Pursuing smarter growth in America’s suburbs

15802Today we have a guest post from John H. Spiers, author of Smarter Growth: Activism and Environmental Policy in Metropolitan Washington. Spiers' book uses the Washington, D.C. area as a case study in the politics of resisting and rethinking suburban sprawl, which he considers the prevailing feature of metropolitan America's growth and development since 1945.  Even as the construction of homes, businesses, and highways signaled the nation's economic prosperity, Spiers argues, it also eroded the presence of agriculture and polluted the environment, which provoked fierce activism from an array of local, state, and national environmental groups seeking to influence planning and policy. In Smarter Growth, he examines the role of these civic and social activists in pushing state and local officials to address the costs of growth, and today's post recounts this research and its key findings.

For many Americans, owning a single-family home in the suburbs and having the ability to go anywhere in an automobile are quintessential features of the American Dream. That dream, however, has lost its luster as decades of suburban sprawl have consumed open space, increased traffic congestion, and polluted the environment and local communities. In the 1970s, the national government—led by the EPA—emerged as a crucial agent for environmental protection. Over time though, its reach has waned due to the entrenchment of neoliberalism. This has made local action of growing important for enhancing the quality of life in metropolitan America.

In Smarter Growth, I seek to reorient our understanding of the environmental revolution that began in the late 1960s from familiar stories of national politics and policy to grassroots activism and the impact of national policy on local communities. I discuss how smart growth advocates applied principles of environmental stewardship that included: promoting compact development that used existing resources rather than new infrastructure and services; preserving rural land and open space; and protecting the air, water, and soil from pollution.

While many people associate smart growth most frequently with the Portland, Oregon area, I maintain that another region—metropolitan Washington, D.C.—was the progenitor of a smart growth movement that blossomed in the late twentieth century. Its complex political landscape of two states, more than two dozen counties, and the distinctive presence of the federal government creates an opportunity to evaluate different approaches and outcomes for balancing development and environmental protection in the face of regional growth pressures.

Within a selection of case studies, we encounter a variety of important figures in Metropolitan Washington’s—and the nation’s—smart growth movement. The Sewer Ladies, a group of civic and environmental activists in Maryland and Virginia, supported the expansive construction of sewer treatment plans for cleaning up the Potomac River as part of the Clean Water Act but also foreshadowed the need to tackle the extension of utility infrastructure into the rural periphery that induced sprawl in the first place. Royce Hanson, chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board from 1972-1980 and again in the early 21st century, was a pioneer in implementing major development regulations and creating a master plan to preserve agriculture and open space in the upper third of the county. Parris Glendening—the former governor of Maryland, widely recognized as a key figure in the smart growth movement—emerges as a more nuanced figure through a discussion of his tenure as County Executive of Prince George’s. In that local role, his burgeoning smart growth philosophy was far more tempered given the general outlook of most residents, who weren’t inclined to support robust environmental safeguards for major projects given the county’s lack of middle-class and upscale commercial development.

The debates over how to balance growth and environmental protection could at times become quite fierce. At the turn of the century, environmentalists in Loudoun County, Virginia condemned developers as “landscape rapists” for wanting to build on pristine rural land, while advocates of suburban growth cast environmentalists as “frog-kissing Stalinists” who wanted to seize private property and turn it into useful open space for the masses. The potential construction of a large Saudi mosque and school in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve unleashed sharply divided opinions over the preservation of rural land, religious expression, and the future of the county’s development.

These and many other stakeholders in Greater Washington laid the foundation for pursuing smarter growth that included adjustments in the scale, location, and other impacts of development projects; regulations and incentives to preserve rural land and open space from suburbanization; and efforts to curb pollution through infrastructure and public awareness campaigns. In the early 1970s and the late 1990s, smart growth advocates experienced a high tide of influence as they highlighted how sprawl didn’t just harm the environment or impair mobility but was also expensive. States and localities had to borrow and spend considerable funds to build roads and utilities further out and to connect both to existing infrastructure. In addition, the prevailing model of constructing single-family residential communities, which cost more to support in public services than they generated in tax revenue compared with mixed-use development, further strained state and local budgets and were passed off through higher personal property taxes. Despite the merits of smarter growth, the turn of the century saw the emergence of a more vociferous property rights movement, including the formation of Citizens for Property Rights in Loudoun.

Smarter Growth has been a fulfilling project since its beginnings more than eight years ago. In that time, much has changed, including in my own professional life. Like many early-career academics, I found it necessary to leave full-time academia after being a graduate student and later visiting faculty member. I now work in faculty affairs at a hospital but remain involved in various environmental and urban planning issues through the Sierra Club, the Congress of New Urbanism, and other avenues.

This professional change has pushed me to re-envision what I had hoped the impact would be of this book. In my case, there is now more of an encouragement to think about how the lessons of history can inform current activism and environmental policy. On this note, I would offer three general points. The first is to take a step back from the day-to-day debates over specific projects to continually re-focus on the bigger picture of smart growth. The climate change movement, for example, has been doing this by balancing technical discussions of climate science with greater emphasis on drawing attention to the impact on coastal communities. The second is to continue to foster coalition building, including public-private partnerships. As an example, it’s unlikely that water pollution will be more stringently regulated any time soon, but efforts to promote citizen monitoring, environmental education, and ecosystem restoration have been successful through creative partnerships and outreach. The third is to find avenues for pressing local decision-making to focus earlier and more frequently on consensus-building prior to the creation of project plans. As history has shown, grassroots activism will continue to be crucial for pursuing growth that is environmentally, fiscally, and socially equitable—in a word, smarter.

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