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Alternatives to Subsidizing Edge Development: Strategies for Preserving Rural Landscapes
by Lynn Richards

Consider this: a family heads out for a berry picking adventure one summer weekend. On the way to the working farm, they marvel at the bucolic scene—rolling hills with acres of corn and soybean fields, the green pastures interspersed with barns and farm houses. As they turn a corner, the landscape suddenly changes. Town homes and large houses, seemingly indistinguishable from one another, abut the green corn fields. The separation between housing subdivisions and working farmlands is abrupt, as the backyards of the new developments stretch to the carefully tilled farm land.

This scene is being played over in rural landscapes throughout the United States. Farmland and rural open space is giving way to low-density housing developments. One of the most noticeable trends in the urban form has been the dramatic expansion in the geographic size of metropolitan areas. Virtually every urban area in the U.S. has expanded substantially in land area in recent decades. Between 1954 and 1997, urban land area has almost quadrupled, from 18.6 million acres to about 74 million acres in the contiguous 48 states.1 Moreover, from 1992 to 1997, the national rate of development more than doubled. During this five-year period, more land was developed (nearly 16 million acres)2 than the previous ten years (about 13 million acres). The newly developed land has come at the expense of forest land, pasture and range land, and crop land. A 1994 study by the American Farmland Trust showed that urban development already has consumed nearly one-third of the country's most highly productive farming regions.3

Direct environmental impacts of current development patterns include habitat loss and fragmentation and degradation of water resources. Building on undeveloped land destroys and fragments habitat and thus displaces or eliminates wildlife communities (see box). The construction of impervious surfaces such as roads and rooftops leads to the degradation of water quality by increasing runoff volume, altering regular stream flow and watershed hydrology, reducing groundwater recharge, and increasing stream sedimentation. For example, a one-acre parking lot produces a runoff volume almost 16 times as large as the runoff volume of an undeveloped meadow.4 Remaining farms directly experience these types of environmental degradation.

What is behind this type of development? Many argue that low-density residential developments located at the edges of metropolitan areas are what people are demanding. The argument: it is simply the free market at work. For example, a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal stated, "[Sprawl] may not always be pretty, but at least it tends to reflect the freely made choices of real people, not the whims of government."5 Are sprawling developments really the result of the free market? If the underlying forces behind today's development patterns are examined, one discovers that sprawl, or low-density, dispersed development located in edge areas, is not solely the result of the market at work, but the product of minutely detailed zoning plans, governmental policies and regulations, and heavy taxpayer subsidies.6 These factors, coupled with rising incomes, technological change, and low travel costs, have served to create the nation's current landscape.

In response to the undesirable impacts of dispersed development, many communities are revisiting the subsidies, rigid zoning, and land use regulations that have fostered it. Some communities are developing growth management plans and regulations in order to better plan how growth occurs. Planning tools such as these have been a classic response to land market failures. However, rather than simply looking at planning alternatives, communities also need to look at some market-based approaches to their growth dilemma. By limiting certain subsidies and detailed zoning regulations, a balance of housing, transportation, commercial, and community choices can be built to meet the diverse needs of today's population. For example, by creating flexible zoning that allows mixed residential, retail, and employment developments, land can be used more efficiently, maximizing existing infrastructure and reducing overall costs of the development. By creating a framework that encourages a wide range of development types and patterns, development pressures in edge areas may be relieved and more rural landscapes preserved.

This article will: (1) examine the underlying regulations and subsidies behind today's current development patterns; and (2) describe how some communities and programs are finding economic success and more balanced development patterns by removing certain regulations and subsidies to create a marketplace for balanced growth.

Underlying Regulations and Subsidies That Drive Current Development Patterns

The Federal Role

One of the greatest assets of the United States has been its seemingly unlimited space. In the 1800s, the federal government established programs to give away land to settle parts of the West and newly acquired land. By the mid-1900s, the U.S. had vastly improved its industrial and manufacturing processes, needed to house soldiers returning from World War II, and found that the automobile had become the dominant and preferred mode of transport. The American Dream was symbolized by a home for every family, with a backyard and a car in the driveway. To support this new era, the federal government developed a series of policies, programs, and regulations that would define a new physical landscape for the U.S. In its desire to support the new American dream, the federal government's policies also carried some unintended consequences: downtown abandonment, the decline of Main Street commerce, increased traffic congestion, and a decline in public transit.

Photo by J. Clark, courtesy U.S.D.A.Take, for example, the Federal Housing Administration, which, in 1934, began protecting homeowners and home sellers against default by insuring long-term, low down payment mortgages. However, as a rule, FHA guaranteed home loans in only low-risk areas and FHA guidelines defined low-risk areas as areas that were thinly populated, dominated by newer homes.7 This policy fostered development in the metropolitan edge areas and created many first ring suburbs. This movement away from the urban core resulted in a decline of many downtowns. In addition, following World War II, Congress authorized billions of dollars of additional mortgage insurance for FHA and also adopted the Veterans Administration program to supplement housing assistance for the 16 million returning GIs.8 The VA program supported the concept of providing single-family detached homes outside central cities. These post-World War II policies further contributed to outward movement and the resulting decline of many cities' urban cores.

Government spending on highways created similar results. In order to move people to and from the newly created suburbs to downtown areas, roads were needed. In 1940, the federal government spent $2.7 billion on highways. In 1950, government spending reached $4.6 billion for new roads and virtually nothing for transit. President Eisenhower enacted the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, which was financed by a trust fund supported by revenue from federal gas taxes and these funds were available only for highways. In the end, the federal government was paying 90 percent of the cost for new roads.9 This increasing road infrastructure was meant to help American taxpayers move freely around metropolitan areas and between cities. The major focus on the highway system had dramatic effects on where people chose to live and work. By constructing roads in underdeveloped areas, these places became more accessible, and attracted new development. In the 1950s, no one could have envisioned that an unintended consequence of these subsidies was the traffic congestion experienced in most cities today.

More recent policies continue to impact the developing suburban landscape and consumption of rural land. The US Department of Transportation estimates that federal highway expenditures totaled $19.4 billion in 1994.10 The Office of Technical Assessment estimated that automobile drivers pay about 73 to 88 percent of the monetary costs of automobile use. The result of these subsidies is the over-provision of transportation infrastructure relative to what it would be if user fees existed to capture more or all of the direct costs of transportation infrastructure use. If non-monetary costs, such as air pollution, are included in the costs of auto use, then the costs paid by users decreases to 53 to 69 percent. These subsidies to auto users encourage longer commutes and more auto-dependent communities.11

The federal government's treatment of home ownership through the U.S. tax code has also indirectly supported low-density dispersed development. Home ownership is a goal actively promoted by the federal government since early in this century and is also often thought to be driven largely by supply and demand. Yet to enable greater home ownership, the federal government heavily subsidizes home buyers through the tax code—by federal income tax deductions of mortgage loan interest and property tax payments. These combined subsidies are worth approximately $65 billion annually.12 These tax breaks effectively lower the cost of owner-occupied housing and one effect of this is to encourage increased investment in housing because households buy larger houses and bigger lots than they otherwise would, thereby supporting low-density dispersed developments.13

The Local Role

Roads, sewers, parks, and schools provided by state and local governments influence private investment decisions. The billions of dollars of publicly funded street, highway, water, and sewer infrastructure already bias private real estate markets in favor of ex-urban development. For example, good water and sewer service are a prerequisite for development. Historically, the federal government has heavily subsidized the building of new water and sewer facilities with grant programs and revolving loan funds. For example, federal investments in wastewater systems from 1972 to 1990 totaled more than $60 billion.14 These funds were available primarily for building new infrastructure rather than for operation or maintenance of existing infrastructure.15 The combination of grants for new infrastructure and the lower maintenance costs in new systems encourages growth at the fringe.

However, there is a real financial impact to local governments when development on the fringe requires new, expanded services. In a report by the Office of Technology Assessment, one official of a large western city reported that it costs the city $10,000 more to provide infrastructure services to a house on the suburban fringe than one in the urban core.16 In addition, Myron Orfield, a member of Minnesota's House of Representatives, calculated that by 1992, the central cities of Minnesota were paying over $6 million annually to subsidize growth in edge areas. This was especially troubling to areas like Minneapolis, which had 22 percent existing sewer service that in 1990 remained undeveloped. Rather than directing growth to this area, between 1987 and 1991, the region provided new capacity to 28 square miles of land at the cost of $50 million per year.17 The capacity went primarily to serve expansion into affluent southwest suburbs. This kind of infrastructure spending within a jurisdiction subsidizes and encourages development at the fringe.

Local governments directly impact how and where development occurs through local zoning regulations, which determine the size, type, and density of housing that can be provided in specific areas. In addition, zoning frequently requires minimum setbacks, minimum densities, minimum lot sizes, separation of businesses from residential areas, two story height limits, and minimum parking requirements. Often these ordinances and regulations date back to the 1920s in order to prevent the construction of housing next to industrial uses.18 However, 80 years later, by regulating the details on where and how commercial and residential properties can be built, local governments are making it illegal to mix land uses, thereby making it illegal to construct compact and diverse areas. Furthermore, minimum lot or large house requirements limits choice for affordable housing. These types of land use regulations encourage low-density development and the strict separation of uses, which push developers into rural landscapes and necessitates the need for the automobile.

Ranch for Sale, photo by S. BuntinMunicipal fiscal concerns, driven by costs of serving different types of development, and the tax revenues generated by different types of development, create an intense local desire to obtain more retail, entertainment, and hotel development rather than housing. The revenues generated by the property tax on housing rarely cover the full costs of providing public services. Conversely, however, retail and service development generate sales tax that lands directly in the city's coffers because most state laws sends that money to the town where the sale takes place. This fosters a climate of bidding wars between jurisdictions, with an increasing array of tax breaks and incentives for incoming businesses.19 One town will underwrite a new mall with $30 million in giveaways, which can include undeveloped land, tax discounts, utility deals, road projects or even straight cash. Another town, in the same region, will then help its mall with incentives in order to remain competitive. The next town over does the same thing. Evidence shows that the location or relocation of this type of development and regional competition drives development at the edge. The malls require roads, which encourage more development. Cities spread out and merge together, often eradicating the farmland and rural landscapes that had previously separated them.

The Private Sector Role

The private sector also influences development patterns through average-cost pricing policies. Low-density, dispersed developments generally enjoy subsidized utility costs because utility pricing is based on average, rather than actual costs of providing services. Average cost pricing was established as a way to place rural residents on a level playing field with urban residents. Cable television, electric, phone, water, gas, and wastewater services all charge on average-cost basis. For example, a regional Bell telephone operating company provided a rough estimate that, compared to the monthly costs of serving customers in the central business district, it costs twice as much to serve households in the rest of the central city and ten times as much to serve households on the urban fringe.20 Because all customers pay average costs, residents in more urban, higher density areas subsidize those in edge areas. Linear utilities such as cable television, water and sewer, phone service, and even mail delivery fail to reflect the efficiencies associated with clustered development. In some cases, subsidizing rural residents is legitimate. For example, family farmers, like the Edgecombs, were the reason for developing average cost pricing in the early part of last century. However, with rural landscapes rapidly being converted to residential developments, such average-cost pricing subsidies fuels development and should be removed so that the new residents pay the full cost of rural living. If subsidies are necessary, they should be transparent and applied based on need instead of embedded into the pricing structure and applied equally.

But what about what consumers want? Regardless of regulations and subsidies, perhaps the majority of Americans want single-family, low-density developments. The market responds to supply and demand. However, consider that the 2000 Census found that only 24 percent, down from 40 percent in 1970, of the current U.S. population are two-parent families, arguably the largest market segment for dispersed development patterns.21 As the U.S. population diversifies, so will their housing preferences and choices. Market surveys indicate that consumers want a range of housing choices. Fannie Mae's 1999 National Housing Survey found that 25 percent said a townhouse or duplex would be "ideal," while just over half would accept a townhouse or duplex "with reservations."22 Thirty-seven percent told Fannie Mae they would accept a multi-family dwelling with more ten families. When surveys look at preferences for different communities, the picture becomes still more varied. Offered a choice between cities, suburbs, rural areas, and towns, respondents across surveys desire small towns and rural areas predominantly. Suburbs capture roughly a quarter of the responses. Other survey results have found the following:

  • When the market research and analysis firm American Lives asked Americans if they would prefer their single family house in a typical suburban setting (large lots, houses pulled back from the street, and large yards), or a traditional town setting exhibiting more urban characteristics (smaller lots, narrower streets, houses closer together), 73 percent preferred the traditional town setting, while 33 percent favored the suburban setting.23
  • When asked about the importance of having stores or shops within walking distance of home, respondents across surveys demonstrated a strong desire for these amenities (over 50 percent saying "very important" in a survey conducted by AARP).24
  • Finally, when asked about the character of the shopping they prefer, 86 percent American Lives' respondents favored a town center, while 23 percent desired strip shopping.25

Consumers' desires will change as demographics and values change. Currently, one-third of the home-buying market is over the age of 45.26 In surveys of this market segment, most people want to live in age-diverse communities. Three of their top four location priorities are based on easy transportation: access to shopping, access to family and friends, and access to medical care. In addition, as the baby boomers age, most will move to smaller houses with smaller yards to reduce cleanup and yard work.27 Mature buyers' preferences, in combination with the overall trends in the United States, will likely create a greater market for smaller houses on smaller lots.

This section outlined just some of the underlying regulations and subsidies that have promoted low-density, dispersed development in edge areas. Federal, state, and local governments, as well as the private sector, all play a role in directing development. Clearly, the development that our hypothetical berry-picking family saw that summer weekend is not wholly the result of consumer choice and the free market.

However, given regulations and subsidies for low-density, dispersed development, how can market forces be harnessed to encourage more balanced development patterns? The answer lies in fostering a marketplace that supports a variety of housing and retail types and designs and recognizes the economic efficiency of maximizing the use of existing infrastructure. State and local governments can create this climate through a combination of planning and free market responses as discussed in the following section.

Market-Based Approaches to Encourage More Balanced Development Patterns

Planning and zoning have been classic ways state and local governments address the imbalances within the marketplace—and are necessary tools to deal with externalities inherent in a completely unregulated land market. To tackle market imperfections and create a development climate that is more evenly market-driven, many local governments are revisiting regulations and subsidies to give infill, brownfield, and mixed-use developments equal footing with greenfield and suburban development. By removing some regulations and subsidies, state and local governments are harnessing market forces to support development that is smarter, more economically efficient, and preserves resources. This section will describe private sector projects and government actions, such as the New Jersey's rehabilitation and location-efficient mortgages, that are removing barriers to infill development, providing transparent subsidies, and preserving land. In each of these examples, the communities have recognized that by leveling the playing field, rather than using subsidies and regulations to promote one type of development over another, they can create places that are diverse, provide a range of housing and transportation choices, and support quality of life goals. These actions, taken together, can relieve development pressures in edge areas and help preserve rural landscapes.

Flexibility in Zoning and Land Use Regulations

While land use regulations can achieve important development and planning goals, they can also prevent or inhibit the private sector from creating a wide range of housing choices to meet varied consumer demands. Many communities today are hampered from creating compact, mixed-use, livable neighborhoods because of required setbacks, parking requirements, and minimum lot sizes. Removing certain zoning and regulatory barriers will eliminate the need for developers who seek to create housing alternatives to procure variances and waivers through a lengthy (and therefore costly in pre-development terms) permitting process. For example, reduced or flexible requirements for parking can allow developers to construct more units (and therefore put in more households) in closer proximity to bus and rail, making transit-oriented development more viable. Allowing accessory dwelling units helps create more housing choices for residents and lets people remain in the neighborhood despite changing needs over time. Communities can gradually increase density without constructing new buildings by facilitating the conversion of carriage houses and/or garages to housing units. By removing regulations that prohibit construction of multi-family housing anywhere near single-family homes, communities can remove formidable obstacles to creating duplexes, row houses, and garden apartments, among other housing options, which constituted a large part of housing construction in early 20th century communities. Today these various housing options can provide affordable viable alternatives for households who seek proximity over privacy.

Segregated land uses, photo courtesy U.S. EPANumerous cities are re-examining local zoning ordinances. For example, in 1999, the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council surveyed 50 major metropolitan areas on their zoning reform. The survey indicated that 22 cities had undertaken major zoning reform in the past five years.28 Some of these cities, such as Milwaukee and Portland, are using this process address some aspects of their zoning, such as minimum lot sizes, setbacks, and separation of uses that prevents diverse, compact development. In order to provide for a variety of housing choices and community developments, municipalities are starting processes that remove layers of regulatory burden. The zoning process and zoning mechanisms provide a range of opportunities to create communities within areas with existing infrastructure thereby relieving some development pressures in edge areas. Overlay zones can be used effectively in existing low-density, single use areas (along a targeted street or intersection, for example) to encourage mixed-use or higher density development and pave the way for more rapid development of and more innovation in housing and other development by the private sector. Process incentives, including streamlined approval or waived or reduced permitting fees, can encourage developers to take on integrated projects, such as residential-retail mixes or transit-oriented development.

New Jersey Rehabilitation Code

New Jersey's 1999 revision of its rehabilitation code is an example of a state removing regulations to foster development in its existing housing stock and within its existing infrastructure. Before the code revision, rehabilitating old buildings in New Jersey was an uncertain business because a rehabilitation project in one part of the house necessitated that all structures within the house meet current code requirements. The new code gives consistent guidelines for every aspect of rehabilitation work. For example, rather than setting a minimum width for doorways, the rehabilitation subcode sets a safety ratio between width and occupancy. Most existing low-usage buildings, such as housing, already meet these standards. In short, the subcode applies common-sense standards rather than rigid bureaucratic regulation. The code's effectiveness is illustrated by statistics showing that rehabilitation work in New Jersey's five largest cities increased by 60 percent in 1998, the first year the code was in effect. In 1997, the year before the code's implementation, rehabilitation work in those cities increased a mere 1.6 percent.29 Based on New Jersey's initiative, several states, cities, and counties, including the state of Maryland, Fairfax County, Virginia, and Wilmington, Delaware, have begun examining barriers to rehabilitation and renovation within their own building codes.

Location-Efficient Mortgages

In nearly every city across the country, there are compact neighborhoods where it's easy to walk to shops, schools, and other services. In addition, those neighborhoods are usually well served by transit, so that families who live there tend to walk, bike, and take public transit rather than use a car for every trip they take. Many households in these "location-efficient" neighborhoods own fewer cars than similar households in a conventional suburban development. They also drive their car less and spend a smaller amount of the household budget on transportation.

Because these location-efficient neighborhoods are generally desirable places to live, the cost of buying a house is higher than for a comparable house in a conventional suburban development. As a result, when looking to buy a house, many people decide to live at edge of our metropolitan areas, where they can afford a bigger house. This choice seems economically advantageous. The problem is that the cheaper house on the edge comes with expensive transportation because everyone in the family has to drive everywhere. The household has to own more cars, drive them more, contribute more to air pollution through the added emissions of more vehicle miles traveled, and spend more money on transportation than they would in a location-efficient community.

Location-efficient mortgages (LEM) are designed for home buyers who purchase a home in a densely populated community that has efficient public transportation. It allows a portion of that potential savings to be used as additional borrower income in qualifying for a mortgage. The idea behind it is to account for the money savings of owning fewer cars and driving few miles and invest it in a location-efficient home purchase. The LEM is re-writing basic assumptions about mortgage lending and incorporating tangible expenses, such as money spent to own and maintain a vehicle, into money lending equations—all of which makes good market sense. A Fannie Mae pilot loan program is offering $100 million to help buyers qualify for residences in location-efficient communities. LEMs are being piloted in San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle.

Land Conservation Practices

Many local communities are outright buying land they want for conservation and farmland preservation. They are doing this through numerous mechanisms including ballot initiatives, bond initiatives, local land trusts, and increases in sales tax. Voters overwhelmingly approved ballot measures to fund open space protection in 2000. According to the Brookings Institute, 201 of 257 open space measures in the 2000 election passed (78.2 percent)30, providing more than $7.4 billion for land conservation. In most of these referenda, voters approved tax increases to pay for land conservation. The 2000 election results were not an aberration. In 1999, voters passed 90 percent of the 102 referenda, authorizing more than $1.8 billion in local taxing authority and bonds for open space preservation. In 1998, voters passed 84 percent of 148 referenda across the country, providing approximately $8.3 billion to open space protection. All told, in the last three years, voters have designated more than $17.5 billion for open space protection, approving 85 percent of 459 state, county, and local measures. Public support of land conservation can also be seen in the large number of non-profit land trusts working to preserve our nation's ecological resources. As of 1998, more than 1,200 local and regional land trusts had preserved approximately 4.7 million acres of land.31 Like state and local governments, land trusts are preserving buying land to preserve in perpetuity. Citizens are thus voting with one of their most important assets—their tax dollars.

Tax Sharing

Tax sharing can level the playing field between regions by removing the requirement that local sales taxes are returned to the locality where the sale occurred. As discussed, this requirement can force localities within a region to compete with each other for large retail projects. By removing this requirement, states are able to neutralize competition between regions, thereby allowing regions to develop holistic plans for growth and development. For example, Minnesota business property taxes are shared among Minneapolis/St. Paul area governments. In this case, tax base sharing eases the fiscal crisis in declining communities—allowing them to shore up the decline. It also relieves pressure on growing communities to spread local debt costs through growth and erodes fiscal incentives that encourage low-density development.32 As the local tax base becomes less dependent on growth, communities can exercise a regional perspective regarding land use. They will be better able to consider measures that benefit the region as a whole, instead of a locality within that region. As a variation on tax sharing, Texas gives its districts with high-value business property five options, including sharing their property tax revenues with other districts or agreeing to send surplus revenues to the state for distribution to poor school districts--instead of raising state taxes or consolidating school districts to achieve equity between school districts.33

Congestion Pricing

Congestion pricing is a way of harnessing the market to reduce the waste associated with traffic congestion. It uses fees or tolls for road use that vary with the level of traffic congestion. This concept of assessing relatively higher prices for travel during peak periods is the same as that used in many other sectors of the economic to respond to peak-use demands. Airlines offer off-peak discounts, and hotel rooms cost more during peak tourist seasons. Road-use charges that vary with the level of traffic congestion provide incentives to shift some trips to off-peak times, less-congested routes, or alternative modes, or to cause some lower-valued trips to be combined with other trips, or to be eliminated. A shift in a relatively small proportion of peak-period trips can lead to substantial reductions in overall traffic congestion. Also, congestion pricing can create incentives for more efficient use of existing capacity and provide indicators of the potential need for future capacity expansion. Finally, it can generate revenues that can be used to further enhance urban mobility.

Per-Mile Auto Insurance

Progressive Auto Insurance company has piloted a unique voluntary insurance program in Texas that bases auto insurance rates upon specific driving factors such as mileage driven, time of day, and geographic location. The company does this in lieu of more customary factors such as age, sex, and marital status. This new program is made possible by a global positioning system device that Progressive installs in its customers vehicles. The information recorded by the device ensures that the customer will only pay insurance for miles actually driven. The idea is simple: the less you drive, the less you pay. Progressive's system is designed not only to lower costs for its customers, but also to encourage positive driving behaviors that may lead to a reduction in accidents, thefts, and air emissions. Initial studies completed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggest that the amount of driving people do is related to fuel price; therefore, EPA anticipates a 10 to 20 percent driving reduction when the fixed cost of driving is shifted to a variable cost.34 This program offers financial incentives to drive less and thus helps reduce pollutants and improve air quality.

Parking Cash-Out

Parking cash-out levels the playing field for employees taking transit verus driving and parking a private vehicle. When employees are offered "free" or reduced-rate parking at work, those spaces are a fringe benefit paid for by their employer. If employees only receive the benefit if they use a parking space, they have a strong incentive to drive to work. In a parking cash-out program, businesses offer their employees a choice between free or reduced-rate parking and a cash amount similar to what it has cost the employer to provide parking. Employees may continue driving to work or they may exchange their parking subsidy for cash and buy a transit pass, bicycle supplies, or pay ride-share costs. Any remaining money is theirs to keep. The employer benefits by reducing its costs of providing parking. For example, an employer may have enough parking for all of its employees. If 20 percent of those employees chose cash over parking benefits, the employer could offer those space to other commuters at market rates.

Just the Beginning

Communities are just beginning to find ways to address the negative consequences of low-density development in edge areas, such as disappearing farmland and rural landscapes. State and local governments are thus at a critical juncture. In the decades since World War II, subsidies and zoning regulations have served to artificially enhance the market for one type of development: low density, dispersed and auto-oriented. Now, as communities increasingly look to develop in ways that protect their neighborhoods, town centers, and environmental resources, they are turning to a combination of planning and market-oriented techniques to meet community goals. They are turning to smart growth.

Smart growth is defined as development that serves the economy, the community, and the environment. It changes the terms of the development debate away from the traditional growth/no-growth question to "How and where should new development be accommodated?" Smart growth is about:

  • Choice—giving people more opportunities to choose housing and communities that best suit them.
  • Balance—making development decisions that will benefit urban centers and suburbs, so that both can thrive. It's about better cities, suburbs, and healthy regions.
  • Partnerships—especially private-public partnerships to achieve development that expands economic opportunities, improves quality of life, and enhances the environment.

Smart growth invests time, attention, and resources in restoring community and vitality to center cities and older suburbs thereby preserving rural places from development. Smart growth in new developments is more town-centered, is transit and pedestrian oriented, and has a greater mix of housing, commercial and retail uses. It also preserves open space and other environmental amenities. Smart growth recognizes the inter-connections between development patterns, the environment, and quality of life.

Smart growth supporters come from various camps—road-weary commuters, time-strapped "soccer moms" stuck in traffic with their kids, taxpayers concerned about the tax burden of building new infrastructure for far-flung developments, and environmentalists concerned about the effects of development on air and water quality and the consequences of lost and fragmented rural landscapes and wildlife habitat. Elected officials are responding to these constituencies when they speak out on smart growth.

Smart growth provides a much-needed framework in which to harness market forces in order to encourage development within existing infrastructure, to reduce traffic congestion, to create more housing choices, and to preserve environmentally sensitive lands. By using market-based approaches within a smart growth context, evelopment pressures in edge areas are relieved and rural landscapes are preserved.


Lynn Richards is a policy analyst for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Policy, Economics, and Innovation. She has worked on smart growth and sustainable development issues for the past five years. Currently she is examining the links between water quality, different development patterns, and land preservation.

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Smart Growth Network

American Farmland Trust

Trust for Public Land

Land Trust Alliance

Congress for New Urbanism

American Planning Association

National Main Street Center

Local Government Commission


End Notes.

1. U.S. Department of Agricultural, Economic Research Service, Natural Resources and Environmental Division. Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators (AREI) Updates, No. 3. "Major Land Use Changes in the Contiguous 48 States." June 1997.

2. Ibid.

3. American Farmland Trust. Farming on the Edge: A New Look at the Importance and Vulnerability of Agricultural Near American Cities. 1994.

4. Schueler, Tom. Environmental Land Planning Series: Site Planning for Urban Stream Protection. Center for Watershed Protection. Publication No. 95708. Washington, DC: Metropolitan Council of Governments, December, 1995. Pp. 21-23.

5. Bray, Thomas. "It's a Sprawl World After All." WSJ.com Opinion Journal, April 19, 2001.

6. Schneider, Keith. "Breaking the Sprawl Addiction." Great Lakes Bulletin, Issue 11, March 2000.

7. Lewyn, Michael. "Why Sprawl is a Conservative Issue." Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society. Vol 20, No. 4, August 2000, 295-315.

8. Jackson, Kenneth. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Oxford University Press. NY, NY. 1985.

9. Ibid.

10. U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics. National Transportation Statistics, Table 83. US DOT, 1996.

11. Lewyn, Michael.

12. Voith, Richard. Does the Federal Tax Treatment of Housing Affect the Pattern of Metropolitan Development? Business Review, March/April 1999. There is a range of estimates for the aggregate value of housing tax breaks. For 1999, the Treasury Department estimates the mortgage interest and property tax deduction will reduce tax receipts by $72.1 billion. Todd Sinai estimates that current tax deductions reduce tax payments by about $56.2 billion.

13. Ibid.

14. Singelis, Nikos D. "Financing Priority Watershed Projects with the State Revolving Fund," conference proceedings, Watershed 1996, 1996.

15. ICMA and Geoff Anderson. Why Smart Growth: A Primer. Washington, DC: ICMA, 1998.

16. U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, The Technological Reshaping of Metropolitan America. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1995. OTA-ETI-643.

17. Orfield, Myron. Metropolitcs: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1997.

18. Lewyn, Michael.

19. Anderson, Geoffrey. "Local Governments on Safari for Big Game." On The Ground: the Multimedia Journal on Community, Design, and Environment, Vol.2, No. 2, 1996.

20. U.S. Congress, The Technological Reshaping of Metropolitan America.

21. Dionne, E.J. "Two-Parent Homes Still Rule" Special to the Detroit News, May 23, 2001. http://detnews.com/

22. Survey conducted by Robert Fishman for the Fannie Mae Foundation's Housing Facts and Findings, Winter 1999: "The American Metropolis at Century's End: Past and Future Influences." www.fanniemae

23. Survey conducted by American Lives, 1999 Community Preferences: What the Buyers Really Want in Design Features and Amenities, www.americanlives.com.
24. Straight, Audrey. Community Transportation Survey. AARP: Public Policy Institute, 1997.

25. American Lives survey.

26. Susan Bradford Barror, "Mature Buyers: The Next Wave," Builder, July 1997.

27. Ibid.

28. Skosey, Peter and Christina Sellis. The Lay of the Land: A National Survey of Zoning Reform. Metropolitan Planning Council, September, 1999.

29. New Jersey State Planning Agency website, www.gorr.state.ny.us
30. Myers, Phyllis and Robert Puentes. Growth at the Ballot Box: Electing the Shape of Communitites in November 2000. Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, 2001.

31. www.lta.org/aboutlt

32. Orfield, Myron. Metropolitics.

33. Hovey, Hal. "The Property Tax in the 21st Century." Prepared for The Finance Project, May 1996, www.financeproject.org

34. Eisenberg, Anne. "Paying for Car Insurance by the Mile," New York Times, April 19, 2000.


Dean Edgecomb and his family operate one of the last independent small dairy farms in northern Michigan, keeping 50 cows and growing hay on 140 acres. The rolling land has been farmed since the 1870s, when Mr. Edgecomb's great-great grandmother settled it. Today a golf course, several subdivisions, two convenience stores, and an industrial park surround the farm.

"My fields used to be able to take four or five inches of water before they were inaccessible," he said. "Now water stands after only about an inch. I lost my corn crop in 1996." As the Edgecombs are discovering, increasing development around farms impact important farm functions.

Great Lakes Bulletin
Issue 11, March 2000


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