Sprawl affects urban and rural residents of every Great Lakes state. Rapid development continues to swallow farmland and leave impoverished urban cores in its wake. But one Great Lakes mayor believes there’s still time to preserve land and revive cities. Mayor John Logie shares this commentary:
Sprawl affects urban and rural residents of every Great Lakes state. Rapid development continues to swallow farmland and leave impoverished urban cores in its wake. But one Great Lakes mayor believes there’s still time to preserve land and revive cities. Mayor John Logie shares this commentary.
Urban sprawl is alive and well in Grand Rapids, my hometown. The term refers to the insidious way that webs of suburbs, manufacturing plants, etc., are expanding in unplanned, ever-widening circles around our city. Such sprawl results in longer commutes, pollution, and the loss of undeveloped land. The American Farmland Trust reports that 70% of the country’s prime farmland is now in the path of rapid development. On the list of 30 of the most sprawling cities in the entire United States, Grand Rapids, which has experienced a 48% increase in its urban area between 1990 and 1996, ranks right in the middle, behind such hyper-growth communities as Las Vegas, Austin, and Tucson, but well ahead of Cleveland, Chicago, and Portland in our rate of sprawl increase.
This Land-use change has rarely been done in a responsible fashion. Some sprawl apologists say what we’ve ended up with is that’s the American Dream, and any problems are easy to fix. They say there’s plenty of land left in America. They say congestion would go away if we just build more roads. But sprawl matters. Pollsters say it’s the most important issue in the Country.
Distress about urban sprawl arises from many factors: loss of open space, traffic congestion, economic segregation, a lack of affordable housing, and a lost sense of community. According to Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam, the longer people spend in traffic, the less likely they are to be involved in their community and family.
To solve these problems, it takes a combination of land conservation and real free market economics, which can actually provide smaller lots for those who want them. However, many communities try to maintain what they believe are high property values by allowing only large-lot homes to be built. This effectively excludes several types of households, including singles, some empty nesters, single-parents, and the elderly, along with lower-income people. And the favored “middle-class family” with kids, today represents just 25% of new homebuyers. Only 11% of U.S. households are “traditional” families with children and just one wage earner. One size no longer fits us all.
Here’s what we need now.
We need smaller houses in walkable clusters, town homes in real “towns,” lofts in vital urban neighborhoods, and affordable housing just about anywhere. The development of compact communities that offer urban amenities and street life will show that the market actually supports more density and more housing diversity—not less. But we’re not building communities like those; communities that can help reduce many symptoms of sprawl, including traffic. Instead, we’re just building new roads. But for every 10% increase in new freeway miles, a 9% increase in traffic is generated within 5 years as sprawl continues. You just can’t build your way out of gridlock. More importantly, today we can no longer afford to keep building new freeways. The key is building more walkable communities. All this depends on promoting different land-use patterns, and not just building new roads.
Property rights advocates argue against regional planning, or any planning for that matter. They say that people should have a right to develop their properties as they please. As a historic preservationist, I have heard that for years. But what if one person’s development decision adversely impacts another’s property, or the whole neighborhood, or the whole region? What if certain choices require more public tax dollars to pay for infrastructure and services than others? At the regional level, it is public dollars that enable development on private property. Without highways, roads, sewers, water systems, and public services, development cannot occur. Therefore, we must use the tool of government spending appropriately – and seek out and implement the most cost-effective public investments which creatively and positively support growth, but discourage sprawl. My name is John Logie, I’m the Mayor of Grand Rapids, Michigan.