John Mauro is smart growth director for Pilchuck Audubon Society in Everett, Wash. He works to stop sprawl and ensure that clean water and wildlife habitat maintain a high profile in the growth-management dialogue.

Monday, 11 Aug 2003

EVERETT, Wash.

I live a good portion of my day in spandex. Perhaps atypical apparel for a smart growth director, its use murmurs a message I carry with me to work: save your soul, save your community, ride a bike. And so I pedal the morning miles, more than 30 of them, through crisp air, the passing glow of other cyclists, faint ripples on Lake Washington, and the distant sight of glaciated volcanoes. In a region where the average driver spends 40 hours a year stuck in traffic — and where she has increased daily driving from 9.3 to 22.2 miles — I border on the smitten. Only 20 minutes slower than the regional express bus and a necessary part of my day, I love my bike commute.

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I arrive refreshed and eager, with my game face already on, of course. As I open up the Pilchuck Audubon Society office in downtown Everett this fine Monday and rework my image (no, I don’t wear spandex throughout the workday), I contemplate, once again, this particular game of Smart Growth.

To most, the Audubon Society conjures images of dedicated birders, often an older demographic, and the education and advocacy necessary to protect avifauna from the perils of human influence. Organized in the late 1800s, the National Audubon Society was truly visionary. A volunteer-driven society, NAS sprung from the crisis of over-harvesting bird plumage, mainly for the fashion industry. Powered mostly by women activists (who, as they often did, let men pretend that they were in charge), NAS was able to turn around damaging human preferences in the name of bird and habitat conservation.

Not-so-smart growth.

Now zoom a century ahead: A new crisis has been festering for some time in its complexities and a chapter of the very same society puts on a different image. Pilchuck Audubon Society’s Smart Growth Program was born out of necessity in a region that has seen some of the most uncontrolled growth in the nation. Yes, dedicated volunteers ensure that our education programs still run, that our monthly program meetings and presentations go off without a hitch, and that our field guides still sell like hotcakes, but we’ve also taken on the issue of sprawl. Why? Sprawl and birds are really the same issue. Of 341 regularly sighted birds in Washington state, more than 100 (30 percent) are considered threatened or targeted for conservation action. Habitat alteration, which goes hand in hand with sprawl, is the heaviest impact on birds and is inextricably linked to quality of human life, so sprawl is at the hub of our conservation wheel.

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Human impact can be packaged simplistically in a dual formula: consumption of resources and population. In a previous life, I taught an environmental studies lab class at Middlebury College in Vermont. I decided to ground our semester analysis of things like campus alternative energy initiatives and water quality monitoring with the concept of the Ecological Footprint. Besides bringing impact to a personal and tangible level and giving everyone something to wrestle with, the concept made clear the myriad connections between the landscape and resource use and helped point us toward the goal(s) of sustainability.

So what is sprawl? Well, it’s personal — people know it when they see it — but it’s far from tangible. Some say sprawl is the suburban takeover of green space and agricultural lands; others note that it’s ugly, auto-dependent box-store development. Phrases like “leap-frog development” or uncontrolled growth are often used, while sprawl might also be defined as increasingly distant, low-density development away from town centers that outpaces population growth. I say our disproportionate footprint is chosen inefficiency (again, those damaging human preferences), blatant lack of creativity in design and planning, a caravan of transportation myths and auto enslavement, and a neglect of long-term human and ecosystem health.

As I chow my first lunch (60 miles of bike commuting a day has me consuming copious amounts of our region’s agricultural resources) and review my Daily Grist, I tap into the Washington State Office of Financial Management‘s recent demographic data. My region of interest — Snohomish County, Wash. — is the 38th fastest growing county (of 3,141) in the nation. Under the state’s Growth Management Act (a visionary law adopted in 1990 that some criticize and others say hasn’t gone far enough), each county must have a Comprehensive Plan. With this plan, the county works from state population forecasts and with regional steering committees and cities to allocate future population growth. How and where we accommodate this growth is a challenging dilemma — and a contentious issue. Interestingly, this year Snohomish County is undertaking a 10-year update of its Comprehensive Plan — an opportunity to reassess the 25-year vision of what we want our communities to look, feel, and be like. Today, I’m polishing up pages of my policy suggestions to the county on this very issue.

As the first environmental group in Snohomish County (founded in 1971), we here at the Pilchuck Audubon Society involve ourselves heavily in the public participation process. Our approach, really, spans across many disciplines, and I find my job description morphing as the issues and solutions become more complex. Those interested in an abstract (or quasi-manifesto) of the typical Smart Growth routine I’ll be personalizing this week, come hither: We build and sustain grassroots activist support for participation in the political process, we work with a suite of other groups in coalitions and partnerships, we help craft and revise land-use and habitat-protection policy, we work with the media, we testify at hearings, we occasionally use legal action to enforce habitat protection laws, and, yes, we fundraise to keep our vision of livable communities and healthy ecosystems alive.

Oh, and we have a staff of one, and he has to get back on his bike soon and spin home this Monday to his wonderful perch in the middle of this dynamic, growth-challenged region.

Tuesday, 12 Aug 2003

EVERETT, Wash.

As I fill my breakfast bowl with fuel this Tuesday morning, I’ll fill yours with stats. (This is one of my shameless faults.) While commuting to work on my bike in the name of sustainable and livable communities, I have a lot of time to do simple math, a fact I note with an odd mix of pleasure and disdain. On my mind today: food calories, gasoline calories, and miles-per-gallon equivalent. If I let this ruminate for a while — while I dodge sleepy drivers and navigate a rare thunderstorm — I come up with the number 885. Yep, 885 miles per gallon is what the average cyclist gets over flat terrain. Hybrids, watch out. This is more than 40 times as efficient as the average car (a statistic that seems grow each year with the sad decline of fuel economy in the U.S.), and even two times as efficient as salmon. Simply put, it’s the most efficient mode of transport ever created by humans or nature, and, for other reasons as well, a very important tool in the quest for livable communities. But admittedly, my legs are a bit tired when I arrive at work this morning.

Those rare thunderstorms are on my mind, since I was nearly zapped at sunrise this weekend while sleeping on a ridge near Glacier Peak. As smart-growth directors are prone to do, I think in metaphor. Today’s task is electric, slightly scary, and promises to clear the air: a fundraising plan. The woes of the nonprofit world have started to build anvil-shaped heads and march over protective ridges … so I start making phone calls and refining my short, medium, and long-range plans.

I find strange irony in this morning’s fundraising tasks, since the cost of growth is the real issue here. If I could collect the money that this region uses to subsidize growth, all nonprofits would be well-funded. Of course, this would be a result of better-designed and more livable communities; I’d be the first to gleefully accept this trade-off and work myself out of a job.

I’ve been getting more used to framing arguments in terms of people’s values. A diversity of views and opinions fuels positive change and the democratic process and, no matter what kind of high ground we feel we may have, should be accepted with humility. That said, the reason I do my work is closely related to my core values, to a vision that many of us have about how much better the world and humanity can become if we roll up our sleeves and dig in. I think of ecological integrity, that elusive goal of sustainability, ecological and evolutionary processes, meaningful communities, an improved quality of life for all life … the stuff of environmental and social fantasies that aren’t too far outside our grasp. But the framework often becomes, regrettably, an economic one, and I can effectively incite change and motivation by arguing numbers, so I do.

I’m tempted to get back on my bike and spin around the Puget Sound shoreline here in Everett, since I can seemingly calculate better in the saddle, but instead I decide to consult a study by the Columbia Policy Institute. Before I spiel on, think about how much public infrastructure costs. Think about transportation (and our heavy dependence on capital-intensive projects like roads) and about schools. Consider electric power, parks facilities, and sewage systems. Ponder libraries, drinking water, fire protection, and stormwater treatment. Certainly there are other pieces to the infrastructure puzzle, but when one considers these alone — specific to residential development in Washington state — each resident pays, on average, $500 per year to subsidize growth. The aforementioned infrastructure can be broken down to each new single-family house (in 2000), which, after impact fees have been paid and construction expenses removed, costs taxpayers more than $80,000. Populate our buildable lands with a pile of these and you’ve got an annual residential infrastructure cost of $2.87 billion. Break out the maps and consider where some of this growth is going (read: far, far, far from the center of town in low-density rural areas) and the costs escalate. This alone, in my opinion, is reason enough for good mixed-use, transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly urban redevelopment and infill.

Since I’m writing this for a magazine that publishes “gloom and doom with a sense of humor,” I can’t help but indulge by citing a few other troubling stats (gloom and doom, but no humor, I’m afraid). Air and water quality in Washington is threatened by car and truck pollution, which costs $267 million annually, or $89 per person. An average of 55,000 acres of fish and wildlife habitat are lost each year to land-use conversion in Washington. Exercise and health — which are directly related to how cities are designed — are on the downswing, with a record 61 percent of U.S. adults overweight or obese, leading to direct health care costs of more than $100 billion. And the average Washington driver spends $930 annually for gasoline — and spends 40 hours a year stuck in traffic.

Yikes. With thunderheads moving in, I let the storm of numbers fall from my mind and consider again how much better the world and humanity can become if we roll up our sleeves and dig in.

Wednesday, 13 Aug 2003

EVERETT, Wash.

As I ride into work this sunny Wednesday morning, I tip my helmet to that hearty and seemingly rare breed — the pedestrian. Representing less than 1 percent of the total commute trips in Snohomish County (and just about 2 percent in Seattle’s King County), walkers are rare. Since most of us can walk, this small number is puzzling to me. Yet I know there are serious barriers that pedestrians have to overcome simply to survive. Yes, this seems a bit dramatic, but in Washington from 1988 to 1994 there were 613 fatalities resulting from 1,887 pedestrian-vehicle “crashes” (I object to this language — such a crash is really just “getting run over”). As I contemplate the terrors of perambulatory life, I consider some immediate needs for our ardent walkers: crossing improvements, paths and trails, sidewalks, incentive programs, safety education (for drivers, too!), and enforcement of existing laws, for starters. But I can’t help but consider the bigger picture: How we design our cities and towns has an enormous effect on pedestrians, and therefore, I’d argue, on the quality of life of all residents.

County hearings will determine the future of this lakeside community.

Today I’ll walk up to the county administration building for a public hearing on Snohomish County’s Comprehensive Plan — that guiding document that envisions the future of our greater community. I’ve prepared my comments in written form and hope to articulate my thoughts during the 2003 final docket process, a system designed to accommodate amendments to the plan. The final batch of nine proposed amendments to the plan is a mixed bag: expanding urban growth areas for certain development projects, expanding urban sewer services to rural areas, starting a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program along the Stillaguamish River to protect agricultural lands, and creating a process for designating entirely new cities to be built from scratch. I’ll give testimony on the merits and disadvantages of each proposal and then return to the office. If it’s anything like the last public hearing, I’ll probably end up walking back alongside a citizen who is somewhere on the spectrum from concerned to fiercely outraged about a particular project.

Just as I am interested in how our community design changes our pedestrian habits, I wonder about the positive feedback loop between communities and community values. Who will pack the hearing room today? Those who push communities to grow, yielding (short-term) economic treasures? Those who are deeply concerned about the changing character of their own neighborhoods? It’s always a blend. It’s almost always emotional. Despite building a wall between ourselves and our connections to place (the proposals on today’s hearing agenda are examples), we grope urgently for the necessary and elusive pieces that create a healthy community.

Like many of you must be, I’m exceedingly curious about the perception of place. I spent a year after college traveling the world on a Watson fellowship studying this very topic. Studying place on the go is decidedly ironic and perhaps impossible, but I infuse my smart-growth work with nuggets of memory from that year. I think of village elders I lived with in West Africa, who told me that if they were to leave their place, all cosmic hell would break lose. I think of the Himalayan peoples I stayed with, who described the delicate balance between their actions and the deities that guard each valley. I think of the Pitjantjara and Antakarinja Australian Aboriginal groups that I camped with, who spoke to me about the seriousness of placed-based ritual. I think of the Guarani of South America, who elucidated connections between guardian spirits of various landscape elements and personal exchanges in the community. The experiences and belief systems of other cultures need not be generalized or idealized — they have their own distinct challenges and difficulties, for sure. There are, however, lessons to be learned that revolve around limits and the requisite reciprocity needed between what we give and what we take.

Perhaps I’m simplistic, but I feel that our disconnections from place can be recaptured by relearning a great art. According to that simple sage Henry Thoreau, “It is a great art to saunter.” Those few who give themselves time to saunter must know and feel something about this. Landscape becomes more familiar as the spatial scale of things shrinks to something more appropriately human. The speed at which we move through space determines what we pay attention to, how much we can absorb, and how we assemble the relationships of things in our minds. Further, fueled by observation, life becomes unquestionably more participatory — true air conditioning, surround-sound, hi-resolution graphics, tactile and olfactory stimulation. We enter a closer relationship with place and this becomes something of essential reciprocity. The possibilities in the smart growth context are apparent: How can we design communities for people? How can we enhance community interaction? How can we lead sustainable lives? How can we maintain relationships with the non-human world in our built environment? In other words, how might we re-imagine our place and reinvigorate it with those things necessary to the human spirit?

As I close the door behind me for my walk up to the public hearing, I look around downtown Everett and imagine wild potential connections between community planning efforts and numerous pairs of feet. I hope that today, in their deliberations, the County Council might see things through the eyes of a pedestrian, at least one step at a time.

Thursday, 14 Aug 2003

EVERETT, Wash.

My dad sells tomatoes for a living back East. As the summer sun drives my backyard tomatoes into such a frenzy that I’ve thought about establishing growth boundaries close to the basil, I chuckle at what my dad might think about my humble patch. Living in a fairly dense neighborhood, the challenge of growing my food has been largely passed to the local farmers who choose to grow organic and who deliver my food via the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share that I purchased this spring.

Something has me in a gracious mood as I finish nibbling my lunch and head to the heart of our county’s agricultural decision-making body — the Agricultural Advisory Board — for a meeting this afternoon. These agricultural meetings are different from many of the meetings I attend with planners, lawyers, and developers. Knowing that my generalizations can’t hold true all of the time, I find that people at these meetings are easier to read, more liable to tell you exactly how they feel, and consistently humorous. They come dressed in functional clothing and wear real smiles.

Aside from working long, hard hours and taking bold risks against economies of scale, these people grow our food. And despite all the things we’ve learned about the negative impacts of agriculture, farmers are tremendous allies in a land where growth rules. Yes, there are often pesticides. Yes, farms and functioning floodplain ecosystems engage in a delicate dance. Yes, agriculture is petroleum-dependent (both in farming activities and in distribution — the average item on your plate travels more than 1,300 miles to get there!). Farms, however — particularly when farming follows and exceeds best management practices — can provide habitat corridors, floodplain protection, and a tradition that far predates the glowing rooms of DVD players in cul-de-sacs that replace them.

I’m attending this meeting because the “Critical Area Ordinance” (CAO) is on the agenda. I tell people that this little acronym can make the difference between drinkable or toxic water. It decides between seeing healthy salmon and bird populations in your community or having to visit a zoo or watch the Discovery Channel to catch a glimpse of wildlife. It can mean quality of life and money in the bank (some economists estimate the annual value of ecosystem services on one acre of wetlands at nearly $6,000).

Essentially, the CAO is a habitat-protection ordinance that protects more sensitive areas — like wetlands, fish and wildlife areas, floodplains, and aquifer recharge areas — from the negative impacts of development. Snohomish County is currently rewriting its ordinance, while all jurisdictions in the county will do so by the end of 2004. As part of my work plan, I’m spending a large amount of time working with cities and citizens from all over the county to ensure that we make gains instead of losses when it comes to habitat protection. Strategies include measures for community education, media outreach, policy analysis, and coalition building. We currently have 23 local and regional groups working together on the county rewrite — and I wonder today what positions the agricultural community will take on this most critical of issues.

As I listen to well-seasoned knowledge of place in one of the most fertile valleys in the Northwest, I realize that there are issues of contention: How big should buffers be? What can be built on the floodplain? But there is solid common ground: Wetlands serve an important ecological function. Stormwater runoff from encroaching residential development needs better control. Fleshing out the specifics is always a challenge, but the dialogue is encouraging — and, like my humble tomato plants and the late-summer bounty of this valuable and threatened agricultural region, it promises to bear fruit.

Friday, 15 Aug 2003

TURNER, Maine.

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell,” wrote the late, great Edward Abbey. As I fly across the western United States today, a bit north of Abbey’s old haunts, I keep my eyes glued to the ground. At 33,000 feet, human impact can be read like a book.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not one of those jet-setting nonprofit gurus who needs to be in 10 places at once. This isn’t a speaking tour, nor is it a full work day: Tomorrow is my sister’s wedding in Maine, and I’m indulging in this cross-county flight after a morning of calls and policy work. This afternoon’s journey, however, allows me a certain big picture digestion of sprawl on my own time — something I’m quite eager to skip the ridiculous in-flight movie to enjoy. (A childlike me guards the window shade, determined to wrestle anyone who wishes it closed to better enjoy the Hollywood smut.)

Earlier in the day my attention was focused myopically on the language of a small phrase in a subsection of a land use policy objective, but now I stretch my scope outward like the unfurling of a large map. Below, Puget Sound and its assorted islands become more shapely as we gain altitude, heading eastward past the northern flanks of Mt. Rainier. To the south, I can see Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens; to the north, Mount Baker. In a land of temperate rainforest, flooded fjords, and rich estuaries, I take great pleasure in triangulating my position with these glaciated volcanoes. The reflective metal on rooftops and car doors, the dark pavement of box store parking lots, and the slices of roads cease to dominate the landscape as we rise over the Cascade crest toward the more arid eastern part of the state. Perhaps Abbey would have sighed right about now. I think, also, of yesterday’s Agricultural Board meeting as green circles of crops come into view, chlorophyll replacing steel and macadam. And then there are towns, cities, and roads; open space, greenbelts, and woodlands; mines, pasture, and more agriculture.

My academic life took me to northwest Alaska on several occasions and was strongly rooted in ecology. I draw now on those sweeping ecosystem views from the front seat of Cessnas, Pipers, Beavers, and the occasional helicopter: hydrology intertwined with vegetation types, permafrost dynamics driving disturbance, climate dancing with fire frequencies and severities, all visible from above. The stories and histories can be read — with some humility and necessary uncertainty — like a book.

I’m using observational skills developed interpreting natural patterns to interpret human patterns. Without delving into environmental ethics or defining the relationship between nature and culture, I note a divergence of two paths. As the plane closes in on the Midwest, I decide that I’ll steer away from an explanation of the deficiencies in a sprawling landscape. Like ecological investigations, many of us can define the problem quite well. Instead, I’ll shoot for the integration of natural landscape observations and, despite humbly realizing the task requires more than a few hundred words, steer toward some solutions. It’s Friday. I’m heading to a wedding. I’m hopeful.

Strategies to control growth are myriad. A few examples from the planning realm:

  • Setting limits. Capping the ultimate buildout size of a city is possible. Since smart growth addresses more about how we grow and not exactly if we grow, it’s a tactic that somewhat bucks the trend. Additionally, realtors, developers, and some officials might try to ruin the credibility of anyone who’s silly enough to think about these limits, but in a finite world, they are necessary and prudent. Urban growth boundaries are a very effective way to control sprawl, despite some loopholes that allow them to expand before they are at capacity. Growth moratoria work on a shorter timescale, requiring that adequate facilities be in place before development happens (so we control gridlock, surface water runoff, and the like).
  • Incentives. Simply put, incentives work better than penalties and enforcement. Tax incentives for infill and redevelopment help direct growth toward urban centers. Incentives for density and conservation of open space help shape growth at the neighborhood level.
  • Impact fees. Since residential development almost always needs subsidies by the local jurisdiction (and its taxpayers) for infrastructure, but larger lots in less-disturbed areas fetch better housing prices, developers should pay the costs associated with sprawl. If this were the case, more compact development would start to replace low-density exurban sprawl because it would be more cost-effective.
  • Zoning. Downzoning works to lower growth in rural areas while upzoning works to increase density in desired development areas. Despite their very site-specific applications, both can be used to prevent sprawl and shape development. Likewise, exclusive agricultural and natural resource zoning and Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) programs can help maintain farm and forest lands. Preserving the good stuff. Requirements for critical habitat protection (often covered in state and federal environmental review laws), greenbelts and trails, parks and open space can be worked into community plans if they aren’t there already.
  • Certainly, this little list is neither inclusive nor does it cut to the real taproot of sprawl’s invasiveness. As the plane descends through large summer thunderheads in the Northeast, my scale contracts, and I think of the context of applying solutions to growth. Particularly in the U.S., the context is individual. We all make lifestyle choices that have an impact. Instead of getting lost in that (like defining sprawl’s causes), let’s hunt for solutions. Essentially, how can we each live better with less?

    The individual context can also bridge that of the community, but it requires a bit of effort. Fully aware that I’m preaching to the choir here, we need better participation. Planning — either for uncontrolled growth or more sustainable communities — happens in each town and pleads for public participation. Regardless of our penchant for continuous movement (look at me here in the air!), we must dig in where we are — even for a short time. Collective community vision — driven by well-seasoned local knowledge, care, and observation — allows communities to wrestle with big questions — as Abbey did so well — and become better places. Again, lets take out our maps (of all scales) and make some changes. I’m hopeful.