Can We Grow Smarter?—Land&People

Commuter traffic throngs the highways into Austin as you walk to a conference that will examine whether there are potentially better ways for America to grow and develop. The fast-growing Texas capital shows the same strains of growth now felt across the country–leapfrog sprawl development consuming the rural landscape as downtowns and older communities struggle; traffic congestion that worsens by the month and threatens to erode hard-won air quality standards.

But Austin also exemplifies many solutions discussed at last December's national conference on "smart growth"–a concept that development and environmental interests alike call our best bet to preserve the countryside while revitalizing towns and cities. More than the traffic, it is Austin's striking vistas of urban green space that draw the eye as you cross the Colorado River en route from hotel to convention center. Broad,green parkland, beautifully landscaped, stretches along both river shores to form a 10-mile pedestrian-bicycle loop. Joggers are already out as early sunlight filters through mist rising off the river.

Fortune magazine ran a photograph of this riverfront green corridor on its cover last October, when it named Austin the number-one city in the country in which to do business. "The selection was based in part on our expanding high-tech industry, but other major elements were our quality of life, our livability," says Ted Siff, director of the Trust for Public Land's Texas Field Office in Austin. "Our urban natural beauty–this is what all the experts tell us is attracting business folks," says Beverly Griffith, an Austin city councilmember.

Austin has ambitious plans to maintain and enhance this quality of life even as it booms economically. One key to those plans is a greenway master plan and "vision map" begun by TPL in 1993. The greenway plan formed the basis for $41 million in bonds approved by Austin voters last November. TPL, under an agreement with the city, will acquire some 4,000 acres to create four new regional parks and almost 40 miles of creekside greenways.

And most of this will be in the very areas where the city plans some of its densest future development. Such melding of open space with dense urban development is one reason why Austin was chosen as the site of last December's second annual Partners for Smart Growth conference, co-hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

Planning for livable communities

The concept of "smart growth," embraced by Austin Mayor Kirk Watson and governors of more than a dozen states, holds that growth must be accommodated but that current patterns of sprawl development are ruinous environmentally, fiscally, and socially. Part of the answer–a part where TPL is already playing a vital role–is to make existing communities attractive and livable enough to steer growth away from the countryside. "These days we refer to urban open space as 'green infrastructure,'" Siff notes. The implication is clear: green space is as basic to communities as roads, sewers, and utilities–the traditional infrastructure underpinning development.

The second key element in Austin's growth plans has been to identify clearly both "desired development zones" and lands it wants to protect. A $65 million bond issue was passed in May 1998 so the city could begin acquiring 15,000 acres of open space for water quality protection. The city has signaled in advance that it does not plan to extend infrastructure into this zone.

Finally, the city has worked to ensure that existing neighborhoods, including those with lower-income housing, will have full access to the system of parks and greenways. "Essentially, people here have come to an agreement that 'the three Es'–economy, environment, and social equity–are all necessary to make a livable community," Siff says.

As Mayor Kirk Watson told the smart growth conference, all this is bringing an end to "jump-ball politics, where you have the fight of the week, with developers and opponents seeing which side gets the tip, and if one side stops the other, that's considered victory. Now we have a community vision…agreeing on development zones and protection zones, and we have passed a total of 15 ballot measures to make these work–everything from land acquisition money to financial incentives for downtown redevelopment."

Austin's fledgling smart-growth plans are a microcosm of programs being tried around the country to find an alternative to sprawl while still encouraging development.

A concept catches fire

As remarkable as anything on the three-day agenda at the Austin smart growth conference was the diversity of interests it attracted. Even the co-hosts have different constituencies: the EPA is concerned with sprawl development's impacts on environmental quality, and about half of ULI's 15,000 members are developers.

More than 1,100 people attended, up from 800 at the first conference in Baltimore in 1997. Everyone from the Sierra Club to the National Association of Homebuilders made presentations and hobnobbed in the halls. "To pull all these interests together is clever almost beyond redemption," Texas writer and commentator Molly Ivins told the conference. "It's an issue [smart growth] that is catching fire everywhere," said Michael Pawlukiewicz of ULI.

Indeed, last November, 19 states voted on more than 200 initiatives to protect open spaces from sprawl development, passing 70 percent of them to the tune of about $7 billion. And in January the Clinton administration unveiled an antisprawl agenda that includes allowing communities to float $9.5 billion in "Better America Bonds" for open space, watershed protection, and reclamation of polluted, abandoned lands–so-called "brownfields"–for economic revival. In addition, Congress is considering initiatives to control sprawl, ranging from increasing spending from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to new funding for state and local parks.

Pawlukiewicz lists several factors that have converged to form a critical mass of support for smart growth. For one thing, states are realizing they cannot build their way out of their traffic problems. (A new transportation plan for the Baltimore region shows that if all roads proposed for the next 20 years are funded, congestion will still worsen by 40 percent.) Residents of older suburbs are seeing the green spaces that attracted them increasingly paved over.

In addition, developers are sensing potential opportunities and profits in urban redevelopment, catering to a population in which traditional families with kids have declined from 40 percent of households to 26 percent in recent decades.

Perhaps most important, Pawlukiewicz says, "is that while Washington has spent the last several years descending into partisanship, more and more partnerships for smart growth have been emerging at the grassroots level. The Austin meeting was a national conference that said: 'Now go home and do it your own way.'"

Two emerging "smart growth" states represented in Austin–both places where TPL is active–are New Jersey and Maryland. New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman, governor of the country's most densely populated state, was the conference's keynote speaker. Alluding to the old "space race" with the Soviet Union, Whitman noted that December marked the 30th anniversary of Apollo 8, whose striking pictures of earth from space gave us a new appreciation for the fragility and finiteness of our planet. Today, she said, we are in an equally critical "space race," except that today's enemy is fiscally inefficient sprawl, and the "space" is our remaining open land. New Jersey voters had just approved in November, by a two-to-one margin, a billion-dollar bond issue championed by Whitman to preserve a million acres of farms and other open space–half of the remaining developable land in New Jersey–during the next 30 years.

Maryland looks to its future

Representatives from fast-growing Maryland, the nation's fifth most densely populated state, showed starkly what it would mean to continue at the current pace of sprawl development there. A million new residents will add 20 percent to the state's population in 30 more years–and could virtually double the amount of open space developed in the last four centuries.

Maryland's concerns go to more than the environmental impacts of consuming so much open space. Governor Parris N. Glendening, a leading smart-growth proponent, has declared that the state "will go bankrupt building the roads, schools, and other facilities needed to accommodate the kind of sprawling suburban growth of the last few decades." In a 20-year period, for example, one suburban Maryland county closed 60 schools and built 60 new ones, at a cost of $500 million–largely to accommodate a sprawling population.

To complement its antisprawl legislation, Maryland passed a Rural Legacy bond issue that makes open space and farmland preservation money available to counties that show they are following smart-growth strategies. To date, the state has handed out about $38 million to preserve 19,000 acres. The goal is 200,000 acres in 15 years.

"For development outside [planned growth] areas, we are saying, 'Sorry, the state will not help out,'" Glendening emphasized in a recent speech. "If you build out there and tear up one more farm, then you pay for roads, water, and sewage; schools, parks, and other development. If you invest in existing communities, then you avoid those costs, and you will have access to tax credits, grants, low-interest loans, and other incentives."

Smart-Growth Strategies, State By State

Smart growth can embrace a wide range of strategies, from sweeping policies like Maryland's to small touches, like the public buses in Austin equipped with racks to encourage bike use. A boost to redeveloping old buildings in New Jersey came from simply changing building codes so as not to require that all floors be level, or doors all plumb.

But it all comes back to the land, and to convincing more people that living on less of it–building more densely–can be "livable and not just crowded," in the words of Randall Arendt, a landscape architect who spoke in Austin. Arendt added: "Density is key, but the key to selling density is livability, and you need green spaces to do that."

In New Jersey, a prime TPL focus has been fast-growing Ocean County. Sprawl development is a primary reason why many Ocean County residents moved there from New Jersey's urban areas, says John Klevins of TPL's New Jersey Field Office. "Open space is a quality-of-life issue that weighs heavily in relocation decisions."

TPL spent two years inventorying the natural resources of Ocean County, particularly the rich forest and wetlands habitat along Barnegat Bay. The result was the Century Plan–a study of remaining open space in the region that identified a roster of 100 prime sites for conservation covering 60,000 acres. In 1997, TPL helped county officials craft and build support for a natural lands trust fund that would use real-estate tax money to acquire green space.

"Ocean County has a large senior population that usually votes 'no' on more taxes–but for protecting open space they approved nearly $4 million a year," Klevins says. To date, TPL has acquired 5,800 acres in the Barnegat Bay watershed, including more than 1,000 contiguous shorefront acres and greenbelt parks. This not only preserves some of the region's choicest wildlife habitat but provides citizens with new waterfront access and recreational opportunities. Klevins sees the Ocean County Natural Lands Fund as an example of how local conservation strategies can tap state matching grants to dramatically leverage open space acquisitions.

In Maryland, TPL's Chesapeake Field Office has been working for six years in Baltimore, a city still losing people to the suburbs, to create a 14-mile hiking and biking greenway along the city's neglected Gwynns Falls stream. Eventually the Gwynns Falls Trail will connect more than 20 neighborhoods to parks and downtown destinations, and link the urban center and neighboring suburban counties in a 40-to-45 mile loop.

Debi Osborne, head of TPL's Chesapeake office, says rural areas can also "grow smarter" through strategic land conservation. She points to TPL's on-going acquisition work for a planned 20,000-acre federal wildlife refuge along both shores of Virginia's Rappahannock River, one of the Chesapeake's least spoiled tributaries.

A local-regional planning process conceived the refuge as a way to make ecotourism part of a sustainable rural economy for the villages of Virginia's Northern Neck, a scenic and historic peninsula stretching between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers. Congress has already appropriated $5 million to begin the refuge.

In the boom-growth state of Florida, TPL works closely with the Florida Communities Trust, which is funded from the state's $300-million-a-year Preservation 2000 program, concentrating on helping towns and cities provide parks and open space. Projects have ranged from restoring waterfronts to acquiring greenbelts.

TPL projects like the planned development of a greenway along a heavily urban five-mile stretch of the Miami River are "a way to encourage reinvestment and redevelopment…very definitely in line with smart-growth strategies," says Will Abberger, director of Florida programs for TPL's Southeastern Regional Office in Tallahassee.

Another kind of project, Mayor John Delaney's proposal to help encircle the sprawling city of Jacksonville with a greenbelt, "also fits smart growth–defining a boundary to growth," Abberger notes. Jacksonville has proposed $30 million in bonds for the project and is seeking a total of $300 million to complete it.

In North Carolina, TPL found "a showcase" to launch discussions of smart growth in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg area, where a population of 600,000 is fast heading toward a million. TPL secured $6 million from the state to buy a 1,100-acre forested tract in the Catawba River basin. Sprawl development otherwise would have occurred, threatening the area's drinking water reservoir–which currently is of high enough quality that it needs only minimal treatment.

"Now we're beginning to talk with all the jurisdictions in the metropolitan area about how drinking-water protection ties into smart growth," says Chrisanne Mitchell, who heads TPL's program in North Carolina. TPL is mapping the region with an eye to where development should be discouraged or encouraged, and where greenways could buffer lakes and streams. The region's first-ever smart growth conference is planned for this spring, "and a good sign is that the chairman of the Mecklenberg County Commission is heading it up," Mitchell says.

"Protecting green spaces may be one of the most cost-effective ways of preserving water quality," EPA administrator Carol Browner told the Austin conference, explaining her agency's interest in smart growth. But it goes well beyond that, Browner continued: "People are demanding community and neighborhoods, places they can grow into rather than grow out of.

"To change the old [sprawl] patterns will require a lot of partnerships," says Browner, "…creating new visions that get beyond the growth-versus-no-growth debate. It is not a matter of whether we grow, but how."

Land & People, Spring, 1999
Tom Horton is an environmental columnist for the Baltimore Sun and the author of five books on the Chesapeake Bay.