Solving Sprawl: An Overview
Across America, communities are finding ways to ensure that the growth they get is the growth they want.
Sprawl -- the blighted landscape of cookie-cutter suburbs, strip malls, and far too many highways that has spread across so much of America -- is a hot topic. Most of us are all too familiar with its ills: endless driving and frequent traffic jams, aggravated pollution, fragmented communities and degraded rural and natural areas. And while these effects are plainly visible, sprawl also carries a large hidden price tag: It places fiscal burdens on cities and towns to extend services and infrastructure -- new telephone lines, sewers, police and fire service -- to outlying areas, even as their downtowns are drained of economic vitality.
More and more Americans -- city planners, environmentalists, community leaders and residents of urban, suburban and rural areas -- have come to realize that this brand of headlong, poorly planned development is not in the long-term interest of their communities. If you share these concerns, we have some good news to report. A new NRDC book, Solving Sprawl, details a heartening but previously untold story -- alternatives that beat back sprawl, save landscapes and make communities better places to live are increasingly visible all around us:
When Wal-Mart, the "big box" retailer that for many people symbolizes sprawl, set its sights on Vermont, a state renowned for its beautiful countryside, many observers thought it was a recipe for disaster. But in the small city of Rutland, the combination actually turned into a blueprint for success: The company and local officials found a creative way to site and design the store, putting it in an abandoned building adjacent to the city's downtown.
On the suburban fringes of Dallas, Texas, the city of Addison changed its destiny by creating a walkable, compact center that has attracted residents and businesses that otherwise would have simply added another ring of sprawl around Dallas. Today, Addison Circle -- built by developer Post Properties -- is a rich mix of homes, shops and offices, with attractive buildings close to pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, small community parks, and an elegant boulevard, all close to public transit.
- When small, fragile Pearl Lake, in Almira Township, Michigan, fell under the threat of development, citizens took action. They secured grants, raised money through bake sales and auctions, and worked with the state and a regional land conservancy to buy lakefront property back from the developer. Today, that property has been incorporated into a nearby state forest, where it will be permanently protected.
photo: Equity Office at Reston Town Center Smart growth beautifies our cities and towns ...
The battle against sprawl is not a battle against economic growth -- it's a fight for growth that's done right. As these examples suggest, "smart growth" that bolsters a community's economy and overall quality of life happens in real-world cities and towns all over the nation. All it takes is a commitment to figure out what your community values in its physical environment, where you'd like to go, and what development plans would reflect these values. At its root, smart growth is about process -- your town will need to wrestle with many issues related to balancing development with enhancing quality of life: Where should growth occur? How should it take place? Which places should be off-limits, and how should they be preserved? Above all, what does smart growth look like?
The sequel to Once There Were Greenfields, NRDC's acclaimed book on sprawl, Solving Sprawl collects 35 exemplary stories of smart growth across America. With tales ranging from Rutland's atypical Wal-Mart to Washington, D.C.'s MCI Arena, a sports facility that has helped revive a neglected neighborhood, the book showcases cities that are bringing people back downtown and promoting development where infrastructure already exists. It tells the stories of suburban towns that have cut traffic, reduced ugly strip development, and created a sense of place -- just as Irvington, New York, made excellent use of that abandoned factory, many other towns have resuscitated abandoned shopping malls, preserved historical sites, and worked greenbelts and other open spaces into their blueprints for the future. And by reducing development pressure on open space, smart growth in cities and suburbs works hand-in-glove with direct efforts to protect our farmlands, forests, and coastlines.
photo: Maguire-Reeder, Ltd./Courtesy of American Farmland Trust And it helps to conserve our landscapes.
The challenges these real-life projects respond to are as varied as the solutions they offer. But each example teaches the same lesson: smart growth is not only possible, but also ardently desired. The areas the book describes are rousing successes, attracting new residents, businesses, or recreational visitors -- and often, all three.
By telling the stories of these smart-growth successes, this book shows that sprawl is not inevitable. It demonstrates not only that it's possible to reclaim the future of our communities, but also that it's already being done. The vision of the townsfolk and local officials profiled in this book has made their communities more appealing places to live, work and play -- there's more than enough inspiration here to help you and your neighbors get your hometown on the right track, too.
To order Solving Sprawl, please visit Island Press.
Based on SOLVING SPRAWL: Models of Smart Growth in Communities Across America, a November 2001 book published by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
last revised 11/16/2001
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Kaid Benfield's Blog
Kaid Benfield writes about development, community and the environment on Switchboard.
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