January 26, 2006

Suburban Sprawl an Irresistible Force in US

By Alan Elsner

WASHINGTON -- Across the United States, an unprecedented acceleration in suburban sprawl is prompting concerns about the environment, traffic, health and damage to rural communities, but opponents appear powerless to stop the process because of the economic development and profits it generates.

Sprawl, defined as the unplanned, uncontrolled expansion of urban areas beyond their fringes, has greatly accelerated over the past 25 years, spurred by low mortgage interest rates and aggressive developers.

According to the National Resources Inventory, about 34 million acres -- an area the size of Illinois -- were converted to developed uses between 1982 and 2001. Development in the 1990s averaged around 2.2. million acres a year, compared to 1.4 million

in the 1980s. By 2001, the total developed area in the lower 48 states was slightly more than 106 million acres.

In other words, around one-third of that total was paved over in the final two decades of the 20th century.

"In the realm of local government, growth is one of the most controversial issues, and we see no-growth or slow-growth groups becoming more sophisticated and powerful over time," said Richard Hall of the Maryland Department of Planning.

However, he said opposition tended to fade during economic downturns, when people became less concerned about the environment. Even when opponents succeeded in blocking a specific development, the net effect was often merely to move it to somewhere else.

"Some politicians have tried to do something but they have rarely succeeded in stemming the tide. Developers and realtors have developed a powerful political lobby," said Joel Hirschhorn, a former director of environment, energy and natural resources at the National Governors Association and author of "Sprawl Kills -- Better Living in Healthy Places."


"Smart growth" or "slow growth" advocates usually argue that development should be concentrated in existing urban or suburban areas instead of in new suburbs. Many states and counties have tried to protect open space by buying land and through zoning and other regulations.

Others try to provide incentives for farmers and foresters to remain on their land. None of these has had any measurable effect in slowing sprawl.

For Maryland Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, a moment of truth came when he was flying over the Atlantic coastline close to his own congressional district and he saw in the distance what looked like a massive cemetery.

Gilchrest, a Republican who represents an area of northern Maryland alongside the Chesapeake Bay, looked closer and realized he was viewing a huge new suburban development that had sprung up seemingly overnight.

"I'm afraid our heritage is being arbitrarily and summarily discarded without the slightest thought of what we are losing." Gilchrest said in an interview.

In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which comprises parts of seven northeastern states, some 128,000 acres of natural land are converted into suburbs every year and the rate more than doubled in the 1990s. The number of houses has expanded at more than twice the rate of population growth.

For centuries, Gilchrest said, his community survived through agriculture, forestry and harvesting the rich resources of the bay. But pollution is killing the bay; it no longer supports a sizeable oyster or crab industry. And farmland is fast being turned into clusters of vacation and retirement homes for residents of Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Opponents blame sprawl for a host of problems from traffic jams to bad air, polluted waterways, the destruction of traditional lifestyles and even asthma and obesity.

"Sprawl is killing people, some 300,000 premature deaths annually because of the sprawl sedentary lifestyle, and it is killing our natural environment, scenic vistas, biodiversity, rural towns and much more," said Hirschhorn.

But Robert Bruegmann, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor of architecture and urban planning, and author of "Sprawl: A Compact History" debunked many of these assertions.


"What we call sprawl is the process of a lot of people being able to acquire what only the wealthiest people used to be able to have -- a single family home on land with private transportation," he said, echoing the argument of developers that they were merely catering to what the market demanded.

According to Bruegmann, densely populated cities were much unhealthier and worse for the environment than suburbs.

"Agriculture is often worse for the environment that suburbs while cities did a terrible job of protecting water quality," he said.

Still, citizens in some states are responding to politicians' calls to slow or halt sprawl. Last year, Democrat Timothy Kaine won election as governor of Virginia partly by promising a solution to the state's crowded highways.

In his first speech to the state assembly this month, Kaine proposed giving local governments more power to slow growth. "We cannot allow uncoordinated development to overwhelm our roads and infrastructure," he said.

In response, home builders and real estate agents immediately sent 200 of their members to the state capital of Richmond to lobby state representatives and remind them of the dangers of halting development.

Though there is little polling information, a Gallup survey in March 2001 found that 69 percent of Americans were worried about sprawl and the loss of green spaces.

But the economic forces behind sprawl are powerful. "It's hard for a farmer to turn down $100,000 an acre from a developer when he's not making a tenth of that from agriculture," Gilchrest said.