The rapid growth of suburban areas, what some people call urban sprawl, is getting renewed attention by states. New governors in several states are setting up commissions or task forces to address the issue and to find ways to adhere to what’s called “Smart Growth.” The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports that there’s a lot of interpretation of what “Smart Growth” means:
The rapid growth of suburban areas, what some people call urban sprawl, is getting renewed
attention by states. New governors in several states are setting up commissions or task forces to
address the issue and to find ways to adhere to what’s called “Smart Growth.” The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports that there’s a lot of interpretation of what “Smart
Many urban planners have been alarmed over the last couple of decades as metropolitan areas have
sprung up where farmland or wooded areas once stood. Following new subdivisions have been
strip malls, parking lots and fast food franchises in a not always attractive fashion.
Last year’s election saw a number of states with new governors and some of them are looking at
what can be done to control that kind of unbridled growth. Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm noted it
during her State of the State speech.
“We will develop a cooperative, common sense approach to how we use our land so we can protect
our forests and farms, prevent the sprawl that chokes our suburban communities and threatens our
water quality, and bring new life to our cities and older suburbs.”
Governor Granholm says she wants “Smart Growth.” It’s a popular term, but what is it? What
does it mean?
“I think that Smart Growth is really hard to – certainly hard to describe.”
Barry Rabe is a Professor of Environmental Policy at the University of Michigan’s School of
Natural Resources and Environment. He says “Smarth Growth” sounds great.
“I don’t know anyone who’s really against Smart Growth. But, you can spend a long academic
seminar or actually a lifetime in search of the one common definition of exactly what that means.
Again, it has sort of an intuitive appeal. It resonates. We can all think of examples that are not so
Smart Growth or dumb growth. But, I think clearly this is something that lends itself to differing
kinds of interpretations by different groups.”
And as you ask the people who’ll be sitting at the table debating “Smart Growth,” it becomes clear
that each one has a different definition.
Lynn Egbert is the CEO of the Michigan Association of Home Builders. He says “Smart Growth”
is a private citizen building a home wherever he or she thinks is an ideal site.
“Our basis continues to be and our primary focus is, and it will remain, that it’s private property
rights under the U.S. Constitution that have to be maintained and that is an individual right. It is a
citizen’s right. And we have to work with local and state government to make sure that that’s
achieved and balanced.”
Egbert says the culprit causing urban sprawl is not the choices that landowners make. He says it’s
too much government regulation. Egbert says, generally, municipalities that zone areas into large
lots stop home builders from building more houses on smaller plots of land.
Others also place much of the blame for sprawl on government, but for different reasons. Hans
Voss is with the Michigan Land Use Institute.
“Landowners do have a right to live in the area in which they choose as long as they follow local
land-use regulations and pay the full cost of that lifestyle. And right now the taxpayers in the cities
and across the whole states are actually subsidizing that style of development.”
Voss says to implement “Smart Growth,” the government has to stop subsidizing urban sprawl by
building highways and sewer systems that all of us have to pay for with our taxes instead of just the
residents who benefit from them. He says that money could be better used to revitalize older
suburbs and the center of deteriorating cities.
There are a lot more ideas of what “Smart Growth” means… and there’s a bit of public relations
spinning because of the ambiguity of the term “Smart Growth.”
The University of Michigan’s Barry Rabe says we’ll hear a lot about “Smart Growth” for some
time to come.
“It’s one of these buzz words that everybody likes. But, to come up with a common definition of
it, much less figure out how that would be implemented in public policy is tricky.”
Ultimately, compromise will define “Smart Growth” as states grapple with trying to find better ways
to use land without losing so much farmland to sprawling subdivisions and paving over natural areas
for parking lots.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.