Donella Meadows Archives

So What Can We Do – Really Do – About Sprawl?

by Donella Meadows

— March 11, 1999 —

In my mind St. Louis is the poster city for sprawl.  It has a glittering, high-rise center where fashionable people work, shop and party.  Surrounding the center are blocks and blocks of empty lots, abandoned buildings, dying stores, a sad wasteland through which the fashionable people speed on wide highways to the suburbs.  In the suburbs the subdivisions and shopping centers expand rapidly outward onto the world’s best farmland.

When I imagine the opposite of sprawl, I think of Oslo, Norway.  Oslo rises halfway up the hills at the end of a fjord and then abruptly stops.  What stops it is a huge public park, in which no private entity is allowed to build anything.  The park is full of trails, lakes, playgrounds, picnic tables, and scattered huts where you can stop for a hot drink in winter or cold drink in summer.  Tram lines radiate from the city to the park edges, so you can ride to the end of a line, ski or hike in a loop to the end of another line and ride home.

That is a no-nonsense urban growth boundary.  It forces development inward.  There are no derelict blocks in Oslo.  Space no longer useful for one purpose is snapped up for another.  Urban renewal goes on constantly everywhere.  There are few cars, because there’s hardly any place to park and anyway most streets in the shopping district are pedestrian zones.  Trams are cheap and frequent and go everywhere.  The city is quiet, clean, friendly, attractive and economically thriving.

How could we make our cities more like Oslo and less like land-gulping, energy-intensive, half-empty St. Louis?  There is a long list of things we could do.  Eben Fodor, in his new book “Better Not Bigger” (the most useful piece of writing on sprawl control I’ve seen) organizes them under two categories: taking the foot off the accelerator and applying the brake.

The accelerator part comes from widespread public subsidies to sprawl.  Fodor lists ten of them, which include:

– Free or subsidized roads, sewer systems, water systems, schools, etc.  (Instead charge development impact fees high enough to be sure the taxes of present residents don’t go up to provide public services for new residents.)

– Tax breaks, grants, free consulting services, and other handouts to attract new businesses.  (There’s almost never a good reason for the public to subsidize a private business, especially not in a way that allows it to undercut existing businesses.)

– Waiving environmental or land-use regulations.  (Make the standards strong enough to protect everyone’s air, water, views and safety and enforce those standards firmly and evenly.)

– Federally funded road projects.  (The Feds pay the money, but the community puts up with the sprawl.  And where do you think the Feds get the money?)

Urban growth accelerators make current residents pay (in higher taxes, lower services, more noise and pollution and traffic jams) for new development.  There is no legal or moral reason why they should do that.  Easing up on the accelerator should at least guarantee that growth pays its own way.

Applying the brake means setting absolute limits.  There are some illegal reasons for wanting to do this: to protect special privilege, to keep out particular kinds of persons; to take private property for public purpose without fair compensation.  There are also legal reasons: to protect watersheds or aquifers or farmland or open space, to force growth into places where public services can be efficiently delivered, to slow growth to a rate at which the community can absorb it, to stop growth before land, water, or other resources fail.

Fodor tells the stories of several communities that have limited their growth and lists many techniques they have used to do so.  They include:

– Growth boundaries and green belts like the one around Oslo.

– Agricultural zoning.  Given the world food situation, not another square inch of prime soil should be built upon anywhere.

– Infrastructure spending restrictions.  Why should a Wal-Mart that sucks in traffic force the public to widen the road?  Let Wal-Mart do it, or let the narrow road limit the traffic.

– Downzoning.  Usually met with screams of protest from people whose land values are reduced, though we never hear objections when upzoning increases land values.

– Comprehensive public review of all aspects of a new development, such as required by Vermont’s Act 250.

– Public purchase of development rights.

– Growth moratoria, growth rate limits, or absolute caps on municipal size, set by real resource limitations.

Boulder, Colorado, may be the American town that has most applied growth controls, prompted by a sober look at the “build-out” implications of the city’s zoning plan.  Boulder voters approved a local sales tax used to acquire greenways around the city.  A building height limitation protects mountain views.  Building permits are limited in number, many can be used only in the city center, and 75 percent of new housing permits must be allocated to affordable housing.  Commercial and industrial land was downzoned with the realization that if jobs grow faster than housing, commuters from other towns will overload roads and parking facilities.

All that and more is possible in any city.  But controlling growth means more than fiddling at the margins, “accommodating” growth, “managing” growth.  It means questioning myths about growth, realizing that growth can bring more costs than benefits.  That kind of growth makes us poorer, not richer.  It shouldn’t be celebrated or welcomed or subsidized or managed or accommodated; it should be stopped.


Copyright Sustainability Institute 1999



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