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How Preservationists Can Use Public Opinion Surveys on Sprawl 

12-09-2015 17:35

Sprawl and smart growth are on the minds of many Americans. A February 1999 survey released by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism found that in the four cities surveyed-Denver, Philadelphia, San Francis-co, and Tampa-a cluster of issues including sprawl, unfettered growth, and traffic congestion surfaced as an over-whelming public concern, outstripping or equaling traditional issues such as crime, the economy, and education. Polls taken in other parts of the country show that sprawl and smart growth are becoming major public concerns as well.

But what do the issues of sprawl and smart growth have to do with historic preservation? And how can preservationists take advantage of the many surveys that address "sprawl issues"? In the words of Don Rypkema, of the Real Estate Services Group in Washington D.C., "Historic preservation is smart growth. We cannot say we are having smart growth-regardless of how well it is physically planned-if at the same time we are abandoning existing assets."

At the same time, sprawl threatens historic resources. Such development drains the economic vitality from older cities and towns, where most historic buildings are concentrated. This makes it hard for property owners to maintain and continue using historic buildings. As an auto-dependent form of development in the extreme, sprawl requires a vast infrastructure for cars that threatens local community character.

The relationship between sprawl and historic preservation issues can be seen in many surveys. For example, a Metropolitan Quality of Life survey conducted in the Phoenix area in 1999 found that 88 percent of respondents believe that revitalizing older communities is smart growth. And a 1999 Virginia survey by Bannon Research, a Washing-ton, D.C., polling firm, revealed that more than half (56 percent) of the voters believe that "Virginia`s heritage and quality of life have become a casualty to homogenized growth that destroys both our rural landscape and the urban core."

Clearly, the time is right for preservationists to participate in the debate over these issues and demonstrate why preservation is an alter-native to sprawl. "We need to bring the preservation field up to speed with sprawl and smart growth," says Greg Paxton, executive director of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. "These are hot topics. Preservationists must demonstrate that their goals are consistent with those of smart growth advocates. Preservation is a realistic alternative to uninterrupted sprawl."

Since historic preservation offers alternatives to sprawl, the results from many public opinion surveys can be used strategically by preservation advocates to craft messages for their organization, advance preservation policies with elected officials, and attract media attention to the benefits of preservation. In addition to utilizing existing survey results, preservation organizations can commission their own surveys, or do this in partnership with other groups.

Survey Findings
Surveys on the environment have been conducted for many years, but until the mid-1990s these surveys did not begin to feature public concerns about a new issue: land use problems. According to Kate Stewart of Belden Russonello & Stewart, a Washington, D.C.,-based research and communications firm, "This was an issue coming out in these surveys that we had not seen before."

Findings from surveys give policy makers, the media, and smart growth advocates an overview of public opinion on growth issues. One downside of public opinion research is that it usually only captures a mere snapshot. Some organizations, however, conduct annual surveys that pose the same questions to the same sample size on a regular basis, a technique that enables an organization to track public opinion trends on a particular issue over long periods. Most surveys have found that:

  • Most Americans share such values as a desire for a clean environment, safe neighborhoods, and the preservation of natural and historic resources often threatened by sprawl.
  • Most Americans want to live in a place with a sense of community.
  • Most Americans don`t like congested roads and long commute times to work because of poorly planned development.
  • Most Americans are dissatisfied with endless miles of commercial development that cause unnecessary traffic congestion.
  • Most Americans want to live in a single-family, detached house (though not necessarily on a large lot).
  • Most Americans usually react negatively to sprawl.
  • Most Americans don`t like the degradation of the natural environment but are not sure how this issue relates to concerns about sprawl.
  • Most Americans overwhelmingly support policies that contain sprawl such as the protection of greenfields, public purchases of open space, urban growth boundaries, and financial incentives for the rehabilitation of downtowns and neighborhoods.
Reading and Understanding Survey Findings
Surveys are done for public release or for internal use by an organization for strategic planning purposes. If survey results are available to the public, they may be used by other organizations; however, it is critical that the user-groups know the context of the survey.

The only surveys that should be considered valid are "scientific" surveys. The major difference between a "scientific" and an "unscientific" survey lies in who picks the respondents. In a scientific survey, the pollster identifies and seeks out the people to be interviewed to have a representative sample of the groups whose views are being represented. But in an unscientific survey, respondents usually volunteer their opinions. An "unscientific" pseudo-survey includes 900-number call-in surveys, man-on-the-street surveys, most Internet surveys, and shopping mall surveys. These surveys are often useful, but they are not scientifically accurate.

One should ask several questions when evaluating the results of public opinion surveys. Answers to these questions clarify not only the context for the survey and survey outcomes but also the scientific rigor used for conducting the survey. Surveys are subject to different interpretations by different people. "The most important thing when reading a poll is to make sure you look carefully at the question wording," says Garth Taylor, executive director of the Metro Chicago Information Center, a nonprofit research firm specializing in data collection projects that support non-profit organizations in their advocacy work. "Don`t take at face value the interpretation of the questions in the poll," warns Taylor.

Survey Findings in Action
Surveys by organizations at the local, state, and national level on sprawl and smart growth can be used by preservationists in many ways, as the following cases show.

Maine`s Survey Targets the Housing Market
In 1999 the Maine State Planning Office completed two market-based surveys of 600 recent homebuyers and 180 households actively planning to buy a new home. The survey results painted a picture of new and potential home-buyers moving out of compact villages perceived as deteriorating around the edges and into once-pristine rural lands. However, when a statistical technique called cluster analysis, which groups survey respondents according to their attitudes and values, was used, the picture on attitudes about sprawl changed.

"What we found were four distinct clusters based on attitudes regarding the need to be close to nature, need for proximity to services, need for privacy, and desire for children-oriented neighbor-hoods," says Elizabeth Della Valle, senior planner for the State of Maine.

The cluster analysis indicated that 43 percent of recent homebuyers who had moved out of established towns and into new developments on the outskirts of town are seeking places that the Maine Planning Office calls "Great American Neighborhoods." Such neighborhoods are defined as walk-able, well landscaped, and close to civic institutions. They are akin to many historic neighborhoods if not such neighborhoods themselves. Although historic and older neighborhoods frayed around the edges are seen as undesirable places to live, those that are economically healthy and not frayed at the edges are popular places to live.

Based on these responses, the Maine Planning Office is now preparing to launch an outreach and education campaign around the elements of the "Great American Neighborhood." "The campaign will promote alternatives to sprawl," says Della Valle. The campaign will include an assortment of products to help local communities, home builders, and potential home-buyers incorporate smart growth principles into new and existing communities. Finally, Della Valle hopes to expand on earlier research into homebuyers` decisions, and undertake a survey of commercial and industrial interests to evaluate the motivations for their decisions to relocate.

Colorado Survey Finds Strong Support for Statewide Smart Growth Policies
Public opinion surveys can demonstrate overwhelming support for public policies that may not now be supported by elected officials. These results provide strong ammunition for citizen groups advocating certain policies. In Colorado, for example, the University of Colorado`s Norwest Public Opinion Research Program recently released a statewide poll on growth. Eight of ten Coloradans expressed concerns about growth, with 73 percent saying that the region of the state in which they live is growing too fast. The poll revealed that more than 72 percent of respondents supported legislation to require cities and counties to designate urban growth boundaries to contain development. The release of the poll coincided with the Colorado legislature`s consideration of smart growth legislation.

"The survey broke the myth that these growth management proposals were only supported by certain people living in certain places," says Rich McClintock, executive director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (COPIRG). Following the survey`s release, headlines in the Denver Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post read "Coloradans Want to Fight Sprawl" and "Legislature at Odds with Public on Growth." And a February 12, 2000, editorial published in the Denver Post noted the key word in the survey questions was "require" local governments to develop and implement comprehensive land use plans. Coloradans were ready and willing to stand up for smart growth legislation, for "the survey sent a clear message to our legislature that many people from many back-grounds wanted change," says McClintock.

Vermont`s Survey Used in Many Ways
In January 1999, the Vermont Forum on Sprawl, a nonprofit statewide organization founded in 1998 to curb sprawl, released a poll of more than 2,300 Vermonters on the subject of community values and sprawl. The poll findings, used as a baseline indicator for Vermonters` awareness on sprawl, helped the organization design its message, and its education and outreach efforts. In addition, findings have been used in testimony before the state legislature and in individual conversations with state officials. "We really used the results of the poll to get the word out about the sprawl issue in Vermont," says Elizabeth Humstone, associate director of the Vermont Forum on Sprawl. Humstone says that the poll definitely added to the reputation of the Forum, noting that "we used the poll to launch our public relations campaign with the media. We received excellent statewide coverage by the print, TV, and radio media with the release of it."

Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, emphasizes the importance of using the surveys to facilitate communication and understanding among the many groups fighting sprawl. "You can`t tackle this problem on your own. The Preservation Trust is in this issue along with everyone else," says Bruhn. Bruhn stresses the importance of taking a different approach to thinking about historic preservation: "You need to think outside the box," says Bruhn. "We have broadened our ideas to think beyond protecting an individual building or a house to protecting the character of a community."

Benefit of Public Opinion Surveys
One of the greatest benefits of public opinion surveys is that they give activists a good reality check. "There is usually a big gap between mass opinion and elite opinion, and surveys can show this gap," says Scott Wolf, executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island. Getting a handle on the actual attitudes of the public can better enable an organization to craft its communications message to appeal to the less-than- fervent supporters.

The growing number of surveys on land use issues has provided smart growth advocates with a stronger vocabulary to use when discussing sprawl issues with people who are not intimately involved. These surveys can also give preservationists a better under-standing of how historic preservation provides an alternative to sprawl.

Because sprawl is an emerging policy issue-unlike health care, Social Security, or other issues about which people have long-established opinions-now is an opportune time to help shape public opinion. Because this issue calls for multi-layered public policies it is imperative that smart growth advocates clearly explain why sprawl must be controlled and how historic preservation can help.

Commissioning a Survey
Public opinion surveys are usually conducted by an outside survey research firm responsible for designing the research methodology and questions, conducting interviews, and writing the report. Although such firms are responsible for overseeing the survey, the organization commissioning the survey must work closely with the firm. Pollsters are not magicians. If the objectives of the client are not clear, they will not be reflected in the survey results and analysis. "Garbage in, garbage out," says Scott Wolf of Grow Smart Rhode Island. "If you don`t know why you are doing the survey or what you are using the results for, then it is a waste of time."

Surveys are costly and time consuming. "Surveys are no light undertaking. You really need to consider the financial cost and the additional staff time," notes Barbara Lawrence, executive director of New Jersey`s Future. "You need to know what you are going to do with the information after the survey is completed."

The research firm should spend a considerable amount of time with the organization commissioning the poll to understand what issues are important to the organization and what it wants to address. Research firms will sometimes conduct focus groups before drafting the questions. The focus groups help pollsters identify and understand the range of opinions on an issue. Pollsters then write questions based on the words that people use in the focus groups and the concepts the experts want to convey. "Our goal is to craft a question that will get the concept across but use language that people will be able to understand," says Kate Stewart. After the survey is complete, the research firm will prepare and analyze the data and write a narrative summary explaining the data in non-technical language. Since results are subject to interpretation, it is important that the organization commissioning the survey work to develop a positive message.

Surveys can cost anywhere between $5,000 to $100,000 depending on the number of questions, question length and complexity, size of population being interviewed, and type of statistical analysis to be done afterward. Because surveys may not be financially feasible for all organizations, less costly alternatives, including conducting focus groups and purchasing questions in someone else`s survey, should be considered.

Focus groups are generally used in three ways: to get a better sense of the range of opinions on an issue prior to a survey; to further test the ideas and messages that came from the survey; and on their own. The last option can be useful for an organization with a limited budget. "It can be very helpful if a small organization has one or two messages that it would like to test," says Stewart. Focus groups enable an organization to develop a communications message and test it by asking members of the focus group to respond to it.

An alternative to focus group research is purchasing a few questions that will be included in a larger survey. The price for purchasing a question depends on the depth of the survey and the type of analysis provided by the research firm. Purchasing question(s) can be helpful if the organization has already done other research and wants to test a few ideas.


The debate over smart growth and sprawl is relatively new to Americans. Surveys can provide some insight into Americans` opinions on these issues, but they cannot be thought of as the "be-all-and-end- all" in uncovering public opinion. Some people feel that surveys are overrated and overused. According to David Cieslewicz, director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, "Calling some guy at home during dinner with his children and hassling him about something is not necessarily going to give you a good picture of this guy`s opinion on land use issues." Furthermore, land use policies can be difficult to grasp quickly, so public opinion surveys may not reflect the public`s understanding of the issue.

Despite these drawbacks, surveys can provide plenty of useful information. For example, Preservation Pennsylvania made good use of a statewide environmental survey conducted by Mansfield University in 1999 showing that 83 percent of respondents support more state spending on historic resources. Caroline Boyce, the group`s former executive director, relates, "The survey gave us key nuggets that we could use to demonstrate that historic preservation plays a very important part in efforts to revitalize communities and protect open space."

Publication Date: Spring 2000


Author(s):Elizabeth Pianca

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