Five new highway bypasses around traffic-clogged Maryland towns, a new University of Maryland campus outside another town, and a new police crime lab for a fast-growing rural county. Until recently, all of these would have been built as planned, proof of progress in a booming economy. Instead, in the last year or so the bypasses were cancelled or downscaled, the campus was shifted from rural outskirts to vacant downtown buildings, and the crime lab remained in its old Baltimore suburb–proof of Maryland Governor Parris N. Glendening's seriousness about "smart growth."
Glendening and Maryland are national leaders in the movement to grow smarter by redirecting development into existing cities and towns, or into adjacent areas planned for more compact growth. But they are rapidly getting plenty of company. More than 30 states are now seriously promoting variants of "smart growth," a term that wasn't coined until 1995. A federal survey in 1996 found about 100 news stories on the subject. By 1999, there were more than 3,000 such stories, says Harriett Tregoning. Tregoning, who coordinated smart-growth efforts nationally for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and recently became Maryland's Secretary of Planning, says, "There is not a single state that can rest on its laurels, but so many are doing so many good things."
"Nationally, on a scale of one to ten, we're at two to three in terms of smarter growth, and the next ten years will see a tremendous expansion," says Joel Hirschhorn, author of Growing Pains, a report of the National Governors' Association that details the smart-growth efforts of 25 governors. The NGA has made smart growth its top priority. Hirschhorn and others say that the same powerful forces are driving states nationwide to rethink growth. These include the negative economic and environmental consequences of unplanned development; the near- impossibility of revitalizing cities and older suburbs without regaining people who have been sprawling outward; and changing demographics leading to a pent-up demand for alternatives to the single-family home on a large lot. At the same time, experts agree there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and that the states currently are testing a whole assortment of innovative approaches to managing growth.
Maryland and New Jersey Lead the Way
New Jersey's and Maryland's smart-growth programs are among the nation's more comprehensive. Both states seek aggressively to protect open space from development, while making it easier to develop around existing cities and towns. Both steps are critical, says the NGA report, since "rapid suburbanization and urban decay are mirror images of the same phenomenon." Take Baltimore, a city that has lost 350,000 people since 1950. Revitalized, it could handle more than a third of the one million new Marylanders expected by 2025. By contrast, if current sprawl trends continue, development in central Maryland will consume more open space in the next 25 years than in the past 250 years.
Maryland has required each of its 23 counties to draw boundaries around existing population centers as "priority funding areas." Counties can still develop anywhere they want, says John Frece, a smart-growth specialist for Governor Glendening; but growth outside the priority areas won't get much help for schools, highways, and other infrastructure from the state's $16 billion budget.
Under the leadership of Governor Christine Todd Whitman, New Jersey voters have passed a bond issue to preserve a million acres of open space–half of all that remains undeveloped. Whitman has also led the charge for "smart codes," ordinances that help put urban redevelopment on a more competitive footing with new building on farms and forests. A simple example she often cites: rewriting regulations that required flat floors and plumb doorways to meet state "livability" standards. Perfectly sound older buildings could not meet such tests.
New Jersey also is proposing to link water quality and quantity to land use, in what TPL's Senior Vice President and Green Cities Initiative Director Kathy Blaha calls "a next step" in promoting smart growth. Any new development that causes unplanned proliferation of sewers or septic tanks would require an environmental impact statement.
Air pollution and "quality of life" concerns are driving a radical smart-growth effort in Georgia, with business leading the charge. Metropolitan Atlanta virtually doubled in size between 1990 and 1996. The resulting traffic congestion and smog triggered an EPA moratorium forbidding the state to spend any of its $583 million a year in federal transportation funds to increase road capacity. An additional "wake-up call" for Atlanta, Tregoning says, came when Hewlett-Packard put on hold a planned 20-story office building with some 1,700 employees. The company said that deteriorating quality of life in the region was making it hard to attract the type of high-tech employees it needed. "Everybody wants to be part of the 'new economy,'" Tregoning says, "but these high-tech employees can work from anywhere, so quality of life is becoming a huge competitive issue."
Backed by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Governor Roy Barnes last year got the state legislature to create a new regional unit of government with veto power over land use and transportation decisions in Atlanta and 13 surrounding counties. Barnes and the legislature followed that this year with a community green spaces program that will provide $30 million a year to fast-growing counties that agree to plan for preserving 20 percent of their land in open space. TPL is working to help counties qualify for the funding. Next year the state plans to begin tying growth to water quality and to conserving drinking water, says Joseph Young, legislative counsel for Governor Barnes. "Quality of life is driving it all," he says.
For some states, like Pennsylvania, more modest steps toward smarter growth nonetheless represent major achievements. In Pennsylvania, land use authority has long been the province of 1,500 townships, 56 cities and towns, and 964 boroughs. Worse, each jurisdiction has been required by law to provide the full suite of zoning choices, from open space to industrial. This has amounted to a perfect divide-and-conquer scenario for developers. Since 1950 the state has lost 4 million acres of farmland and continues to have one of the nation's highest rates of land consumption per capita, despite its low rate of population growth.
But by huge margins, Pennsylvania's legislature this year passed bills to let local jurisdictions enter into regional agreements for land use and transportation planning. The state can give priority funding to such regions. "It's a modest solution but a good start, we think; it gives all the authority needed for smarter growth," says Joanne Denworth, director of the nonprofit land use group 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania. To work most effectively, says Tregoning, smart growth needs to occur at regional or state levels. "Where it's just one town or county, it can push growth into the next place, which is unprepared for it," she says.
States Set the Tone for Smart Growth
A number of new approaches to smarter growth are occurring regionally within states. In northeastern Ohio, which includes Cleveland and seven surrounding counties, "there is a new attitude to land use, almost a new social movement–the reaction to 50 years of automobile-centric development," says David Beach, director of the nonprofit group EcoCity Cleveland. The region, he says, has lost population but still experienced large losses of open space as people spread out from old cities and suburbs.
The issue has taken on moral dimensions. The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland has fostered a major educational effort about the "social justice" aspects of sprawl and issued a set of ethical principles for land use. Beach says the region also has given birth to a First Suburbs Consortium, a coalition of older suburbs now experiencing many of the same ills as the inner city as people sprawl ever outward. Several jurisdictions have combined to fight the increasing diversion of state funds to pay for new roads, schools, and other services in newer, outlying suburbs. "It is an amazing development for an area with highly fragmented politics," Beach says.
Utah, a conservative state with no love for top-down authority from federal or state government, has developed what many see as the country's most ambitious experiment in a grassroots approach to smart growth. Envision Utah is an effort to promote "quality growth" among ten counties and 89 cities and towns in the greater Salt Lake City area. That region expects to grow from 1.7 million to 5 million by 2050. A report assessed the costs of supporting such growth at $37 billion under current sprawl trends, as opposed to $22 billion under smart growth.
Twenty-four local governments are supporting Envision Utah with money, says D. J. Baxter, until recently the project manager for the effort. More than 18,000 responses from the public, following months of local meetings, helped shape a growth strategy to improve air quality, relieve traffic congestion, conserve water and open space, and increase housing choices, Baxter says. Envision Utah is now creating model planning ordinances and other tools for jurisdictions that can't afford to develop their own tools, and is also backing three demonstration projects around the state that illustrate more compact development. "Models of smart growth are tough to find, and it's important to show people what it can be like," Baxter notes.
"The seeds of smart-growth programs are being sown all around the country," declares Maryland's Harriet Tregoning. A quick survey bears out her claim:
In New Mexico, a coalition of environmentalists, faith groups, ranchers, and businessmen are hoping to curb sprawl by promoting redevelopment in down-town Albuquerque, where no building permits were issued for a decade.
California's state treasurer has made the costs of sprawl development an issue, arguing that the state must reform its pattern of investment to favor more compact, fiscally prudent growth. Delaware, Rhode Island, and Illinois, along with governors from Maine's Independent Angus King to the Reform Party's Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, are embracing these concepts, with major programs already in place to protect open space.
In Florida, Governor Jeb Bush is backing Front Porch Florida, selecting twenty communities by 2002 to develop neighborhood revitalization plans.
"A lot of places are getting religion, but you can't say of anywhere that here's a model that's working, that's changing the world," says Hooper Brooks of the private Surdna Foundation in New York. Brooks has surveyed the smart-growth scene with an eye to where the foundation could invest some of the $8 million annually it gives. "It may be that we have to go through a decade of what may seem like small stuff at the local and regional level until we work out solutions that each place is comfortable with," he says. One key strategy that needs to be developed, he thinks, is "types of real estate financing that don't demand cookie-cutter subdivisions and five-year, fast returns on investment."
Lessons for the Future
The future of smart-growth programs is difficult to predict. Aside from open space preservation, programs are mostly voluntary, based on education, incentives, and the willingness of individual political leaders, like Maryland's Glendening, to wield state budgetary discretion. Even in leading states like Maryland, rural and suburban counties, backed by home builders and realtors, usually oppose smart-growth measures as threats to their traditional land use authority.
Most observers of the smart-growth movement think the days of managing growth mainly by regulation is past–all attempts to do it that way in relatively liberal Maryland failed. So it is ironic that Oregon, the one state universally acknowledged to have a successful smart-growth program, has done it largely by regulation and done it now for 27 years. Metropolitan Portland and every Oregon city have a legal urban growth boundary that keeps development out of the surrounding countryside. "You know when you have left town," is the way visitors often contrast Portland with other American cities. But Oregon's achievement is much more comprehensive, says Robert Liberty, director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, one of the country's original land-use watchdog groups. Similar citizens groups now exist in some 35 states to hold governments' feet to the fire on growth issues.
Oregon also has zoned some 40,000 square miles of farmland and forest to virtually preclude development. The smallest lot sizes allowed in that vast area range from 40 to 160 acres "but are not an entitlement for anyone to have a house, even at that lot size," Liberty notes. A farmer, for example, must prove a minimum gross income of $80,000 a year to build in the agricultural zone. (Even this is "too low a standard," 1000 Friends says.) Most important and a key to successful smart growth anywhere, Liberty maintains, is "the fairness zoning often lacks." Each urban growth zone in Oregon is required to zone for the full range of housing, from mobile homes to upscale dwellings. "This is deregulation of lower-cost housing types, and it is a very great achievement that gets overlooked in all the talk about limiting growth," he says.
Home builders critical of smart growth often point to Oregon as having created skyrocketing housing prices. The Portland area, where about 45 percent of Oregonians live, did have a run-up in average home prices from $89,000 to $161,000 since 1989, but that was "catching up to the rest of the West Coast and has been flat since 1996," Liberty says.
"We're not Nirvana here, or feeling smug and self-satisfied," says Liberty. "Parts of Oregon look as bad as the worst of anywhere. But don't say 'we're not Oregon' or 'we could never do things that way here!' Instead, ask what you need to do to have a state you can be proud of."
Urban Parks and Smart Growth
Studies show that people and businesses rate "environment" and "quality of life" among the most important factors in choosing where to locate. At the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting in June, the growing demand for parks and open space was cited as one of the biggest challenges for urban leaders today. Yet until now, little information has been gathered on parks in our cities–how much urban parkland exists, how much cities spend on parks and recreation, and what makes park systems successful. Inside City Parks, a new study published by TPL and the Urban Land Institute compiles comprehensive statistics on parks and recreation in the nation's 25 largest cities–a critical first step toward developing meaningful standards for city parks. In addition to providing this baseline data, the study presents the wide variety of approaches cities are taking toward meeting the parks needs of their people–from seeking innovative funding partnerships, to converting brownfields to parks, to assembling greenways and trails networks. "This report helps us understand what makes a city park system successful, and it offers models for new park programs to cities across the country," says Peter Harnik, author of the report. "Parks contribute greatly to the quality of life and economic health of our cities," says TPL President Will Rogers. "Keeping cities vital and attractive places to live is critical to curbing sprawl and making smarter growth a reality." To order Inside City Parks ($40.95) call the Urban Land Institute (800) 321-5011 or visit www.uli.org. To learn more about the report, visit TPL's website www.tpl.org.
Land Conservation as a Smart Growth Strategy
While states continue to wrestle with the complexities of comprehensive smart growth, one key component–land conservation–has advanced dramatically. Since 1998, voters and legislatures around the nation have approved at least $10 billion to preserve open space from sprawl. Among the more notable new efforts:
Maryland's Rural Legacy Program has spent around $100 million in the last three years to preserve nearly 50,000 acres, about 1 percent of the state. With money from a combination of bonds and the state's real-estate transfer tax, Rural Legacy aims to preserve 200,000 acres over 15 years. It targets acquisitions to complement other smart-growth efforts to contain growth in and around existing population centers.
New Jersey voters in 1998 approved an ambitious $1 billion plan to preserve one million acres of open space. With 70 percent approving, voters amended the state's constitution to dedicate $98 million annually for ten years to provide a stable source of funding for the acquisition and preservation of open space, farmland, and historic sites around the state. With the additional million acres, New Jersey will have protected roughly 20 percent of its total acreage. New York has allocated $83 million in the state's 2000 budget to open space preservation, community redevelopment, and brownfields restoration. In addition, Governor George Pataki has appointed a Quality Communities Task Force. The task force will inventory state and federal programs that affect local growth, conduct regional public forums, evaluate local government capacity to manage growth, and issue recommendations for redeveloping urban centers, protecting natural resources, and preserving open space.
Florida, one of the fastest growing states, last year passed Florida Forever, legislation designed to raise $3 billion over the next ten years for land conservation. As in Maryland, the program is partially funded by revenues from real-estate transfer taxes, which has the effect of generating more money as development pressure and real-estate transactions increase.
In Pennsylvania, the legislature and Governor Tom Ridge this year passed Growing Greener, a $625 million bond to be used over the next five years for a variety of conservation efforts, including the purchase of development rights from farmers. This type of agricultural preservation is gaining acceptance around the nation. Farmers are paid the difference between the development and farm value of their land. They still own the land and can sell it or pass it on to heirs, but it cannot be developed.
California in March passed two bond measures aimed at land preservation–a massive $4 billion program that targets the protection of parks, farmland, forest land, and watersheds. In addition, Governor Gray Davis has dedicated $88 million for a Los Angeles River Parkway providing new parks to residents of some of the state's most densely populated cities.
In Ohio, a $400 million bond issue is on the ballot this fall to provide $400 million over four years, backed by money reallocated from a liquor sales tax. The money would go for preserving green spaces and helping redevelop brownfields.
"We're very excited about what's happening," says Andy McLeod, TPL's director of State Government Finance, part of TPL's Public Finance Program created in 1994 to help governments develop big, ongoing sources of money for land conservation.
Two upcoming developments should give such programs an even bigger boost. The National Governors' Association will convene a conference next year on land conservation. And Congress is expected soon to vote on the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), which would send billions in offshore oil and gas lease money to states for land conservation.
For more information about TPL's Public Finance Program, visit www.tpl.org.
Land & People, Fall, 2000
Tom Horton is an environmental columnist for the Baltimore Sun and the author of five books on the Chesapeake Bay.
More information on using land conservation as a smart-growth strategy can be found in the Greenprint section of www.tpl.org.