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.