Published online Sep 13, 2011
Maryland invented, or at least popularized, the term “smart growth” in the late 1990s under former Governor Parris Glendening. Although land-use planners in the United States had long tried a variety of strategies to contain sprawling development, notably in Portland, Oregon with its urban growth boundary and in Arlington, Virginia which concentrated development around Metro stations, it was Maryland that gave the term “smart growth” national resonance. Sprawl and Politics tells the story of the heady, improvisatory days in which Glendening and a small band of audacious urban planners developed this policy, then pushed and prodded it through the state legislature. It is also the story of how politics obstructed the policy’s long-term effectiveness. While Maryland’s key smart growth legislation was passed in 1997, a recent University of Maryland study concluded that the legislation’s key instrument, priority funding areas (PFAs), “ha[s] not produced the intended effects over the last 10 years”; that PFAs have, in fact, done almost nothing. This report reads almost like an afterword to Sprawl and Politics; both make clear that, beyond technical instruments, continued follow-up to ensure tough implementation, as well as to improve any failings in legislation, is necessary for comprehensive land-use planning to succeed.
As Communications Director for Governor Glendening, and later Special Assistant for Smart Growth, John Frece would seem the ideal author for Sprawl and Politics. He was there when the key decisions were made in the genesis of smart growth. The book relies heavily on Frece’s notes from the time, as well as on later interviews with key participants. In tone, the book is moderate and impartial, maintaining an academic distance to the point where the author refers to “John W. Frece,” giving no hint that he is speaking about himself. And a reading of the book provides no indication that Frece has a particular agenda other than general support of smart growth policies. Appearing as an objective look at the origins of smart growth, the book makes clear the policy’s idealistic promise, as well as the real-world failure to attain that promise, at least so far.
Frece shows that smart growth did not spring from nowhere, but was in many ways a crystallization of previous policies to contain sprawling land use and snarled traffic, to maintain rural areas, and to revitalize older communities. Even Glendening’s smart growth advocacy did not begin as a comprehensive vision, but was more of a reaction to events, including pressure from environmentalists not to build huge projects ever outward. Yet neither could smart growth simply hew to the environmentalist line; to succeed in the real world, it had to appeal to the business community.
The key–or at least one key–is the PFA, which designates “specific growth areas in every county that would be the only areas eligible for future state financial assistance for growth.” Unlike the heavily regulatory policies of the past, PFAs were designed to rely on incentives, making them a protypical instrument of a time dominated by market policies. This quality also made them politically easier to pass in a state where local governments are wary of any attempt to take away too much of their power. In fact, land-use policies in Maryland have long been decided largely at the county and municipal levels, making comprehensive regional planning difficult, to say the least, as each jurisdiction strives to maximize its own position. As with all politics, smart growth policies involve compromise. Objective planners could not simply sit down and design an idealistic system; it had to be palatable and it had to be sold. Even when initially passed, PFA density was smaller than originally planned: 3.5 units per acre rather than five.
Smart growth in Maryland may have been born smaller than ideal, but what really squelched it was the election of a governor, following Glendening, unfriendly to the concept. Robert Ehrlich, who served from 2003 to 2007, largely gutted the Office of Smart Growth. In Maryland’s Washington suburbs, he opposed an east-west light rail and instead fast tracked the construction of a long-disputed highway. Even the phrase “smart growth” was retired from official use. In Maryland where it was born, smart growth was soon moribund.
One lesson of Sprawl and Politics, then, is that long-term follow-through is necessary for smart growth policies to succeed; and yet, in a democracy with frequently changing faces in government, such commitment is problematic. To make matters worse, catchy phrases and trendy ideas will often morph to serve individual purposes. Even while Glendening remained as governor, “the label ‘Smart Growth’ was being co-opted,” explains Frece, applied to projects with only a few smart growth characteristics, or only a superficial appearance of smart growth. Within the PFAs, some projects were placed on the periphery to satisfy the requirements in only a perfunctory way. In addition, Frece argues, from the beginning the program was underfunded: “the financial incentives the state offered were never sufficient to prompt the kind of changes the administration hoped to achieve.”
True smart growth, then, requires strong policies enforced with eternal vigilance. Perhaps the most valuable part of Frece’s book is the conclusion, which provides a thorough set of suggestions for avoiding the many pitfalls. Strong leadership and knowledge of policy are crucial. Defining and measuring goals are crucial. In Maryland, explains Frece, “the state never made any attempt to set specific goals or benchmarks for what it intended to achieve through the Smart Growth initiative.” In addition to the government, the public must be engaged through publicity and education. Programs must be fully funded, with strong government authority. Although localities need to be engaged, left to themselves they will likely fall into old habits. Given the natural resistance to change, if smart growth is to succeed, Frece’s entire panoply of ideas must be followed, and then some.
Maryland’s smart growth experience holds deep lessons for environmentalists, policy experts, and sustainability advocates of every variety. Change is not easy. Our social organization and assumptions seem a deeply ingrained part of “human nature,” almost biologically immutable. To convince people to alter their lifestyles, to drive less, to waste less, to stop measuring their worth through consumption, is a task that requires perseverance, deep knowledge, and more perseverance, as Sprawl and Politics vividly illustrates.
Ethan Goffman is Associate Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy and writes the SSPP Blog. His publications have appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Grist, and elsewhere. He is the author of Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature (State University of New York Press, 2000) and coeditor of The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond (Purdue University Press, 2009) and Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010). Ethan is a member of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter of the Sierra Club.