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smart growth & civic participation - transforming sprawl into a broader sense of citizenship

smart growth & civic participation - transforming sprawl into a broader sense of citizenship

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Published by: tbeedle on Nov 07, 2008
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Funders\u2019 Network
for Smart Growth and Livable Communities
Translation Paper Number Four
November 2000
\u00a9 Copyright 2000 by the Funders\u2019 Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities and the George Washington University Center on Sustainability and Regional Growth
Civic Participation and Smart Growth:
Transforming Sprawl into a Broader Sense of Citizenship
This paper was writ t en by Jonat han Weiss of t he George Washingt on
University Center on Sustainability and Regional Growth* in collaboration with

the Funders\u2019 Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities. It is the
fourt h in a series of t ranslat ion papers sponsored by t he Funders\u2019 Net work t o
translate the impact of sprawl upon issues of importance to America\u2019s commu-
nities and to suggest opportunities for progress that would be created by
smarter growth policies and practices. Other key issues addressed in the
series of translation papers include social equity, workforce development,
parks and open space, transportation, agriculture, public health, education,
t he environment , communit y and economic development , and aging.

*T he George Washington
University Center on
Sustainability and Regional

Growth is a new international program bringing together dis- ciplines from throughout the

University related to smart
growth. It undertakes publica-
tions, conferences and work-
shops, and direct project work.
It is based in Washington, DC.
You can email Professor Weiss
at jweiss@main.nlc.gwu.edu or
visit the Center\u2019s website at
This article takes on a particularly impor-
tant and multi-dimensional topic. It

describes how the growing concern about suburban sprawl can activate a new wave of smarter growth \u2013 and broader civic par- ticipation \u2013 in regions across the country.

The article explores first how sprawl devel-
opment poses various potential obstacles
to broad-based civic participation.
Sprawling development results in the cre-
ation of more spread-out communities

that require people to spend more time
driving and less time in other pursuits.
This spatial separation also discourages
the creation of a sense of place about
where they live. Living further apart from

each other, often in more homogenous

communities, also makes it less likely
that people will have sustained interaction
with others from different backgrounds.

The paper notes that one source of
change may be found in the people that
are reacting to continued sprawl by
becoming increasingly concerned about
land-use and transportation decisions in
their immediate neighborhoods and munic-
ipalities. Although this reaction is at
times expressed in a narrow, limited

sense without regard to an overall, long-
term regional strategy, smart growth
strategies can assist citizens in develop-
ing much more of a regional conscious-
ness and in thinking beyond their own
boundaries or immediate concerns. This
is beginning to happen in several parts of
the country, as is demonstrated by a num-
ber of examples. There also has emerged
a host of new informational, visualization,
and collaborative tools that can help cat-
alyze and advance these efforts.

All of this offers hope, according to the
article. Through participation in and
understanding of smart growth, people
can further broaden their sense of the
duties and responsibilities of civic engage-

ment \u2013 and we as a nation can move
closer towards a healthier, more sustain-
able democracy.
Page 2
Funders\u2019 Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities
Suburban Sprawl and its Influence on Civic Participation

Suburban sprawl \u2013 the name increas-
ingly given for the unchecked growth
and outward suburban development

that has distinguished land use pat-
terns in most regions across the
United States \u2013 has become the sub-
ject of much debate and study as
communities and local governments

attempt to confront its adverse
effects. While the spatial conse-
quences of sprawl have received obvi-

ous attention \u2013 how it can physically separate people and communities \u2013 what has been less understood have

been the social consequences of such
sprawl and physical separation.

Post-World War II suburban patterns of
development tend to segregate differ-
ent land uses \u2013 residential in one
place and commercial in another \u2013

and often give residents little choice
but to use their cars to commute to
work and for everyday errands. At the

same time, this style of development often omits accessible public spaces where people can meet and gather.

With the creation of more and more
suburbs using this style (along with

exclusionary zoning and housing dis- crimination) came relatively homoge- nous communities, often divided by race and class.1

What is the impact of such develop- ment patterns on civic participation? Scholars and social observers have

been hypothesizing about this impact
for decades.2It has been difficult,
however, to quantify. Most recently,

Professor Robert Putnam in his analy-
sis of " social capital," which he
defines as " connections among indi-
viduals \u2013 social networks and the
norms of reciprocity and trustworthi-
ness that arise from them"3\u2013 found
that sprawl did in fact reduce civic par-

ticipation, and in turn social capital.
Putnam argues that sprawl is not the
primary culprit for what he views as
the country\u2019s lessening social capital,
but has been a " significant contributor

to civic disengagement." He cites
three reasons: first, sprawl and the
consequent need to drive to most
places takes time that could be used
for civic purposes; second, sprawl
leads to increased social homogeneity
in communities, by class and race,
which appears to result in reduced
civic participation; and third, sprawl
leads to the physical fragmentation of
communities and our daily lives, which

undercuts involvement in local affairs.4

Time has indeed become a critical ele-
ment. The commute and time individ-
uals spend on the road detract from
time that could be spent for more

fruitful endeavors, both for the family
and the community. Evidence indi-
cates that for every ten minutes of
additional commuting time, community
affairs involvement decreases by ten

percent.5Mothers, for example, have been even termed the " bus drivers of the 1990s" because on an average

day the average mother " spends more
than an hour driving, traveling 29
miles and taking more than five

trips."6For example, Putnam quotes one Californian as stating: " I live in Garden Grove, work in Irvine, shop in Santa Ana, go to the dentist in

Anaheim, my husband works in Long
Beach, and I used to be the president
of the League of Women Voters in

Additionally, the financial pressures on today\u2019s parents to provide for the fami- ly and the increase in both parents

working contributes to a lack of time
and energy that previously were devot-
ed to social activities.
Another consequence of the growing
reliance on automobiles is the
increasing isolation of those who lack
Robert Putnam in his
analysis of "social
capital," which he
defines as "connections
among individuals \u2013
social networks and

the norms of reciproci- ty and trustworthiness that arise from them" \u2013 found that sprawl

did in fact reduce
civic participation,
and in turn social
Page 3
Rise in Concern About Local Land-Use/Transportation Decisions
them, such as the elderly, disabled,
low-income individuals, and youth.
Architects of the " New Urbanism," such
as Andres Duany, note how sprawling
development patterns in general tend

to encourage people to retreat into pri-
vate space. According to this view, " In
the absence of walkable public places -

- streets,squares, and parks,thepubl i c
realm-- people of diverse ages, races,
and beliefs are unlikely to meet and
talk."8(emphasis in original)
To be sure, there needs to be more
statistical research in this area.

Political scientist Eric Oliver has found in a new study, however, that the more homogenous a community, the lower

the expected civic engagement. He
also found that economic segregation
that often takes place in metropolitan
areas has a strong, negative impact
on civic participation. Oliver notes,
" By creating politically separated pock-

ets of affluence, suburbanization
reduces the social needs faced by citi-
zens with the most resources to

address them; by creating communi-

ties of homogenous political interests, suburbanization reduces the local con- flicts that engage and draw the citizen- ry into the public realm."9

Civic participation is directly linked to
democratic participation. Civic institu-
tions open a window of opportunity
and participation into the political

world. Thus, a lack of civic participa- tion caused in part by sprawl results in a weakening of democracy.

But all is not lost.
Time has indeed

become a critical ele- ment. The commute and time individuals spend on the road

detract from time
that could be spent
for more fruitful
endeavors, both for
the family and the
Aldo Leopold long ago lamented that
to build a better motor we use the

human brain, but to build a better
countryside we throw dice.10Today,
people across the country are begin-
ning to recognize the adverse affects

of sprawl and demanding that some-
thing be done in a thoughtful, meas-
ured manner. In this sense, sprawl is
becoming a unifying issue that can
mobilize citizens and communities.
On election day in 1998, more than
70 percent of a record-number 240
land use initiatives in 31 states were
passed by citizens.11Oft cited as a
defining moment, these initiatives

were due in large part to the work of
concerned citizens in suburbs and rep-
resented a new threshold of interest

about sprawl. Those election results
crystallized interest that had been
building for several years on the local
level and are seen as the " tip of the
iceberg." Citizens are in the process
of changing the face of politics in their

As Keith Schneider of the Michigan
Land Use Institute writes, " [The
sprawl] issue is slowly restoring the
willingness of Americans who have

never been part of the [political]
process to work with all kinds of peo-
ple on local issues. Those decisions

which used to be approved without
anybody there are now being
addressed with 80 to 100 people

there in the room."12A recent survey by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism bore this out, showing that sprawl-

related issues tied with crime as the
local issue Americans most cared
While the consequences of sprawl
have energized civic mindedness, it is
important to note that not all reac-
tions to sprawl\u2019s effects have been of
such quality. Often lingering in the
shadows of this growing concern
about sprawl is the NIMBY (Not In My
Backyard) syndrome.14

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