|environmental protection strategies|
following material is excerpted with written permission from How Smart
Growth Can Stop Sprawl, a briefing guide for funders by David Bollier.
(Washington, D.C.:Essential Books), 1998.
It has become increasingly clear that traditional strategies for protecting a given environmental domain - air, water, habitat, coastal zones - are reaching points of diminishing returns. Technological fixes and standard-setting may represent one step forward - they remain utterly necessary - but unplanned land use patterns constitute two steps backward. Car engines are 96 percent cleaner than a generation ago, but that progress has been swamped in large measure by sprawl, which has put 85 million more cars on the road driving twice as many miles a year. The Endangered Species Act may help save the spotted owl from extinction, but the structural origins of that problem can be traced to unwise land use.
The wisdom of bioregionalism is reasserting itself. Just as it has become evident that metro areas cannot function well if their political governance is balkanized, with one town asserting its priorities above all others, so we are seeing that a region's ecology cannot function well if one component - namely, human settlement - asserts its needs with scant regard for natural habitat, water cycles, and airshed flows. "The cunning and inexorable logic of nature seldom complies with the arbitrary and compromising logic of politics," writes Douglas P. Wheeler, Secretary of the California Resources Agency.1
The smart growth movement seeks to consolidate the lessons of the past generation by highlighting the central role of land use in dozens of environmental concerns. Although relatively neglected within the environmental movement, land use is a pivotal, structural issue that must be addressed if progress is to be made or maintained on other environmental fronts.
The EPA has recognized this reality by starting a Smart Growth Network, which serves as a clearinghouse for progressive alternatives to sprawl. A number of environmental groups, particularly the Natural Resources Defense Council and some chapters of the Sierra Club, have begun to address sprawl-related environmental issues in a serious way. There are also a number of open space-conservation groups such as the Land Trust Alliance, the Nature Conservancy and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy that are making significant contributions.
At the state and local level, too, there are dozens of environmental groups tackling significant facets of sprawl. Among the more vigorous organizations are the Greenbelt Alliance of the Bay Area; the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Maryland; the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League; the many state "1,000 Friends of..." organizations; the Sonoran Institute; and the land trust movement. There is also a flourishing field of "green" planning and architecture, which seeks to make human settlements more in harmony with the peculiarities of a region's landscape and ecology.
Protecting Open Spaces Through Land Trusts
The net effect, in either case, is similar: preservation of open spaces that provide aesthetic relief, recreational opportunities, new tourism, a stronger agricultural base and a healthier ecosystem. Land trusts and other open space advocates are also key leaders for better land-use planning. Comprised of local memberships tackling local land issues, these organizations play a vital role in educating the public. The Land Trust Alliance identified some 1,100 local and regional land trusts in 1994, twice as many as a decade earlier. The 900,000 collective members of these organizations are credited with saving more than four million acres of land.
Advocacy for Open Spaces. One of the most significant antidotes to sprawl that has emerged over the past decade is the linear greenway, which preserves large tracts of open space in urban areas and helps structure new future growth. Greenways are generally created through public acquisition of the land or through an easement that protects a stream, scenic view or other natural resource from development. While some state governments have been enlightened enough to pursue open space preservation on their own, others have responded only through concerted citizen pressure.
At the national level, one of the most important advocacy groups for open spaces is Americans for Our Heritage and Recreation, or AHR, a coalition that represents environmentalists, park and recreation specialists, advocates for urban and wilderness areas, historic preservationists and others. AHR's primary mission is to persuade Congress to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a 1965 act that uses revenues from offshore oil and gas drilling to acquire land for parks, forests and open spaces, and to develop recreational projects.
Over the years, the Fund has been used to acquire nearly seven million acres of park land and open space, and to develop more than 37,000 parks and recreation projects. Parks and wilderness areas that have benefited from the Fund include the Everglades, Golden Gate Park, New York City's Central Park as well as hundreds of smaller state and federal lands.
Unfortunately, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has not been fully funded for years. Even though Congress has authorized the Fund to receive and spend $900 million a year, President Reagan's Interior Secretary James Watt "zeroed out" spending for the Fund in 1981. Since then, Congress has simply diverted most of the $900 million intended for the Fund elsewhere.
Advocacy by AHR helped boost the 1998 appropriations for the Fund to $969 million, the highest level of funding in two decades and the first time that the full $900 million has been allocated. Approximately one-third of that sum will be spent to acquire the New World Mine in Montana and the environmentally valuable Headwaters in California. The challenge ahead for AHR is to assure that future appropriations for The Land and Water Conservation Fund are actually made, and that federal funds earmarked for state land and recreation projects are dispersed as well.
At the national level, there are other important projects that help preserve open space. The Conservation Fund has an American Greenways Program which provides technical assistance to states in establishing greenways. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has provided similar assistance to state and local groups in converting some 7,000 miles of railroad trails into public paths for walking and biking. As an association of land use and real estate development professionals, The Urban Land Institute has not been at the forefront of environmentally sensitive development, but it has recently begun to educate its membership about "green" alternatives in planning and building design, including the value of greenbelts.
State-based Advocacy for Open Spaces. Some of the most important advocacy for greenways comes from state, local and regional constituencies. One of the most sophisticated and aggressive regional advocates for open space is the Greenbelt Alliance in the San Francisco Bay Area. Over the past 37 years, the Alliance has helped save more than 600,000 acres of greenways in the Bay Area and generate over $450 million to acquire new parks, recreation areas and open spaces.
Realizing that long-term success requires a regional focus, the Alliance in the 1980s branched into urban development and redevelopment issues, and opened field offices in San Jose, Santa Rosa and Walnut Creek. Realizing, also, the importance of state policy, the Alliance, working with the Planning and Conservation League, helped found the California Futures Network, a coalition of progressive advocacy groups seeking to develop a more coherent state agenda for land use.
What distinguishes the Greenbelt Alliance is its strong grassroots base, innovative strategies and bold leadership. It reaches out to the public through hiking and bicycle outings, public education and marketing. It is exploring innovative ways to use federal environmental statutes and new ways that adjacent counties can cooperate to preserve open spaces. It has reached out to diverse constituencies, such as affordable housing advocates and infill developers, to build robust coalitions (see below).
The dynamics of advocacy differ from one metro region to another, of course. In Georgia, where there is less tradition of preserving open spaces, the Georgia Greenways Initiative, a coalition of Georgia's leading conservation, environmental and historic preservation groups, faces more formidable hurdles in establishing a state trust fund to buy river corridors, native wildlife habitat, greenbelts and other areas threatened by development. Because a dedicated trust fund violates the state constitution, the Georgia Greenways Initiative is organizing a ballot campaign to amend the constitution, which first required a lobbying effort to secure state appropriations. Now it is up to Georgia voters to ratify the legislation that passed, creating the Georgia Land, Water and Wildlife Heritage Fund and providing $30 million annually.
This contrasts with the many states that already have created special funds or taxes to acquire land for conservation. Alabama voters have established a state land trust financed by revenues from oil and gas taxes; Arizona and Colorado use lottery revenues; Nevada voters passed a bond act that will raise nearly $50 million dollars. Florida has authorized the sale of $300 million of bonds a year over ten years to acquire and preserve land. To date, Florida, which has one of the highest concentrations of endangered species in the nation, has bought 1 million acres of some 34 million acres that it wants to preserve.
Once conservation areas are secured, it is often necessary to attend to its ecological balance and biodiversity. One exemplary organization working in this area is the Wildlands Project of Tucson, Arizona, which works with groups throughout the continental United States to re-establish the food webs and nutrient cycles of a landscape, adding species that have been decimated when necessary. This process of "re-wilding" is an important follow-through process once conservation areas are secured.
Land Trusts. Land trusts provide an alternative way to preserve open spaces, relying less upon advocacy and public policy than on private land acquisition. Jean W. Hocker, president/executive director of the Land Trust Alliance, describes what lands trusts do:
They acquire land outright and manage preserves open to the public. They hold conservation easements that permanently restrict harmful uses while leaving the land in private ownership. They design limited development projects to save the most sensitive parts of a property while appropriate building goes forward on the remainder. They devise strategies that encourage responsible farming or timbering while protecting natural and recreational resources. They conduct negotiations and acquisitions at the request of government conservation programs. They use their properties to educate adults and children alike about natural systems. And they tirelessly seek donations - of money, land, volunteer time, advice - to advance the protection and sound use of sensitive lands.2
Land trusts, write Henry Diamond and Patrick Noonan in Land Use in America, "offer home-grown solutions tailored to local needs. Land trusts typically are small and flexible, leveraging limited financial resources with voluntary involvement at the community level. They stress problem solving and cooperation rather than confrontation to achieve consensus solutions."3 One of the great advantages of groups like the Nature Conservancy, or other land trusts, is their ability to negotiate individualized solutions with private landowners while working in partnerships with government agencies. They can acquire land quickly, for example, and later resell it to the government, or they can craft special conservation easements to suit the needs of land owners.
In areas where new sprawl is galloping forward, such as the southeastern United States and the West, rising land values can make it exceedingly difficult for people who inherit land to pay estate taxes without selling off the land for subdivision. Land trusts and conservation easements provide a way for heirs to avoid this outcome. The Nature Conservancy specializes in acquiring ecologically important lands that are threatened by sprawl. Typically, the organization strikes a deal that provides tax advantages to the sellers and a means for the Conservancy to recoup all or part of its purchase price.
Besides the Nature Conservancy, the nation's largest land trust organizations include the Land Trust Alliance, the Trust for Public Land, the Land Trust Exchange, the Conservation Fund, Ducks Unlimited, the American Wetlands Trust and the National Audubon Society. The National Trust for Historic Preservation also has expertise in conservation easements, the purchase of development rights and other land preservation techniques.
Taking up where land trusts leave off, some
creative theorists are exploring new forms of common property, defined
as group- or community-owned private property. These include (in addition
to land trusts) neighborhood-managed parks, community-supported agriculture
and limited-equity housing cooperatives, all of which are neither private
nor public property in the strictest sense. The idea of new kinds of commons
have great appeal for building sustainable communities, because it is based
upon local accountability and control and long-term stability.4
One important theorist in this area is Elinor Ostrom.5
Innovative Uses of Federal Environmental Laws. As artifacts of the 1970s, most environmental laws are inherently limited in what they can achieve. They tend to focus on individual pollution sources rather than the aggregate impact of multiple sources over time. And as federally administered regulatory regimes, they are not coordinated with state and local planning processes. As a result, federal laws often do not provide the best, most effective framework for addressing environmental problems.
Until such time as a new political consensus can revamp federal environmental law, however, state and local groups must work with the tools available to them. This puts a premium on innovative uses of the law to achieve results that, under ideal circumstances, might be achieved in other ways. Citizen groups therefore need greater resources to explore how federal environmental law can be used to advance smart growth principles.
An excellent example is a proposal by the U.S. Conference of Mayors to authorize states to use infill development as a strategy that would qualify for air quality attainment. The idea is that states could get credit toward compliance with Clean Air Act standards by building in the city, because, compared to sprawled development, it would reduce auto usage and emissions. This strategy has a larger political benefit: it gives an entire region a stake in infill development, and encourages utilities and other major businesses to build new facilities within city limits.
Another example: Citing Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, Dana Beach of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League has told developers the League would sue to obtain enforcement of the law unless they agree to concessions that would preserve ecologically valuable land.
What these cases illustrate is the need for activists to steer implementation and enforcement of federal environmental laws in the direction of smart growth and regionalism. The law may not have been explicitly intended to advance such goals, but they can be used to foster them. Pioneering such legal/political innovations will require imagination, a larger vision of change and new funding support.
Reaching Out to New Constituencies. Environmentalists can reap significant gains by innovating in another area - their outreach to new constituencies. This has been occurring for some time, of course, in selected areas, as reflected in the environmental justice movement and NRDC's partnership with the Surface Transportation Policy Project. But establishing working alliances with new and unexpected constituencies - farmers, the elderly, affordable housing advocates, urban minorities and others - is essential in building the political base for new regional strategies.
A great example is the Greenbelt Alliance's activism on behalf of affordable housing in urban areas. Through its "Compact Development Endorsement Program," the Alliance formally supports proposed infill housing and mixed-use developments, especially if they are transit-oriented and/or affordable. Based on clear criteria, the Alliance is prepared to endorse projects before zoning boards and other city bodies. Its endorsement shows that environmentalists are not against development, but for smart growth. The Alliance's endorsement helps build the base of support for environmental objectives while providing that extra bit of political support needed to win approval of new affordable housing.
There are other "new" constituencies that could be drawn into the orbit of smart growth advocacy. Despite their differences with dairy farmers over nonpoint source pollution from cow manure, environmentalists in Connecticut have stepped forward to support farmers who want to maintain the existing milk-pricing system. Environmentalists realize that farmers who cannot earn a stable, decent living may end up selling their farms, accelerating sprawl.
There are also constituencies that are natural supporters of the smart growth movement, but who generally have not been approached to play a more active role. The elderly, who become house-bound when they can no longer drive, have good reason to support ISTEA and more compact neighborhoods. "Soccer moms," too, are not likely enthusiasts of single-use zoning and municipal plans that require constant driving. The environmental justice movement represents a solid base from which to recruit new minority supporters of regionalism, urban reinvestment and smart growth. Faith-based communities, with their reverence for God's creation, are natural supporters of environmental campaigns. They also offer a moral bridge to other smart growth constituencies, such as urban minorities, social services advocates and suburban churches and synagogues.
Sustainable Community Design. The central insight of Ian McHarg's pioneering 1969 work, Design with Nature, was that human settlements and natural systems are inextricably bound together. Our cities and towns are rooted in regional ecologies, and all development must respect the integrity of those complex natural systems.
It is not just for the sake of migrating birds that we should want to preserve wetlands, but because wetlands offer an excellent means to control flooding and filter nonpoint source pollution. Natural systems may actually be more cost-effective than our technologies over the long term.
"Where you find a people who believe that man and nature are indivisible, and that survival and health are contingent upon an understanding of nature and her processes," writes McHarg, "these societies will be very different from ours, as will be their towns, cities and landscapes. The hydraulic civilizations, the good farmer through time, the vernacular city builders, have all displayed this acuity."6 Challenging the western notion that land is there to be conquered and sold, as if it were a fungible, inert commodity, McHarg argues that such natural systems as surface water, marshes, floodplains, aquifers, aquifer recharge areas, steep lands, prime agricultural land, and forests and woodlands, are finite natural resources that must be conserved. Planning must actively take into account the workings of these ecological systems.
Since McHarg sounded this clarion call and illustrated his vision with specific design principles, they have become a part of many town plans and zoning codes, and a flourishing ethos among many landscape architects. Sometimes explicitly, sometimes not, the New Urbanists are heirs to McHarg's school of thought. They seek to integrate the design of human settlements with the regional ecology. In particular, Douglas Kelbaugh (Common Place) and Peter Calthorpe (The Next American Metropolis) have championed the values of environmentally sensitive design. Another leading figure in the movement for sustainable architecture and planning practices has been Sim Vander Ryn, who most recently authored Ecologic Design Process.
In recent times, a movement for "sustainable communities" has augmented the scope of McHarg's vision by focussing, also, on the ways to build economically sustainable, socially equitable communities that function compatibly with the natural ecology. This emerging school of thought complements the regionalism espoused by others in the smart growth movement (but who, for various reasons, do not emphasize environmental concerns). Clearly there are powerful untapped synergies to be released by joining the fledgling sustainable communities movement with smart-growth regionalists.7
1 Douglas P. Wheeler, "Ecosystem Management: An Organizing Priniciple for Land Use," in Diamond and Noonan, Land Use in America (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996), p.156.
2 Jean W. Hocker, "Patience, Problem Solving and Private Initiative: Local Groups Chart a New Court for Land Conservation," Diamond and Noonan, Land Use in America, p.250.
3 Diamond and Noonan, Land Use in America, p. 126.
4 See Lincoln.inst.edu/landline/1997/march/commonp.html
5 See Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
6 McHarg, Design with Nature, p. 27.
7 See, e.g., the Rocky Mountain Institute;Sustainable America, a nonprofit technical assistance and educational group based in New York City; and a report of a 1996 conference, "Encouraging Sustainable Communities," held at the Wingspread Conference Center in Wisconsin. Key resources to consult regarding sustainable community design include the Department of Energy's Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development; a masters thesis by Robert Hsin, "Guidelines and Principles for Sustainable Community Design"; The Institute for Sustainable Development at the School of Architecture at the University of VA; and the EPA Region III site on Green Communities.