Light touch keeps Smart Growth viable

January 27, 1999|By Andrew Ratner

A DUTCH group toured Maryland recently to learn about Gov. Parris Glendening's Smart Growth initiative, which has been cited by Vice President Al Gore and Governing magazine as a model of how to slow suburban sprawl.

An aide to the governor received strange looks when he explained how state government hoped to coax counties to contain development.

"You mean," one of the European visitors interrupted, "you let your local governments decide these things?"

In Europe, Smart Growth has been around for a millennium, with sharp transitions from city to countryside. But that demarcation has become blurred in America over the past half-century with the mushrooming of suburbia.

The question from the Dutch visitor unintentionally touched a nerve that the vice president and the governor must avoid as they promote this new agenda to reshape the landscape.

If Smart Growth gets translated as "big government," it will fail faster than you can say "national health care." Even Big Tobacco last year found it could capture a lot of public support by casting itself as a victim of a tax-ravenous government bully.

Mr. Gore, on Smart Growth, seems vulnerable to this trap. He's deeply enthusiastic about redirecting energy back to traditional towns and cities. President Clinton singled out the vice president's work on the administration's "livability agenda" in his State of the Union address, which includes $10 billion to finance public transportation, land and water protection and Smart Growth planning.

In his 1992 book, "Earth in the Balance," Mr. Gore dates his passion about man's impact on the environment to dinnertime discussions with his mother about Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring." His belief in humankind's vulnerability intensified after he watched his son get struck and seriously injured by an automobile as they left an Orioles game in Baltimore 10 years ago.

But the vice president's rhetoric about the sickness of sprawl overstates the public mood. Suburban families aren't as woeful about their surroundings as he suggests. Out-migration continues as people keep voting with their feet. So-called "neo-traditionalist" architects and Mr. Gore may deride the 'burbs as places without a soul, but suburbanites aren't so discontented.

Suburban view

They may be frustrated with congested highways, too few parks and numbingly repetitive shopping centers. But they probably see these "edge cities" and "new towns" where they've chosen to live as a compromise between the cities they see as unsafe and the rural areas lacking creature comforts.

Also, suburban dwellers are more likely to be Republicans and leery of Washington's ability to fix whatever ails their communities.

Mr. Gore's overreach was on display in his speech before the American Institute of Architects this month, with Mr. Glendening at his side.

"The sprawl that has developed around our cities has transformed suburbs into lonely cul-de-sacs so distant from commercial centers that if a family wants an affordable house, a commuting parent often gets home too late to read a child a bedtime story," Mr. Gore said.

"This kind of sprawl means working families must sink thousands of dollars into extra commuting costs, when they may want the choice of devoting those funds to a year of state college."

Mr. Gore's argument has holes you could drive a sport-utility vehicle through. You don't have to move long distances to find affordable housing. Typically, these people are seeking such things as better schools, less crime, a different lifestyle and newer housing.

Drivers of sport-utility behemoths in the bedroom communities obviously aren't scrimping on gas money for the tuition fund. And parents neglectful of reading to their children can't honestly blame the extra half hour or so they're spending in their cars.

One disconnect that Smart Growth proponents will have to address is how their generally sensible back-to-the-future concept of denser development jibes with consumer preference for bigger houses. New single-family houses average a third more space than those built 20 years ago. Portland, Ore., a Smart Growth model, has taken heat for seeking to shrink lot sizes for homes so it can wedge more growth into its tightly defined development envelope.

Maryland's experience might provide a road-map for Mr. Gore on this potentially volatile issue. Although once rated the least popular governor, Mr. Glendening has made a name for himself with Smart Growth probably because he hasn't appeared to be forcing it on voters

No state aid

The state isn't impinging on local authority for land-use planning, Mr. Glendening accurately explains. It's simply refusing to invest in infrastructure that aids and abets sprawl.

A county can still approve development in the middle of nowhere; it just can't seek state aid for the road to get people there.

The governor demonstrated that point recently by withholding funding for proposed highway bypasses around small towns. (He overstepped Smart Growth when he rejected a plan to turn a former state hospital into a police-training center. Recycling a century-old institution would have been smart.)

Smart Growth's critics contend that the free market should dictate where folks live and work.

They fail to mention that billions of tax dollars spent on everything from highways to home loans have underwritten suburban development, contributing to urban decline.

If elected officials are going to be more attentive to the long-term effects of their public spending, that's not just Smart Growth, it's smarter government.

Just so it doesn't become "big government."

Andrew Ratner is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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