Counterpoint

Home builders, highway planners, and hamburger vendors who have catered to America’s appetite for sprawl for half a century can’t seem to acknowledge why a growing number of their customers now demand more livable places.

The sprawl builders note that America has a bounty of open land from sea to shining sea. But a lack of open space is not the issue in Utah, where Republican Governor Mike Leavitt has fostered a “Quality Growth Initiative” to address sprawl.

Salt Lake City has become a destination for refugees fleeing sprawl in California, as have Denver, Seattle, and other cities in the West. Lured by the majestic scenery of the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest, the migrants flock in droves, eager to escape the three-hour round-trip commutes and constant traffic congestion that make life in sprawling places unbearable. As more of them arrive, however, the frontier develops until it resembles the sprawl they left behind.

With half of the nation’s population now living in suburbia, elected officials pay more attention to suburban concerns. According to GOP pollster Christine Matthews, a significant percentage of suburban voters now believe that current development patterns have robbed suburban life of its original convenience and aesthetic appeal.

Sprawl riles other voting blocs, too. Urban advocates see links between metropolitan sprawl and disinvestment in the urban core. Small-town citizens identify strip malls and big-box retail stores as threats to their local Main Street economy, their sense of place, and sense of community. And farmers on the urban edge view commercial and residential expansion as a creeping threat to their way of life. Together, these concerns have made sprawl ripe for a reassessment.

If Utah, the most conservative state in presidential elections, can become a leader in confronting unsuitable development, then other states cannot be far behind.

Already in Georgia, the new Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, has made sprawl his first priority. The proliferation of suburban job-centers around Atlanta and the explosion of suburb-to-suburb commutes push traffic levels beyond the capacity of the region’s road system. Air pollution prevents the federal government from awarding the area $600 million in highway funds. The most rapidly expanding metropolis in the Deep South is literally choking on its own success.

Bell South, one of Atlanta’s largest employers, just announced a $750 million plan to consolidate 13,000 employees from 75 far-flung offices at three new business centers in central locations served by the region’s rail system. From Bell South to Coca-Cola, big business is leading Atlanta’s search for solutions, driven by market forces.

“Our decision is grounded in quality-of-life issues for the Atlanta region as a whole,” Bell South’s Chairman and CEO, Duane Ackerman, told The Atlanta Journal Constitution. “It solves our problem of pulling together like functions in like locations — and doing it in an environmentally friendly way is a win-win for us.”

If business and political leaders can be converted, then builders can be, too. Georgia’s governor actually tapped one of them, veteran Sun Belt developer John Williams, as his point man on the issue. For two decades, Williams built suburbs and subdivisions. Now, his company, Post Properties, redevelops urban cores, meeting the growing demand for downtown living spaces closer to offices and urban night life. And Williams believes his firm is on the leading edge of a nationwide trend.

Families with children in the home are a shrinking share of the nation’s housing market. Households today are more likely to be occupied by adults living without children. Instead of large empty nests, this growing segment of the market demands more loft condominiums, townhouses, and assisted living facilities for the elderly. Does this mean creating a housing shortage? Massachusetts doesn’t need to pave over greenfields at an alarming rate to supply enough housing. But we do need to help builders make better use of older cities and towns that predate sprawl. And we need to amend zoning codes to permit new suburbs to be designed in more efficient and appealing ways, inspired by the kinds of village centers in towns built in the early 20th century, before Levittowns and strip malls became the national standards.

Unreconstructed sprawl developers, however, can’t imagine a better way to build. They fear that giving up on sprawl means trading the open prairie for the density of Tokyo, something few Americans want. Yet, the problem with most of America’s cities today is not congestion, but emptiness — how to fill in the empty holes.

Limiting sprawl helps to steer investment back into older cities and towns that need it most. Over the last 25 years, Portland, Oregon, protected open space at the metropolitan edge and encouraged “infill” development on empty parcels in the core. The region contained sprawl and still found plenty of room to grow, doubling the number of jobs downtown without adding a single parking space. Today, this vibrant city surrounded by unspoiled mountains, orchards, and vineyards has become so desirable a place to live that it now attracts 50,000 new workers each year. (Keep in mind that Portland’s urban-growth boundary still leaves ample room for future expansion.)

If housing prices are rising in Portland, it has less to do with restrictions on sprawl than with Portland’s sudden popularity as a place to live and work. In Portland, workers can still find a greater variety of housing styles at a wider range of prices than they can ever find in any sprawling tracts of two-acre lots. Just ask Portland’s residents who have migrated to Oregon from California’s Silicon Valley, where sprawl limits housing options, erodes quality of life, and repels employees needed for economic growth. In Silicon Valley, full-throttle development has not exactly kept the price of housing down. Regardless of where we live, we need to find better ways of growing that work for us all. This need has propelled Maryland’s governor, Parris Glendening, to rethink his state’s development policies. Under a new “Smart Growth” initiative, Maryland will try to avoid using tax dollars to subsidize sprawl that drains life from existing communities and paves over farms and fields. The aim is not to stop growth, or even slow it down, but to direct tax dollars for new roads and schools into designated growth areas, where public investments will serve the widest range of interests and do the most good.

Curbing sprawl and revitalizing existing communities have already become pressing issues for governors and legislators in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Tennessee. Here in New England, almost a thousand civic leaders attended a recent conference on sprawl sponsored by the regional offices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Lincoln Institute for Land Policy in Cambridge also drew policy-makers and opinion leaders to a recent session on sprawl hosted at the Boston office of law firm Hale and Dorr.

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It will take time to fashion new policies to help build and protect more livable communities, but this much is clear: The coalitions that enabled sprawl to spread unchecked for half a century are showing cracks, like asphalt parking lots that looked good when new but now have outlived their usefulness.

Sprawl was created to serve America’s pioneering urge to flee the home front for the new frontier. The irony today is that Americans now flee sprawl for more familiar places down the road.

Carter Wilkie, an advisor to Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, is co-author, with Richard Moe, of Changing Places: Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl, reissued in paperback this year by Owl Books.