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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sprawl Commentary

Air Date: Week of

Environmentalists are using people's anger over suburban sprawl to re-energize and transform the environmental movement. Keith Schneider tells us how.


CURWOOD: Parking lots. Strip malls. Cookie cutter subdivisions. Sprawl continues its march further and further into the American countryside. While the issue prompts an old debate about land use, commentator Keith Schneider says it also represents an opportunity to transform the American environmental movement.

SCHNEIDER: Even though Americans truly care about fresh air and clean water, polls show that issues like crime, jobs, and quality of life take precedence. What's needed to energize the environmental message is a new angle, one that combines care for resources with the urgency that motivates people. It just so happens that such a story is unfolding. It's in the traffic jams, in the big box stores surrounded by asphalt prairies. In the fast food fry pits and one-story lube joints being built ever further from city centers. It is the story of expensive, unsightly, and environmentally damaging suburban sprawl.

Such wasteful use of land is no accident. Since World War II, misguided tax policies, transportation subsidies, and economic incentives encouraged investment on the cheapest land. Cities were hollowed out, suburbs paved over. The consequences have been enormous. Violence, declining education standards, and a wave of other cultural problems are now seen by social theorists as linked to this damaging pattern of development.

Sprawl has also become one of the principal challenges to keeping air and water clean. In short, the problems associated with sprawl affect millions of Americans. Their unease represents a golden opportunity to recruit new supporters by defining environmentalism as encompassing the full arena of human experience.

To understand the power of the sprawl issue to compel people, consider what is happening in fast growing northern Michigan. Here, sprawl has become the centerpiece of the civic conversation. Residents grimly predict that growth will accelerate the pace of life, that national chains will supplant home-grown businesses, and that the region's sparkling environment will become polluted. The local discussion about how to respond has become quite sophisticated with environmentalists leading the way. They act as researchers, facilitators, and advocates.

For example, they say, keeping the air clean may mean designing new neighborhoods with stores and offices close by to encourage people to use their cars less. Environmentalists also have publicized the importance of forests and transportation in the debate. New questions are being asked about $600 million in proposed sprawl-encouraging freeways that would carve up the forest. Bobcat and threatened Curtlan's warblers need those trees to survive. So do the multi-billion-dollar timber and recreation industries. By actively participating in the sprawl debate, environmental groups in northern Michigan have raised their stature and realized dramatic increases in membership. Here, curtailing sprawl has become the central organizing idea to improve people's lives, enhance the economy, and protect resources. A new focus on reigning in sprawl nationwide has just as much potential to reshape American environmentalism.

CURWOOD: Commentator Keith Schneider directs the Michigan Land Use Institute in Benzonia.



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