Smarter Growth: Activism and Environmental Policy in Metropolitan Washington

Smarter Growth: Activism and Environmental Policy in Metropolitan Washington

Smarter Growth: Activism and Environmental Policy in Metropolitan Washington

Smarter Growth: Activism and Environmental Policy in Metropolitan Washington


Suburban sprawl has been the prevailing feature--and double-edged sword--of metropolitan America's growth and development since 1945. The construction of homes, businesses, and highways that were signs of the nation's economic prosperity also eroded the presence of agriculture and polluted the environment. This in turn provoked fierce activism from an array of local, state, and national environmental groups seeking to influence planning and policy. Many places can lay claim to these twin legacies of sprawl and the attendant efforts to curb its impact, but, according to John H. Spiers, metropolitan Washington, D.C., in particular, laid the foundations for a smart growth movement that blossomed in the late twentieth century.

In Smarter Growth, Spiers argues that civic and social activists played a key role in pushing state and local officials to address the environmental and fiscal costs of growth. Drawing on case studies including the Potomac River's cleanup, local development projects, and agricultural preservation, he identifies two periods of heightened environmental consciousness in the early to mid-1970s and the late 1990s that resulted in stronger development regulations and land preservation across much of metropolitan Washington.

Smarter Growth offers a fresh understanding of environmental politics in metropolitan America, giving careful attention to the differences between rural, suburban, and urban communities and demonstrating how public officials and their constituents engaged in an ongoing dialogue that positioned environmental protection as an increasingly important facet of metropolitan development over the past four decades. It reveals that federal policies were only one part of a larger decision-making process--and not always for the benefit of the environment. Finally, it underscores the continued importance of grassroots activists for pursuing growth that is environmentally, fiscally, and socially equitable--in a word, smarter.


American prosperity was at a historic high during the 1990s. Low unemployment rates and growing incomes gave rise to an explosion of homes, businesses, and new opportunities across the country. the most noticeable boom was in the Southwest, which was home to six of the nation’s fifteen fastest-growing metropolises. Scottsdale, a sleepy town outside of Phoenix around 1950, was by the end of the century a sprawling suburb covering three times the land area of San Francisco with barely a quarter of the population. Southern cities featured even more uneven growth than their Southwestern counterparts. the city of Atlanta, for example, grew by an anemic twentytwo thousand residents during the 1990s compared to its suburbs, which ballooned by 2.1 million.

While the rapid expansion of the “Sunbelt”—the large region spanning the South and Southwest—captured national attention, stories of rapid sprawl into rural areas could be found throughout the United States. Loudoun County, Virginia, was the epicenter of this exurban growth in the Washington, D.C., area. in the early 1990s, local voters unseated a preservationistoriented Democratic majority on the county’s board of supervisors in favor of growth-hungry Republicans. For several years, the county rode the high tide of rampant development, even as community activists cautioned more careful planning to curb the environmental and fiscal impact of sprawl. By 2001, hasty suburbanization had doubled Loudoun’s population while opening a Pandora’s box of traffic congestion, rising taxes, and loss of rural land. the dramatic clashes between growth and the county’s rural character were chronicled in newspaper headlines and played out in tense public hearings. At the turn of the century, environmentalists routinely condemned developers as “landscape rapists” for wanting to build on pristine rural land, while advocates of suburban growth cast environmentalists as “frog-kissing Stalinists” who wanted to seize private property and turn it into useless open space for the masses. These struggles over the scale, timing, and type of growth played out in communities across metropolitan America, and the challenge of supporting . . .

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