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

Sprawl 2-Way

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood talks with syndicated reporter Neal Pearce about who is looking at sprawl as a political issue, and why. Pearce indicates that an unusual trinity of urban and inner suburban dwellers, along with businesses, and environmentalists all seem to stake a claim on the issue.


CURWOOD: Ever since World War II, a house in the suburbs with a 2-car garage, a white picket fence, and a lush lawn has been the dream of many American families. But in much of the country, that dream is becoming a nightmare of long commutes, congestion, and unsightly development. Syndicated columnist Neal Pearce follows the sprawl issue. He says many politicians are missing out on the growing anti-sprawl revolt.

PEARCE: There are a few who are really sort of picking it up as a cause, but there are not many of those. Governor Christie Todd Whitman, Republican of New Jersey; Parris Glendening in Maryland; John Kitsauber in Oregon; Roy Roemer in Colorado. But mostly, I think that the elected leaders, just as in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, this is too hot a potato to touch, that they'll cross local office-holders who want to control everything down at that level, or that development interests will crucify them if they start to push for controls or guides on where growth will go.

CURWOOD: So, people's sentiment against unchecked development is really growing, you're saying, and something could pop loose as big as the Civil Rights movement?

PEARCE: All I can tell you, as a reporter and a correspondent who tries to listen, as I go around the country, almost anywhere where there's a group of citizens gathered together to figure what will happen with my community or my region, you hear them bemoaning the loss of open space and the traffic nightmares and how they're always promised a rainbow at the end of this path of growth. But all they get is more congestion. And you combine that with what many people feel is injustice to older cities, and now the inner suburbs, many people are noting, are being victimized by sprawl as the investment goes into rings further and further away from the traditional urban centers.

CURWOOD: Give me a little demographic profile. Who are the folks who are starting to say no to sprawl development?

PEARCE: Some of the people against it are minority communities who begin to feel that sprawl isolates their communities, foster sort of environmental racism. Some of the other folks are businesses that are becoming very concerned about long commute times, unaffordable housing for their workers. And there are also folks who believe in environmental values who see that it's going to be impossible to maintain clean air, clean water, high values within regions that sprawl indefinitely.

CURWOOD: Now, given the economics of development, can sprawl really be stopped?

PEARCE: Can we really stop the pressures outward? No. Can we try to channel growth into more compact forms? And I think the answer there has to be yes. There are immense opportunities for recycling older urban land or taking the highways filled with low-grade commercial clutter. The franchise foods and gas stations and so on. Recycling a lot of those into urban boulevards. There's the whole new urbanist movement underway in this country for planning walkable neighborhoods and communities, which actually we're finding is very favorably viewed by lots of people as a more traditional type of community. That's one reason that I believe that we don't simply have to accept the idea that we continue expanding at the very low densities of your familiar subdivision development.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

PEARCE: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Neal Pearce is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers' Group.



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