Anthony Flints This Land takes a whack at suburban sprawl

This Land:
The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America

By Anthony Flint
Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 310 pages

with gov. mitt Romney a self-declared lame duck, it is by no means too soon to begin discussing his legacy. Among the chattering classes, that topic is already inviting smirks of derision. As Romney engages in the only job search an ambitious Massachusetts politician considers worthy of the effort, whatever accomplishments as governor he can boast of are easily dismissed as résumé polishing, targets for pot shots from those who would deny him the credit or deprive him of the prize he seeks. Health insurance? On the right he is slammed for expanding Big Government and its insatiable mandates, on the left for vetoing a modest assessment on non-insuring employers and for dining out on the achievement of Democrats in the Legislature.

But it is hard to deny that Mitt Romney brought to Massachusetts the notion of “smart growth.” Some might say that all Romney did was introduce the state to Doug Foy, whom he appointed Secretary of Commonwealth Development soon after taking office. A career environmental advocate, Foy was the guardian of the smart growth flame in the Romney administration, but Romney created the new cabinet post overseeing housing, transportation, and environmental agencies expressly for Foy, and did so expressly with the notion of putting smart growth principles to work in the Bay State.

What is the Romney record on smart growth? To his credit are the “fix-it-first” policy of repairing existing infrastructure before building new; the Commonwealth Capital program of steering capital funds to communities that conform to smart-growth principles; and, perhaps most significant, Chapters 40R and 40S, two additions to state law that offer incentives for communities to allow housing development in dense clusters around existing town and city centers and near public transportation, providing needed housing for mixed-income families and steering growth away from the countryside.

Whether Romney’s smart growth initiatives amount to a legacy, however, depends on what impact they have beyond his four years in office. For his part, Foy declared his work done in March, departing his custom-tailored office seemingly content to leave the smart growth action plan in the hands of his successor, Andrew Gottlieb, and his team of bureaucrats—bureaucrats like Anthony Flint.

At least until his contract expires, along with the Romney administration, at the end of the year, Flint is director of smart growth education in the Office for Commonwealth Development. Whereas most propaganda ministers direct their efforts toward the public, Flint’s targets are municipalities, which, under the Bay State’s fragmented form of governance, make the decisions that stifle growth, promote sprawl, or, in planning nirvana, grow smartly. And unlike most state officials, Flint preceded his public service, which began last fall, with a manifesto.

This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America is a product of Flint’s years as a reporter, mostly for The Boston Globe, and as a scholar, in stints at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge and at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. At the Globe, he covered Boston City Hall in the 1990s, bird-dogging the Boston Redevelopment Authority, before going off to Harvard as a Loeb Fellow in 2000-01, then came back to the newspaper to create a beat focusing on regional growth and development issues.

The book reflects Flint’s dual sensibilities—as a journalist and as a worshiper at the altar of environmentally conscious planning. At best, this results in a productive tension, with reportorial skepticism offsetting true believer preachiness. At worst, it leaves the reader wondering which Anthony Flint to believe: the one who’s seen the light, or the one who seems to see through it?

this land starts off by identifying the enemy: sprawl, the poisoned apple of American suburbia. It’s tempting, but also a threat to society and environmental health. “In a calorie-conscious world, sprawl beckons like a hot fudge sundae,” writes Flint in his opening line.

The features of sprawl are familiar: mile after mile of residential subdivisions, dotted by malls and office parks and connected by highways and multi-lane “arterial” roads. It doesn’t sound so sinister until Flint starts counting up the costs: the 44 acres a day of countryside consumed by development; the ever-expanding infrastructure of water, sewer, and other utilities that drain local budgets; the inevitable clogging of roadways to the point where a daily commute can take hours. But sprawl is not destiny, Flint assures: “There is a more thoughtful way.”

Before unveiling the better way, at least in detail, Flint takes us on a tour of Development Past. In the beginning, says Flint, there was “the grid,” the division of property along straight streets and connecting avenues, suitable to everything from small villages (beginning with the Pilgrims’ Plymouth Colony) to Manhattan island, and infinitely scaleable. In competition, from almost as early a time, was the pastoral ideal of Thomas Jefferson, the anti-urbanite whom Flint calls, only half facetiously, “the godfather of sprawl.”

Though America’s growth was marked by westward expansion and urbanization at the same time, incipient suburbs emerged as early as the mid 19th century—Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill, Forest Hills Garden in Queens — as the well-heeled sought refuge from the filthy, crowded cities in the “town-and-country mix” that visionary planner Ebenezer Howard called the “garden city.” When the automobile came along, suburban development began to gather steam, influencing even urban design, with the 1920s boomtown of Los Angeles becoming the first car-centric city. But the real explosion came after World War II, when the federal government built highways into the countryside and provided cheap, low-money-down mortgages. America’s dispersal had begun, leaving the cities to rot well into the 1980s.

City living made something of a comeback in the 1990s, but all that did was set up a true tug of war between urban and suburban ideals. Urban areas are no longer seen as cesspools of pestilence and decline; indeed, condos, coops, and lofts in once-decrepit neighborhoods from SoHo to the South End are now among the priciest bits of real estate in the country. At the same time, despite their continuing allure, suburbia’s curving streets and cul-de-sacs have lost some of their charm as they’ve been overrun with SUVs, plagued by lawn watering bans, and oversupplied with Olive Gardens. Low-density development has spread the population thinly over the land, but instead of giving Americans room to breathe, it has trapped adults and kids far from work, schools, and playing fields, condemning them to hours in maddening traffic jams as they burn fossil fuel. The time has come, says Flint, to choose: not urban over suburban, necessarily (though I think, in his heart of hearts, that’s exactly what Flint means), but dense, compact, and walkable, whether in the city or outside of it.

The blueprint for these pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods comes from the New Urbanists, a coterie of architects and planners led by Andres Duany, the Miami–based designer of trendy neotraditional developments like Kentlands, outside Washington, DC, and Seaside, the Florida panhandle resort town that provided the picture-perfect set for The Truman Show. Tightly knit streets, front porches with minimal setbacks, and parking alleys in back are the hallmarks of New Urbanist housing, with shopping and office space intermixed and within walking distance of residents, rather than zoned in shopping districts miles away.

There’s been a backlash where the rules are strictest.

New Urbanism provided the design, but “smart growth” put the ideal in an earth-saving context. Bad taste was not the danger; sprawl was. “Smart growth”—Flint credits the term to Robert Yaro, a onetime Massachusetts planner (in the Dukakis administration of the 1970s)—has come to mean a set of policies and planning tools that steers development away from virgin territory and toward places that are already built up. Whereas the New Urbanism has remained primarily an architectural aesthetic, smart growth has become the law of the land from Maryland to Oregon, embraced by past and current governors ranging from Democrat James McGreevey in New Jersey to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in California (not to mention Romney in Massachusetts).

But smart growth has provoked a backlash, striking hardest where the new rules of development are the strictest. The courts have been supportive of government authority to regulate land use, though only up to a (still ambiguous) point, and thus far have resisted claims that growth restrictions amount to “takings,” requiring payment when they depress the value of land. But the voters have been less supportive. The most serious setback for smart growth advocates, and the biggest victory for the “property rights” movement that is its nemesis, came in 2004, when Oregonians passed Measure 37. The ballot question gave owners the right to seek compensation from local government when their property, located outside the “urban growth boundaries” where development is allowed in that state, suffers a loss in value as a result of growth restrictions. If government can’t afford to pay, the owner is free to build anything that could have been built before the statewide growth rules were put into effect, in 1973—when there was, in much of Oregon, no zoning at all.

“Oregonians are confused,” observes Nohad Toulan, a retired dean of Portland State University, as he is quoted by Flint. “They like the quality of life but are concerned with the question of fairness.”

in the great American War over land use, Massachusetts is small potatoes. Sprawl is much more evident in the fast-growing West and Southwest, where Phoenix is spreading into the desert and Los Angeles into the Inland Empire. And the property-rights revolt, although it has East Coast flashpoints, is also largely a product of Western libertarianism.

But thanks to Flint’s Boston base, there is more Massachusetts in This Land than might otherwise be expected. After all, the noteworthy thing about sprawl in Massachusetts is that it is happening at all, given our nearly flat population growth. So we read about the years-long deadlock over overhauling the Bay State’s outmoded zoning law, about transit-oriented development rejected in Kingston and Holliston, and about the (interminable) struggle over redevelopment of Somerville’s Assembly Square.

And far from calling Massachusetts, even in the Foy era, a pacesetter in sprawl resistance, Flint puts Romney’s policies in the “easy-does-it” category: “Participation in all of this is voluntary; the result is that there is some smart growth and also plenty of conventional growth.”

“Easy-does-it,” with good reason. Flint hints at what a tough sell smart growth can be, no matter how self-evident its virtues are to him. In his conclusion, he identifies the weak link in the fight against sprawl: “Few Americans consider it an issue worth worrying about.” That, he says, is because “sprawl is a good thing for individuals but bad for society.”

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In every market, from Worcester County to Arizona’s Maricopa County, sprawl produces large, affordable homes, while encountering relatively little local resistance. The problems—the clogged roads, the overcrowded schools, the overdrawn water supplies—come later. By contrast, dense development in already built-up areas can be expensive, and prone to dispute. (“Density’s biggest problem is that, even when some people like it, the neighbors don’t.”) And even though he devotes most of a chapter to denouncing the moneyed interests (homebuilders, the real estate industry) that resist sensible planning, calling the cabal “Sprawl, Inc.,” in the end he calls the label “fanciful.”

“There really isn’t anybody engaging in a conspiracy,” Flint acknowledges. Rather, he adds, “Things change when tastes change.” If so, the state’s director of smart growth education has his work cut out for him.