Walkable neighborhoods a cure for Michigan´s sprawl
Grand Rapids Press
Saturday, June 4, 2005
By Thomas Hylton
Every year in late May or early June, I walk with my wife's second grade class from the Lincoln Elementary School to our public library, where they hear a story, receive their very own library card, and pick out a book they'll have to return on their own.
On the way back to school, the kids stop off at our house, where they eat a snack, go to the bathroom, and pet our dog, Buster. Long after these kids have forgotten much else about second grade, they'll remember coming to our house and petting our dog.
This kind of pleasant experience is possible because my town of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, is a pedestrian community, the kind Americans stopped building about midway through the 20th century.
Thanks to the car culture, Michigan, like Pennsylvania, has gradually abandoned these traditional communities and embraced a radically different form of development on the urban fringe.
This new development — random, sprawling, low density — strings out offices, stores and schools along highways, for easy access by car, with an ample parking lot in front of every building. Houses are sequestered from other uses on large lots.
Such sprawling development isolates people and decreases their sense of community. It ruins scenic landscapes. It also consumes an enormous amount of land. From 1960 to 1990, according to the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, the Grand Rapids area developed land at a rate three times faster than its population grew.
In recent years, Gov. Granholm has become one of the nation's foremost advocates for curbing sprawl. Her "cool cities" initiatives aim at shifting government spending to revitalize cities through brownfields redevelopment, focusing infrastructure investment, and promoting mass transit.
Unfortunately, Michigan (like Pennsylvania) is one of a handful of states that fragment planning and zoning powers among hundreds of small municipalities. Because this system encourages townships and cities to compete against each other for resources, it fosters sprawl. States with just two forms of local government — cities and counties — find it easier to manage growth.
Development is expected to go to the cities, which can annex land as they grow. Zoning at a countywide level can ensure rural areas remain undeveloped. But even this isn't enough if people want sprawl. Instead, sprawl just happens inside of city boundaries.
For example, Metro-Nashville-Davidson County, Tennessee, which has a consolidated city-county government, is sprawling even more than the metro Grand Rapids area, consuming land at a rate five times faster than its population is growing.
Whether we're dealing with little municipalities or large ones, growth management laws won't really work until more Americans decide they prefer walkable neighborhoods to isolated housing lots.
England, which has protected its towns and countryside perhaps better than any country, enjoys both the laws and the cultural disposition to control sprawl. Development is built at walkable densities in existing towns or areas immediately adjacent to them.
The first priority is to re-use vacant industrial or commercial sites, and in recent years, more than half of all new housing has been built on previously developed land. Surrounding the cities are green belts, open space from 5 miles to 20 miles wide where development is prohibited but public access is permitted on public trails.
Draconian as these policies might seem to Americans, the English overwhelmingly support them. Britain's countryside looks much as it did a century ago, and two-thirds of all retail trade is still conducted in traditional downtowns.
On Thursday, I'll be talking about various growth management techniques used in America and Europe at the annual Growing Communities Conference sponsored by the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council.
But mostly, I'll be emphasizing the value of traditional towns. I've lived my entire 56 years in Pennsylvania cities and towns where I can walk most of the places I need to go. Not having to drive for many of my trips has saved me thousands of dollars, countless hours behind the wheel, and an enormous amount of stress.
Americans may be ready for a change in lifestyles. Weary of traffic congestion and homogeneous sprawl, a growing number of families seek communities with a sense of place and identity.
Fortunately, Michigan has lots of them. They just need to be rediscovered and nurtured.