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Stopping Sprawl, Saving Communities 

12-09-2015 17:35

Along Main Street is a row of stores. Here`s the grocery store and here`s Mr. Morgan`s drugstore. Most everybody in town manages to look into those two stores once a day, the narrator tells us. The community is Grover`s Corners, N.H., early in the 20th century in Thornton Wilder`s Our Town.

Now fast-forward from this image to your fourth-grade gym class, the day when you learned that physical fitness was good and "sprawl" was bad. We recognized sprawl, to use Mr. Webster`s words, when something "spread out ungracefully, irregularly; a straggling mass."

Decades later, the 1995 New Year`s Day edition of The Washington Post, in its annual list of what`s hot and what`s not, put it succinctly: "sprawl" is OUT and "Main Street," IN. Now we know. Sprawl is no longer stylish. But remember? It never was.

Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of local activists around America and the perseverance of the National Trust--notably President Richard Moe`s successful efforts to oppose the Walt Disney Company`s massive theme park and commercial development in rural Virginia`s historic Piedmont region, as well as the initiatives of Constance Beaumont, Kennedy Smith, and Shelley Mastran--the message is finally being heard and heeded. Indeed, in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors on January 27, Richard Moe noted that "sprawl is like pornography, it`s hard to define, but everyone knows it when they see it. " He was not talking about physical fitness.

Across America`s towns and landscapes the forces of sprawl are consuming land, fueling automobiles, creating generic buildings, spawning appallingly ugly, poorly planned places -- not communities like those Thornton Wilder portrayed; just places on the map, distinguished only by their zip codes and remarkable mostly for their parking lots.

Yet the sources of sprawl are not so obscure--ample fuel, expected economic gain, ineffective public rules, weak discipline, poor aesthetics, the misplaced hope for a better day. But they have changed in some important ways. The baby-boomer growth that powered the first post-War wave of suburbanization, with its compartmentalized housing subdivisions, job centers, regional shopping malls, and school districts, seems relatively straightforward by contrast with the nature of sprawl today. The current transference of property and retail tax revenues from downtown to the fringe of town, or from one county or state to another, resembles a frenzied game of musical chairs. It simply transplants the costs of public facilities from one place and resident base to another, leaving in its wake the costs of redevelopment and rehabilitation.

Fundamental demographics are no longer sprawl`s reigning animus. Much of sprawling development today is led not by household gains and utility extensions but by Wall Street`s pressures to grow publicly traded companies, many of them discount superstores. Yet as New York developer Jonathan Rose noted at the National Trust`s Boston "sprawl-busting" conference on December 3 (cosponsored by the Conservation Law Foundation and the Preservation Trust of Vermont), there is another, possibly more important factor. "The secret is in the codes," Rose said, referring to the local and county land use regulations and zoning ordinances that are the stuff of comprehensive plans, that "create the template from which towns can grow." Even developers prefer zoned, "as-of-right" development sites. They cost less time, money, and fees for permit approvals.

It is in this controllable detail, the land use regulations that add up to a larger vision, that towns, counties, regions, and states fail, and fall prey to sprawl. The absence of a physical vision, an actionable plan at county and regional levels, is one major source of sprawl.

A second source stems from the tremendous force of national oligopolies--major retailers, homebuilders, road engineers--which have an economic need to diversify into new markets, whether population growth warrants new development or not.

A third source is Americans` convenience "habit": the desire to have everything closer, shorter, cheaper-- the suburban mall, the "category killer" discount store, the Wal-Mart with everything at a lower price. Yet the truth is, we pay $3 in sprawling roads and infrastructure for every $1 in so called discount merchandise.

A fourth source is our love affair with the automobile. Since the 1940s a full generation of adults has grown up auto-dependent, living and working quite comfortable in compartmentalized districts connected one to another by roads and highways.

It is no wonder this country generates 50 percent of the miles driven in the world. Throughout Europe driving is the anomaly amid impeccable public transportation networks. Perhaps if more Americans were aware that auto emission is the single most devastating cause of historic building deterioration, we would all know a lot more self-appointed preservationists.

One recent study concluded that suburban residents motoring to their downtown jobs pay only one-quarter of the actual cost of their commute; everyone else subsidizes the rest in taxes and fees. Is this fiscally responsible policy? Another fact: the average American household pays $5,228 each year on car-related expenses, more than the average annual costs of food or health care, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Talk about physical fitness.

The National Trust is committed to assisting and reinforcing the anti-sprawl initiatives of Forum members and communities. National Trust regional offices are the first point of contact for information and local assistance. To learn which regional office serves your state, call (202) 673-4296. Several programs offering advice and assistance are listed below, along with a contact person and telephone number.

Local and State Policy:  The spearhead of the National Trust`s anti-sprawl initiative and of effective citizen efforts around the country. Constance Beaumont, (202) 673-4255.

National Main Street Center:  For many towns and counties, the key to community planning, building revitalization, and downtown merchant consortiums is found on Main Street. Kennedy Smith, (202) 673-4219.

Economic Feasibility:  Economic factors play the most important role in determining which buildings survive and for how long. John Leith Tetrault, Community Partners, (202) 673-4054.

National Preservation Loan Fund:  Revolving loans for preservation plans and construction projects can help to leverage major funding. Lyn Moriarity, (202) 673-4054.

Land Use and Preservation Planning:  The critical link between citizens` visions for their communities and regulatory codes. Shelley Mastran, (202) 673-4037.

Because the impacts of sprawl are devastating, and the numbers of lives, communities, and public dollars involved are tremendous, the solutions are often difficult to implement. Yet consider the alternative. Ron Powers, speaking on behalf of a successful opposition to Wal-Mart`s entry into Vermont, summarized the choice in the videotape Back Against the Wal evoking Wilderesque images: "Take a good look at your local department store, your pharmacist, your hardware shop, your bookstore, then try to picture your town with those storefronts boarded up. Is it a community anymore? Is it Vermont? Who has pocketed the profits? And who will pay the price?"

Publication Date: March/April 1995

#ForumNews #MainStreet

Author(s):Jan Cigliano

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