Use Smart Growth to fight segregation

Bringing the dream to life

January 15, 2003|By Thomas Hylton

IN THE FOUR decades since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, America has made extraordinary strides toward racial equality - integration in the workplace, an expanding black middle class, the election of blacks to high political office.

In fact, judging from the cries of outrage over Sen. Trent Lott's favorable reference to segregation, one might conclude America now wholeheartedly embraces racial diversity.

Unfortunately, when it comes to where we live and send our children to school, our nation is as segregated as ever.

Baltimore is typical. Two of every three African-Americans in the six-county metropolitan area live in Baltimore itself. As the city's population dwindles, it loses five whites for every black. As Baltimore County's black population grows, whites migrate to adjacent counties such as Carroll and Anne Arundel. Meanwhile, reflecting its population, the Baltimore County school district is becoming more segregated.

Prior to the 1960s, segregation was overt and sanctioned by government policy. Those days are gone, but because of the spread of the amorphous, low-density suburb, segregation continues. Middle-class whites live in newer suburban municipalities where taxes are lower and schools are better. But minorities, because they have lower incomes on average, live in the cities, where housing is affordable but access to jobs and opportunities for upward mobility are limited.

In one of his apologies, Mr. Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said that "segregation is a stain on our nation's soul," and it surely is. Unfortunately, it's the way most of us live.

It doesn't have to be this way, and Smart Growth can help. In an era before fair-housing laws, developer James Rouse sought to make his new town of Columbia racially and economically integrated. He prevented builders from steering blacks to specific areas, and he insisted (in the beginning) that 10 percent of the dwellings be affordable.

Thirty-five years later, Columbia is 64 percent white, 21 percent black, 7 percent Asian and 4 percent Hispanic - virtually mirroring the statewide average for Maryland.

Smart Growth principles are a key reason for Columbia's success. Although Columbia's design leaves much to be desired, its density and variety of stores, workplaces and housing types have made it feasible for all races to live there.

In the early 1990s, Florida's Palm Beach County school district briefly tried to desegregate its schools by desegregating neighborhoods. The district signed agreements with developers and homeowners' associations that allowed children to attend neighborhood schools if the communities promoted integrated housing.

For George de Guardiola, principal developer of Wellington, one of those communities, integration was difficult to achieve. "We had no employment base, no mixture of activities," he said. "Even though we had housing in a variety of price ranges, we couldn't find enough blacks who would commute somewhere else."

Since then, Mr. de Guardiola has become an advocate of traditional neighborhood development. He designed one of America's largest such communities, Abacoa, situated in northern Palm Beach County. Abacoa will eventually house 15,000 residents within walking distance of a traditional main street with stores and office buildings.

"Once you have a variety of educational and recreational opportunities, combined with jobs, housing affordability and a reasonable transportation network, you can attract a racial balance," he said.

A century ago, before the sort of government regulation and bureaucracy we know today, most Americans lived in the kind of traditional community Abacoa seeks to re-create. Suburban sprawl, far from being a free-market phenomenon, was spawned by massive government intervention:

Lavish spending on highways, subsidized by general taxation, opened huge areas for development.

The mortgage policies of the Federal Housing Administration favored new housing in developing suburbs over existing housing in cities and towns.

Public housing projects were built exclusively in city neighborhoods, hastening their decline.

Because it advocates an end to the government subsidies that have fueled sprawl for 50 years, Smart Growth is eminently compatible with the conservative Republican philosophy espoused by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Abraham Lincoln said government's leading objective was "to elevate the condition of men ... to afford all an unfettered start; and a fair chance in the race of life." As long as we segregate neighborhoods by race and income, we fall woefully short of that goal.

Smart Growth can help the party of Lincoln be true to its heritage - and American ideals.

Thomas Hylton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer, is author of Save Our Land, Save Our Towns (RB Books, 1995) and host of a public television documentary based on the book.

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