“Just Building Sprawl” is Over, But How?

When President Obama declared, before an audience in Ft. Myers, Florida, on Feb. 10, an end to “just building sprawl forever” (fast-forward to around 58:58 for the money quote), it may have signaled a change of venue in the battle over how the stimulus package is interpreted and applied.

President Obama addresses residents of Ft. Myers, Florida, declaring "The days where we're just building sprawl forever, those days are over."

President Obama addresses residents of Ft. Myers, Florida, declaring "The days where we're just building sprawl forever, those days are over."

Up until Obama left Washington for town meetings in Florida and Indiana, the debate seemed paralyzed by partisan politics at the national level. Democrats and Republicans retreated to familiar corners, debating the effectiveness of tax cuts vs. spending initiatives as if the issues were purely academic. The national media, as usual, were captivated by the food fight. By changing the stage for the debate from the floors of Congress to communities already hard-hit by the recession, Obama was able to bring back into focus the sense of urgency for action and likely targets for effective stimulus funding.

The American Society of Civil Engineers had already done some of the homework for Obama, giving a grade of “D” to the nation’s infrastructure and calling for $2.2 trillion in repairs and upgrades over the next five years. And even if Obama had not taken to the road, bottom-up politics was likely to overwhelm Congress before long.  See this February 8 Chicago Tribune story suggesting a growing tension between conservative elected leaders and their constituents over the need for immediate investment in communities.

City, county, and state governments were not likely to sit on the sidelines for long, either (note Florida’s Republican Gov. Charlie Crist standing on the dais next to Obama in the Ft. Myers video). In the short term, government spending at all levels is likely to be the source of most new investment. So the faster funds begin moving out of Washington, the better.

A recent conference hosted by Governing magazine on the “Outlook in the States and Localities” was full of sobering presentations about spending cuts and lay-offs. According to a survey by the National Association of Counties, 91 percent of those polled said they were cutting spending, and 64 percent predicted lay-offs. A similar survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures suggested 40 states have budget gaps in the current fiscal year and 24 are already predicting shortfalls in 2010.

The signal Obama sent with his end-of-sprawl message in Ft. Meyers is likely to be welcomed by counties and municipalities, many of which have Smart Growth vision plans in place and have a pretty good idea how to use economic stimulus money. With transportation planning at the center of the infrastructure debate, here’s a good place to watch how the process plays out: www.t4america.org. Also, The Alliance for Innovation, a public-sector collaboration that includes the International City/County Management Association, is monitoring 11 municipalities and how they’re coping with the current economic environment. The group is producing a wiki report called Navigating the Fiscal Crisis: Strategies for Local Leaders. Much of the advice, taken from lessons learned in other downturns, is about resisting the temptation to sacrifice long-term strategic goals for short-term savings.

- Ben Brown

Stimulus Showdown

When the Democrats’ $825 billion economic stimulus seemed to choose same-ol’ over sustainable, Smart Growth advocates and New Urbanists began turning up the heat. Favoring super highways over mass transit, rail, pedestrian, and biking alternatives incentivized sprawl for decades. And isn’t sprawl part of what got us in this mess? Smart Growth advocates believe investing new money in the same old strategies will only make it harder to achieve goals of energy efficiency and community affordability. Almost all of this federal stimulus money will find its way into state and local government bank accounts. So debates on how to spend it will take place in forums in Washington and in state houses and city halls all over America.

Time to talk to elected officials in your community, as well as Congress. For Smart Growth and New Urbanist perspectives on the infrastructure stimulus, go to Congress for the New Urbanism, Transportation for America or Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Connecting streets and the stimulus. 
To bolster Smart Growth arguments for how to spend stimulus bucks, the latest edition of New Urban News reports on a study of 24 California cities showing that those with the most highly connected street networks have one third the traffic fatalities of cities with poorly connected street networks.  And in the same issue, CNU president John Norquist provides commentary on the stimulus.

- Ben Brown