Governments are trying to figure out the best way to deal with urban sprawl. Legislators and planners are considering all kinds of approaches to manage the growth of cities, but some say government really has no business trying to stop the market forces that are driving the rapid growth. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports on the deeper debate between property rights and land use protection:
Governments are trying to figure out the best way to deal with urban sprawl. Legislators and
planners are considering all kinds of approaches to manage the growth of cities. But, some say
government really has no business trying to stop the market forces that are driving the rapid
growth. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports on the deeper debate
between property rights and land use protection:
Through the public process, states that are grappling with urban sprawl end up hearing from everyone involved. While the media and environmental groups tend to look at the
problems of congestion and loss of green space and farmland due to the rapid growth at the edges
of cities, others see the growth as driven by what people want – it’s natural growth, even organic. In
fact, many property owners, builders and developers, see government interference as “un-
American,” as testimony from this public hearing in Michigan shows.
“As an American, I strongly believe in our citizens’ rights to pursue life, liberty and property.”
“Centralized planning did not work in Russia, Cuba, North Korea or anywhere else they’ve
attempted it.” “Are we gonna mandate where they’re going to live? Is this gonna be America?”
“The land should be controlled by the individual who has paid for the land and pays the taxes on the land and should be able to do with that property what he wants to do.” “Our Constitution tells
us about the preservation of private property rights.”
There’s something deeply rooted in the American cultural ethic that bonds people to the land – or
more precisely – to their land. It might be leftovers of the concept of Manifest Destiny where,
in the words of one essayist, land ownership was associated with wealth and tied to self-
sufficiency, political power, and independent “self-rule.” This seems to be especially true of
people who live in rural areas, or are only a generation or two removed from the farm.
Amy Liu is with the think-tank, the ‘Brookings Institution.’ She says when states start looking at
growth management techniques, commonly called “Smart Growth,” landowners and builders
“There is a belief that the government needs to get out of the way of the market. And so the idea
of having government intervene in the real estate market and consumer choice is considered un-
And property rights advocates quickly become dogmatic about their beliefs and resist any kind of
restrictions on use of land.
In the same way, some environmentalists consider sprawl to merely be a matter of greedy
developers and builders wanting to make money no matter what the cost to the environment,
green space, or farmland. They sometimes ignore the fact that consumer demand for larger lots
and larger houses, as well as convenient shopping, is much of the driving force behind urban
Liu says many on each side of the urban sprawl debate are inflexible.
“You know, I think that there are definitely reasons why the environmentalists can be extreme
and why the property rights advocates can be extreme.”
And generally, the two sides are talking right past each other.
Ann Woiwode is with the environmental group, the Sierra Club. She says the opponents of
“Smart Growth” say they don’t want government interference, but she says they don’t talk that
way when they’re in need of roads, fire protection, good schools, and other government services.
Woiwode says “Smart Growth” doesn’t mean unreasonable restrictions.
“I’m not trying to take anybody’s rights away and I don’t think that’s the appropriate approach.
What in any society part of being a society is that we collectively decide how we’re going to
make decisions that affect the entirety of the community.”
And while Woiwode and other environmentalists are in favor of making sure green space is
preserved, most of them acknowledge that growth is inevitable. They say they just want to make
sure it’s the right kind of growth.
Amy Liu at the Brookings Institution says not every growth management plan makes sense.
Some of them only look at benefiting the environment and ignore market forces, the desire that
many people have for a bit of land and a home to call their own.
“There are certainly growth management policies that don’t work, that strictly limit development-
growth boundaries and are therefore anti-growth. I think the growth management policies, the
Smart Growth policies that do work are those that really do try to anticipate and accommodate
growth in a metropolitan area in a way that is going to promote economic development, that is
fiscally sustainable, that is environmentally sustainable, and that actually allows low-income
working families and middle-class and upper-income families to enjoy that growth.”
And finding that balance in a world where politics and competing interests sometimes muddy the
best intentions will be the real trick, as states try to define what “Smart Growth” will mean for
people pursuing the American dream of owning their own home.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.