Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: A new, radical alternative to Urban Growth Boundaries has been proposed for San Diego, as described in "Enviros, Property-Rights Advocates Fight Land Use Proposal" elsewhere in this issue.]

Opening Our Eyes To The Menace of Sprawl

by Richard Moe

It's a disturbing but all-too-common malady: selective blindness. Millions of us are afflicted with it. Its primary symptom is an ability to avoid seeing the mess we've made of the American landscape -- or, in less advanced cases, to acknowledge it with an offhand remark like, "Boy, this place has really grown. I hardly recognize it anymore." The malady even prevents us from recognizing what a chilling phrase that is: "I hardly recognize it anymore."

Local governments subsidize sprawl by providing -- at public expense -- the infrastructure that sprawl demands
Selective blindness results from prolonged contact with sprawl, the low-density development that spreads out from cities and towns. Most of us have shrugged off sprawl as "the price of progress." But development that destroys communities isn't progress, it's chaos. Sprawl drains the economic life from existing communities, and there is a growing body of evidence that the destruction of traditional downtowns and older neighborhoods -- places that people care about -- is corroding the very sense of community that helps bind us together as a people and as a nation.

For a chilling picture of sprawl's destructive power, consider a quick comparison between Los Angeles and California's Central Valley. Forty-five years ago, Los Angeles County was the top-producing agricultural county in the entire United States. Today that title is held by Fresno County. In the span of a single generation, Los Angeles County has been transformed from agricultural wonderland to sprawling megalopolis. If current trends continue, we'll be saying the same thing about Fresno County 45 years from now.

Here are the sobering facts: According to a recent study by the American Farmland Trust, crops produced in eleven counties in the Valley had a market value of $13.3 billion in 1994. But sprawl is consuming an estimated 15,000 acres of Valley farmland every year, and this loss is expected to accelerate in the future. In 45 years, the study estimates that sprawl will affect more than 3.6 million acres and reduce the value of agricultural products grown in the Valley by about $2.1 billion annually.

This is madness, and it's time to call a halt to it. We can begin by doing a couple of fairly simple things. First, we can level the playing field. People who insist that sprawl is merely the natural result of market forces overlook (selective blindness again?) the fact that state and local governments subsidize sprawl by offering financial assistance to sprawl-type projects or by providing -- at public expense -- the infrastructure that sprawl demands.

In Oregon, for example, the cost of providing public facilities and services for new residential subdivisions can average $25,000 per home, but developers are typically asked to pay only a fraction -- $2,000 to $6,000 -- of these costs. And here in California, the redevelopment agency in one town bought land for $10.7 million and sold it to a developer for the bargain price of $6.4 million. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that these subsidies ultimately shift the costs of sprawl from the developer's pocket to someone else's -- yours and mine.

Concentration of development inside the UGB has made mass transit feasible and stimulated reuse of existing buildings downtown
In place of these programs and practices that encourage sprawl, we need land-use planning policies and laws that exhibit a strong bias in favor of existing communities. Sprawl isn't just ugly, it's wasteful: It leads to the underutilization or abandonment of existing urban and suburban areas in which we've already made substantial investments of public funds. It's just a matter of common sense to redirect growth and development to these areas that we've neglected so callously in recent decades. We're conscientious about recycling everything from newspapers to aluminum, but we're not very good at recycling communities.

To help communities grow wisely, a number of states have recognized the need for some form of statewide land-use planning mechanism. Perhaps the best such program in the country is working in Oregon, where legislation adopted in 1973 requires every community to draw an urban growth boundary (UGB) around the land it needs to accommodate growth during the next 20 years, and then to concentrate development inside it.

A 1991 study showed that Portland's UGB had expanded by only 2 percent in the preceding 17 years -- but had contained 95 percent of the area's residential growth. Knowing that it will not be called on to provide expensive public services and infrastructure to newly-developed areas farther and farther from the urban core, the city can focus on improving the quality of life for residents.

Concentration of development inside the UGB has made mass transit feasible and stimulated reuse of existing buildings downtown. The Wall Street Journal recently noted that "the number of downtown jobs [in Portland] has doubled since 1975 without the city adding a single parking space, widening roads or building new ones."

The same sort of thing can happen here. But it won't happen until the state develops and implements growth-management legislation with teeth in it, legislation that requires local governments to develop rational strategies for using already-developed land more efficiently, to make thoughtful choices about where new development should and should not go, and to set up regulatory mechanisms that are fair, clear, consistent and farsighted. In this state that has led the nation in so many ways, now is the time to demonstrate leadership again by establishing a growth-management program that makes sense -- and makes a real difference in the way Californians live in the present while growing wisely for the future.

The promise of a good life in a pleasant environment is what drew settlers to California in the first place. Keeping that promise alive means realizing that communities should be shaped by choice, not chance. We can keep on accepting the kind of communities we get, or we can take steps to get the kind of communities we want. Failing to make the right choice means that the next generation will have to face an even more advanced strain of the selective blindness that plagues us today.


Richard Moe is president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

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Albion Monitor April 25, 1997 (

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