, continue to praise elected officials who help. In some places, that takes real courage.

Useful Companions on This Topic:
field of grain
Agricultural Zoning

varied colors of fall leaves showing healthy habitat
Conservation Easements

pedestrian signal is common in compact development pattern
Urban Sprawl and Public Health

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