August 5, 2000 - From the August, 2000 issue

Growing Pains of Sprawl the Focus of National Governors

The challenge for every governor: to properly balance growth with livability. How can communities continue to thrive economically and still provide the quality of life constituents want, expect and deserve? TPR is pleased to further this debate by excerpting this report from the National Association of Governors entitled "Growing Pains." Our state's CEOs address the current problems facing major municipalities across the nation, and offer a set of recommendations which includes accepting their own responsibility to lead.

American growth has historically been linked to a higher quality of life. For some 50 years, the United States has experienced unprecedented economic growth, producing higher levels of affluence, homeownership, and mobility for most Americans. The economic boom of the 1990s has seen increasing demand for larger homes on larger lots, often with garages to handle three or more vehicles. Most Americans now live in suburban communities, and suburban growth has steadily increased pressures on government services, infrastructure, and the environment. One consequence of largely uncoordinated land development and rapid expansion of suburban areas is that many urban centers have languished.

A host of impacts have sparked public concerns, including traffic congestion, a variety of environmental impacts, and loss of open spaces. Many people fear that the negative effects they already feel on their everyday lives may worsen if current growth patterns continue. Fueling public interest is a steady flow of local and national news stories, books, and campaigns by public interest and grassroots groups addressing local growth issues.

Considerable demographic data for the past several decades support what can be called the three Laws of Growth, which are helpful in understanding the character of rapid suburbanization and the types of policy responses that may be effective.

Law No. 1: Population increases are accompanied by much larger increases in land consumption and somewhat larger increases in residential dwellings and private vehicles.

Law No. 2: As distance from urban cores increases and population density decreases, the rate of growth increases for population, land consumption, residential dwellings, and private vehicles.

Law No. 3: Rapid suburbanization and urban decay are mirror images of the same phenomenon.

Responding to the Call for Action

Many Governors have recognized that the adverse effects of the traditional style of growth will produce two undesirable outcomes, unless significant and effective actions are taken.

1. Higher Government Costs. High infrastructure costs for new suburban communities confront state and local governments. Often this makes it difficult to maintain infrastructure systems in older cities and suburbs that are not fully utilized because of depopulation or slow development. Because new suburban developments are often subsidized by government and the broader tax base, local and state governments-and taxpayers-face high costs. These costs could be minimized by making more use of older urban centers and suburbs with infrastructure that can accommodate more development. A high quality of life in both suburbs and urban centers will give people more, not fewer, choices.

2. Threatened Economic Growth. The effects of growth on quality of life jeopardize future state economic growth. Companies deciding where to [locate] are sensitive to unchecked sprawl, environmental issues, and loss of quality of place. This is particularly relevant to New Economy, knowledge-based companies that may shift their locations because of talent needs, but effects on older sectors such as agriculture and tourism may also be significant in some states. Unless something is done to preserve quality of life, growth today will stifle growth tomorrow.

Growing Pains: Quality of Life in the New Economy illustrates Governors' choices from a wealth of ideas and experiments underway throughout the United States. National attention to growth-related issues is expanding, and Governors are in a unique position to understand that the best solutions for growth problems must be regional in scope. Local governments lack the resources and legal powers to effectively cross governmental boundaries. The federal government is handicapped by policy tools that are not finely tuned to the diverse needs of regions .

In their 2000 state-of-the-state addresses, about half the Governors described their initiatives for guiding growth, and the number of states with smart-growth-type initiatives is increasing. "Smart growth" does not mean no growth or slow growth, but rather quality growth .

Strategies to Influence Growth

For many historical and cultural reasons, local jurisdictions have primary authority over land development decisions, and Governors recognize and accommodate their citizens' sensitivities about state intervention in land use decisions. The historical, cultural, and legal limits to state intervention in local development vary widely among the states, creating a unique set of challenges for every Governor seeking to improve growth patterns. Each state also has its own set of unintended consequences of development. Still, Governors have enormous opportunities to improve statewide planning to enhance and shape economic development, protect natural resources, and preserve each community's quality of life.

These opportunities are illustrated by a wide array of approaches that have been used individually or in concert to meet the specific needs of communities and states. [T]hese options [are illustrated] within a framework of three broad groups of initiatives.

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1. Leadership & Public Education. Perhaps more than any other factor, the public's attitude about growth and continued development outside of older cores of metropolitan areas is the key to reshaping America's growth patterns because public opinion shapes most public and private land use decisions at the community level. States, and Governors in particular, can be instrumental in creating a public dialogue on the impacts of various development scenarios . Through leadership, information, and education, Governors can help citizens make thoughtful decisions about growth. Specific approaches include: articulating a statewide vision for growth; producing and providing access to information; creating tools to support local actions; fostering collaboration on growth strategies; and enlisting state agencies to support statewide development goals.

2. Economic Investment & Financial Incentives.Once Governors have identified statewide growth objectives and investment priorities, they can use state program expenditures to support and create incentives to steer local and private development where it is most desirable. The result can be collaboration among state and local governments and the public and private sectors . Specific approaches include: targeting state funds to support statewide development goals; revitalizing town centers and neighborhoods; integrating brownfields redevelopment efforts with broader initiatives; and acquiring and encouraging preservation of contiguous land areas.

3. Government Collaboration & Planning. As developed areas expand, local decisions about growth increasingly have regional or statewide impacts on transportation, wildlife habitat, water and air quality, and economic development. This is particularly true when a major strategy is to shift growth from the outer suburban and newly suburbanizing areas to older urban cores and close-in suburbs, because such areas are likely to cover a number of local governmental units. Without a regional approach and a common blueprint , piecemeal solutions conceived by local communities will likely fail-and have negative impacts on nearby communities. To relieve these impacts, state-level intervention can improve coordination among local jurisdictions and provide guidance and technical assistance . Local planning may also benefit from state efforts to remove regulatory barriers and speed [appropriate] development . Specific approaches include: fostering state collaboration with local jurisdictions;  reducing barriers to development; requiring local planning; and assuming authority over area development decisions.

In creating a growth strategy, Governors assess the circumstances specific to their states, including public concerns about housing, business, commercial, and infrastructure development; the public's cultural values; the traditional limitations on state intervention in planning; and the financial resources and policy options available for influencing growth. Maryland, New Jersey, and Oregon, for example, are notable in their efforts to integrate a large range of policy options into a comprehensive growth strategy.

Initiatives follow these principles:

1.There is no antigrowth sentiment or belief that suburbanization can or should be stopped completely. However, there is increasing interest in more intelligently and sensitively coordinating, steering, and shaping growth to better serve immediate and longer-term needs of states. In general, this means channeling more growth into areas already developed .

2.There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing growth issues. States and regions have unique histories, needs, and goals. The marketplace is also providing a wealth of new ideas and designs for addressing both urban and suburban issues and demands .

3. Many of the actions being pursued are aimed at preventing future adverse impacts. Extrapolation of recent trends poses uncertainties despite using the best information , but it still builds public support necessary to preserve quality of life for future generations.

4. Governors recognize that land use decisions are predominantly a local responsibility. Nonetheless, they believe that states play an important role in fostering smart, long-term decisions. All efforts represent major collaborations among stakeholders and multiple levels of government, as well as balancing the rights and needs of individuals and communities.

5. Governors recognize that smarter growth improves competitiveness in retaining and attracting New Economy workers and companies.

The impacts of rapid growth in a prosperous economy may backfire and stifle future growth. The challenge is to prevent strong economic growth from eroding quality of life. In the past, growth has equaled prosperity, and prosperity has equaled quality of life. But when growth produces too much pain as well as prosperity, it is no longer quality growth. Only quality growth can keep the engine of prosperity running in a sustainable mode.

All the talk about sprawl in recent years has missed the larger issue, which is how the loss of quality of life threatens future growth and prosperity. Sprawl is simply one form of suburban development that has come to symbolize a negative form of growth, but other forms are available. Solutions to growing pains require understanding that haphazard "greenfields" suburban growth is just half the puzzle. The other half is development or the lack of it in older urban centers and suburbs. If quality growth is to signify more choices for Americans, then the quality of place for both urban and suburban lifestyles must be high and competitive even though they each will have distinctive styles and characteristics.

It took decades of American growth and prosperity to create today's growth issues, and it will take time to reorient the style of growth. Changing the way we grow requires a lot more than changing laws and redirecting state funding. Maintaining vibrant growth without adverse impacts also means developing public consensus for social and cultural changes that can protect and elevate a state's quality of life and place.

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