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The undefinable mega-issue.

No one knows quite what to call it. For some, it's "sustainability." For others, it's "smart growth," for others "metropolitan strategies" or "regionalism."

Throwing his hands up in despair at finding a neat single phrase, Vice President Al Gore recently made an imprecise (but politically safe) choice: livability.

If you scan the policy world for animal analogies, several spring to mind: the cruel hyena represents taxes, the eagle national defense, a gentle and milkable cow Medicare, the owl the schools. By contrast, the issue of how we grow, the character and face of our communities, is incredibly multifaceted.

It's energy and tax policy, it's land use, it's roads and transit, it's race and social equity, it's aesthetics and community architecture all rolled up into one. One's tempted to think of it as an octopus, armed with multiple tentacles, ready to eject inky confusion if one draws close.

Gore, to his credit, is at least making a try. Speaking to a crowd assembled by the Brookings Institution's Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy (see The Weekly, 9/7/98), he grasped a couple of the beast's tentacles and promised the Clinton administration would visit local communities, seeking a bottom-up debate on how they're growing. He and Cabinet members will do that in the next several months.

It all makes a huge amount of difference, Gore argued. Only attractive, desirable communities will attract talented people, and commerce in the next century. Community quality is key to U.S. competitiveness.

Where the Veep excelled was in describing how deeply America's growth patterns of recent decades--building "fiat, not tall," gobbling up 50 acres of farmland each hour--has substituted "thickets of strip development" and "bulldozed ecosystems" for the exquisite natural landscapes our grandparents remember.

What's more, said Gore, as sprawl forces people ever further out from urban centers on grueling long commutes, too many downtowns become "a wasteland of boarded-up storefronts," a vacuum "filled up fast with crime, drugs and danger."

It has to be a good thing when any national leader stops rhapsodizing all growth--subdivisons devouring open meadows, Wal-Marts in cornfields, anything with a dollar sign--as positive.

But there are tentacles of the octopus no politico, Gore included, dares touch. Example: the home mortgage interest deduction, inspiring McMansions and transferring billions in national wealth to our more affluent. And cheap gasoline, encouraging people to move to evermore-distant suburbs.

We're still waiting for any national administration to enforce, energetically, President Carter's Executive Order directing federal offices to select center city locations when possible. (Federal employees often lobby for "safe" suburban locations--and convince their bosses.)

And the U.S. Postal Service needs a trip to the woodshed to punish it for relocating hundreds of post offices, out of historic town centers, to sterile, asphalt surrounded lots on the far edge of town (see related story on page 9 in this issue.)

While recognizing some federal role in these issues, Gore sidestepped them for now--but did announce three positive initiatives.

One's a new $100 million mortgage program, to be run by Fannie Mae, recognizing families that choose to buy homes near transit lines can save hundreds of dollars a month and thus ought to be eligible for higher-valued mortgages.

Under these so-called "location-efficient mortgages," currently getting road-tested in Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles, families will also receive 30year transit passes.

A second initiative will award an initial $17 million to 19 states to help protect thousands of acres of quality: farmland for future generations.

And third--maybe' most intriguing of all--competing localities will get federal grants to finance computerized community mapping. Examples: Crime activity by type, location, time of day and day of the week. Or land use, showing current buildings, farmlands, highways and open space in a region, so that the impacts of proposed developments can be tracked.

It turns out there's already a Federal Geographic Data Committee, 15 agencies involved, led by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Its mission is to impart federal data in usable form, and a competitive program to help communities make smart use of geographic data.

Using that data to visualize the impact of proposed development has to be a perfect form of federal R&D for smart communities. Demystify growth decisions, and there's a real opportunity to democratize the development process, to let ordinary citizens--not just businesses or a few politicians--influence how communities grow and develop.

Add to that the listening sessions on smart growth and livability Gore now promises--a democratic debate to see how Americans, rural, suburban and city, feel about the character and future of their communities--and one can see the debate opening up even further.

The real payoff will come if citizens raise many of today's untouchable development issues, from megaroads to politicized zoning permits. Only citizens are likely, finally, to expose all the octopus' tentacles.
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Title Annotation:the need to reassess growth expansion that hurts municipalities and downtown areas
Author:Peirce, Neal R.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Sep 14, 1998
Previous Article:NLC, USCM cop top honors for Washington advocacy.
Next Article:Amid big distractions, spending bills await actions; 17 legislative days remain.

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