"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.

Former secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who has a strong public record of support for environmental issues, declared a need for such an approach in a speech at Stanford Law School in California last November. Laying out an environmental agenda for the 21st century, Babbitt argued that the United States must shift from current "anthropocentric" decisions about land use to a system of planning that's "ecologically based."

As Honachefsky sees it, sprawl occurs because in many cities and towns, the comprehensive master plans that ideally provide a foundation for planning a community's growth over time have been superseded by decisions based mainly on zoning laws. "Zoning was never meant to replace master plans—the roles have become reversed," he says.

That's a problem, he explains, because zoning codes and maps dictate land use in the near future, without considering the consequences it will have on a community decades later.

He cites a case from New Jersey as an example. When the state compiled maps showing local development since 1985 in each of the state's 566 municipalities, it highlighted a massive loss of wildlife habitat, with native species being forced to live on ever-shrinking parcels of land.

"Reversing the situation was virtually impossible once plans for individual sites and subdivisions were already approved and on the drawing board," says Honachefsky, noting: "Once you get to the site-plan stage, there's very little you can do to change things."

In his book, he urges communities to restore the use of municipal master plans as the overriding vision of development, and to make preservation of the area's "ecological infrastructure" the central priority of such plans. "We need to get back into thinking about the master plan, back to thinking about the carrying capacity of the land," he says.

Greater Complexity

Most of the planning statutes now in effect in the United States date from two model planning and zoning laws adopted in the 1920s. Planning experts say these laws are due for a major overhaul.

Earlier this year the APA published Growing Smart Legislative Guidebook: Model Statutes for Planning and the Management of Change. APA officials say the book, which presents a variety of options for statutory reform, is intended to replace the "one-size-fits-all" land planning approach of the 1920s.

"Clearly, government planning and the issues it addresses have gotten a lot more complicated since then, and APA believed it was time to develop new model laws to respond to the needs of the 21st century," W. Paul Farmer, APA's executive director, said in a statement accompanying the book's release.

One reason new planning approaches are needed, the APA says, is to better reflect changing attitudes about land and its use. After decades of growing environmental awareness, many people see land as having important ecological and social values, and not merely as a commodity to be bought and sold.

Another factor is the greater complexity of the municipal planning process today, which requires integration of environmental protection measures and development decisions across various levels of government.

"There's been a lot of thought about regionalism, looking more at planning in terms of the ecology of an entire region," notes Frederick Steiner, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of The Living Landscape: An Ecological Approach to Landscape Planning and several other books on the need to balance development and conservation.

Before moving to Austin from Phoenix last year, Steiner was active in a community coalition organized to devise an ecologically sensitive development plan for a 120-square-mile (311-square-kilometer) tract of land north of Phoenix.

In the final plan, Steiner says, one-third of the area was set aside in its natural form, as the Sonoran Preserve. The remaining area provided for rural and suburban residential tracts, and targeted areas along the city's expressway for future development. "Our premise was that one single type of development in Phoenix wasn't appropriate," says Steiner.

The plan also urged the city to reduce its originally projected level of population growth by 100,000. The advisory group had concluded that the region's natural and human-built infrastructures could accommodate no more than 250,000 additional people.

Steiner said the plan was overwhelmingly approved by elected officials and citizens, and the city of Phoenix approved a bond issue to purchase the land for the reserve.

Notably, the group didn't follow standard methods of municipal planning that have dominated the community development process for years, Steiner points out. "Usually roads are laid out first, then the land use is added. Whatever is left over is open space," he says, adding: "We reversed that process."

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