"Green-Based" Urban Growth: Next Wave of Environmentalism

D.L. Parsell
National Geographic News
April 22, 2002

After it was introduced 30 years ago, the phrase "think globally, act locally" became an environmental rallying cry for an entire generation. Yet the grand vision it inspired—of communities mobilizing to take responsibility for the health of the planet starting in their own backyards—remained more a slogan than reality.

Now, local environmental activism is getting a new lease on life, sparked by a public backlash against runaway and poorly planned development of cities and towns, widely known as "sprawl."

"People are locked in traffic, spending two hours a day driving, and wondering: Why do I live in the suburbs?" says environmental scientist William Honachefsky of Ringoes, New Jersey.

As population growth fuels soaring demand for housing, roads, and related services, millions of people see the effects of sprawl paving over the natural landscape and eroding the character of their communities.

Apart from frustration with traffic congestion and aesthetic blight, there's mounting concern about increased pollution, strains on local water supplies, and the rapid loss of trees, wetlands, farmland, wildlife habitats, and open spaces.

Desperate for solutions, coalitions of citizens, conservationists, and public officials are organizing behind campaigns known variously as "smart growth," "new urbanism," and "sustainable cities." Their visions and goals differ according to local conditions. But the intent is the same: to change present patterns of local land use and development.

"There's no question that we're at the threshold of a reformation in land-use planning—not just in the United States but around the world," says Honachefsky, who has nearly 35 years of experience in environmental protection and land-use planning. "People don't have preconceptions [about what to do], but they realize they have a problem and are eager to find new approaches."

Need for New Tools

As communities feel their way toward new patterns of growth and development, there's much demand for tools and resources to guide changes—and a hunger for real-life examples of what works.

A new book published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Solving Sprawl: Models of Smart Growth in Communities Across America (Island Press, 2001), describes 35 cases of how cities, towns, and rural areas have found effective alternatives to sprawl.

The American Planning Association (APA) has developed a variety of programs in recent years to support "smart growth" initiatives, including a recently completed seven-year project to design new model laws for land-use planning. APA is a partner in a coalition of national, state, and local groups organized as Smart Growth America.

Honachefsky travels widely, meeting with government bodies, civic groups, and planning commissions interested in the anti-sprawl strategies he proposes in his book Ecologically Based Municipal Land Use Planning (CRC Press/Lewis Publishers, 2000) [see related sidebar].

The book, he insists, is not a manifesto against development. "This is not a non-building alternative, but it calls for building within the ecological limits of the landscape," he says.

Continued on Next Page >>


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