Educating Policymakers and Communities about Sprawl

Rosalind Greenstein, July 1, 1999

While the issue of managing suburban growth has long been on the Lincoln Institute’s agenda, “sprawl” is now receiving a great deal of attention from citizens, policy analysts and policymakers, as well as the popular press. However, crafting policies to respond to suburban growth is extremely difficult for a variety of reasons.

First, we lack a public consensus about what sprawl is. Even paraphrasing former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “. . . but I know it when I see it” does not work in this case. For example, one often hears from anti-sprawl activists that they do not want their community to be “another Los Angeles.” However, Los Angeles is more densely populated today than it was 30 years ago.

Dowell Myers and Alicia Kitsuse report that “the Los Angeles urbanized area (the region excluding mountains and deserts) has the highest gross population densities among the 20 largest metropolitan regions, higher even than New York.”1 Exploring deeper, one finds that “Los Angeles” is code for a variety of social problems that are concentrated in our nation’s cities, such as urban crime, teenage pregnancy, poverty, persistent unemployment, and a variety of other concerns, not the least of which is the organization of uses in metropolitan space.

A second challenge to crafting policies to respond to suburban growth is the threat to anticipated economic gain by some of those who own undeveloped land on the fringes of metropolitan areas. For example, one can imagine the great interest these landowners would have in negotiations to redraw urban growth boundaries. The line on the map can have significant monetary implications for a parcel depending on which side of the line it lands.

A third challenge is the variety of existing policies and laws that have encouraged suburban growth over the past 50 years. In a recent Institute-supported study, Patricia Burgess and Thomas Bier make a strong case that governmental fragmentation on two fronts contributes to a policy environment that supports sprawl.2 Fragmentation between levels of government makes regional planning approaches difficult, while fragmentation across functional agencies impedes comprehensive solutions. In another study, Joseph Gyourko and Richard Voith have argued that the combination of the federal mortgage interest deductions and local-level exclusionary zoning have encouraged low-density residential development in jurisdictions surrounding central cities.3

Finally, there is little agreement about desired future development patterns. Thus, if the forces that create sprawl are based on a combination of federal, state and local policies, if our existing landscape reflects both public and private actions, and if the desired future is unclear, how does one even begin to address the issue? The Lincoln Institute’s mission is to contribute to and improve the quality of debate about land policies. Toward that end, our work on sprawl is multi-dimensional, focusing on educational programs for policy officials at the federal, state and local levels.

Programs for Federal and State Officials

Land use issues have increased in importance on the federal policy agenda, and the Institute has begun working with Region 1 of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), based in Boston, to develop a training course for senior administrators. Many staff at EPA are not schooled in land use planning, but their work in traditional EPA areas such as water or air quality requires that they pay attention to land use issues.

Harvey Jacobs, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, developed and taught a course to two groups of EPA administrators in the fall of 1998. Response to the two-day program, which included the historical and institutional context of land use planning, was so positive that the EPA asked the Institute to offer this program annually as part of EPA’s required orientation for new administrators.

At the state level, the Institute has recently supported programs to facilitate information exchanges among legislators and planning directors. Patricia Salkin of the Government Law Center at the Albany Law School has researched lessons to be learned from states that attempted state-level legislation on growth management, but failed. Among her findings was the lack of in-depth knowledge among state legislators and executive-level policymakers about the causes and consequences of suburban sprawl. In order for any kind of growth management legislation to be passed successfully, sponsorship is needed by the appropriate legislator. Depending on the state, this might be the chair of the Local Affairs Committee or a different committee leader.

In an attempt to respond to this need for better understanding about sprawl on the part of legislators and their staffs, the Lincoln Institute and the Albany Law School cosponsored a briefing session in February 1999, in Albany. It coincided with the legislative session and, fortuitously, was held on the day of a press conference announcing that the bipartisan “Smart Growth Economic Competitiveness Act of 1999” had been filed in both houses of the New York legislature. The bill includes three key provisions:

(1) It charges the Governor to create an inter-agency council to review existing policies related to growth and development.

(2) It creates a task force to study the issue and come up with recommendations.

(3) It asks the Governor to provide grants for regional compact efforts.

National experts on sprawl, state legislators and commissioners, and Mayor William A. Johnson of Rochester and members of his staff exchanged up-to-date information on related state-level efforts, as well as possible resources for their continued work on this issue. The briefing session gave prominence to the issue of growth management at an important juncture in the state’s history. Perhaps most useful to the legislators and other senior-level policymakers was the neutral forum that the briefing provided for frank discussion of the complexities of “smart growth.” While the event was designed with legislators in mind, it is clear that participants from the executive branch who attended the briefing session also benefited.

In another attempt to target our educational programs to key decision makers, the Lincoln Institute, the Regional Plan Association (RPA) and the New Jersey State Planning Commission cosponsored a leadership retreat for state planning directors from ten of the eleven Northeast states. The directors, or in states without a state planning director a representative from the executive branch, met in Princeton in March for a day characterized by peer-to-peer training.

States with nascent state-level efforts were able to learn from those with more institutionalized programs. While Delaware is as different from New York as Connecticut is from Maine, their state officials were able to benefit enormously from stepping outside their individual political, geographic and economic contexts and considering alternative solutions to similar problems. While each state must construct strategies appropriate to its own needs, all states face many common concerns.

The gathering also provided an opportunity to contribute to a larger, region-wide planning effort. Among the initiatives presented by Robert Yaro, executive director of RPA, was Amtrak’s introduction of high-speed rail service between Boston and Washington, DC, which may leverage substantial economic growth for cities along the corridor. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington will clearly benefit from rapid, comfortable transportation between terminals. However, it may be in smaller cities such as Providence, Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford, Newark, Trenton and Wilmington where high-speed rail could have a far greater impact. Frequent service to these cities, where airline connections are limited, could bring new investment as well as increased access to other employment centers for their residents.

RPA is drafting a proposal to provide the analysis and preliminary recommendations needed to evaluate the benefits of the Amtrak service. The state planning officers at the Princeton meeting felt that the initiative would be of great interest to their governors and agreed to take the RPA proposal back to their states in an effort to broaden the coalition in support of Amtrak’s high-speed rail service in the Northeast Corridor.

Programs for Local Officials and Community-Based Organizations

At the local level, strategies to address suburban sprawl also need to focus on development and redevelopment in the cities, and the Institute is expanding its course offerings to groups long interested in urban policy. Last November, the Institute cosponsored “Breaking Barriers, Building Partnerships: Urban Vacant Land Redevelopment” with the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations. Meeting in Boston, staff from community development corporations and private and non-profit lenders explored strategies for bringing underutilized land back into use. A similar group gathered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in May for a workshop cosponsored by the North Carolina Community Development Initiative and the Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise. The hands-on training was designed to give participants experience in generating alternative financing strategies for urban redevelopment

In another effort in the Southeast, the Lincoln Institute provided support to Spelman College as part of an effort to contribute to the redevelopment of its neighborhood in Atlanta. In June, Spelman and its partners from the Atlantic University Center held a community summit as part of a larger initiative to identify both neighborhood needs and university-community strategies to address those needs.

Our experiences in these programs confirm the complex factors influencing current development patterns: the variety of social, economic, technological and political forces; complex and sometimes conflicting policies at the local, state and federal levels; and the actions of those in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Through this work we have come to understand the need for basic information about the broader issue of land markets. In particular we are interested in how and why land markets operate as they do and the implications of land market activity on various public and private stakeholders. Future curriculum development efforts in this area will concentrate on materials to help policymakers and citizens gain a better appreciation of these markets. In doing so, we will have a fuller understanding of the sprawl issue: what causes sprawl, where interventions will be effective, and the characteristics of successful interventions.

Rosalind Greenstein is a senior fellow and director of the program in land markets at the Lincoln Institute.


1. Myers, Dowell, and Alicia Kitsuse, “The Debate over Future Density of Development: An Interpretive Review.” Lincoln Institute Working Paper, 1999: 22.

2. Burgess, Patricia, and Thomas Bier, “Public Policy and ‘Rural Sprawl’: Lessons from Northeast Ohio.” Lincoln Institute Working Paper, 1998.

3. Gyourko, Joseph, and Richard Voith, “The Tax Treatment of Housing and Its Effects on Bounded and Unbounded Communities.” Lincoln Institute Working Paper, 1999.