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Sierra Club Administrator Chuck McGrady Speaks At Davdison Environmental Conference

October 1, 2000
CONTACT: Bill Giduz

by Alexandra Obregon '00
Chuck McGrady, former president and current treasurer of the Sierra Club, presented the second lecture of the Dean Rusk Environmental conference before an audience of more than sixty Davidson students, faculty and guests. His talk, entitled "Smart Growth and Urban Sprawl: the Asphalt Jungle and Landscapes Transformed," centered on the history of urban sprawl, the dangers it poses to the environment, and possible strategies for curbing sprawl.
Chuck McGrady addresses conference attendees.

After an introduction by senior John Kenyon, McGrady opened the lecture by quoting Hugh McCall, chair and CEO of Bank of America. In the passage read by McGrady, McCall expressed strong sentiments against urban sprawl, which he defined as "spontaneous prolific unrestrained development," and urged citizens to support public policy in favor of "smart growth."

McGrady offered McCall's strong feelings as proof that the business and environmental communities are not in total disagreement on the issue.

"A healthy economy is dependent on a healthy environment," he said. Controlling sprawl will not kill economic growth, because revitalized cities and communities hold many benefits for the business sector. As a possible solution for reversing urban sprawl, "smart growth" planning would protect open spaces, mix uses of land, and revitalize existing physical infrastructure as efficiently as possible.

To define urban sprawl and the problems it poses, McGrady listed statistics about the effects of sprawl on farmland, education, sewer and water lines, and emergency services such as fire and police. For example, due to development, the United States loses one million acres of farmland and open green space each year. Transportation was of particular concern to McGrady, because of work time lost in traffic jams, fuel expenses, highway building, and repair costs for taxpayers, and increased air pollution.

McGrady noted that public policy for growth has not changed significantly since the Hoover administration. Furthermore, the "American dream" has been defined as a house in the suburbs since World War II, and community planning revolves around the use of a car. City and state laws offer no disincentives for sprawl, and the U.S. has a history of local control for land use, which makes "big picture" planning difficult. Current statutes also segregate different uses of land, forcing people to travel long distances to and from work.

In order to reverse the trend of sprawl, McGrady suggested six tactics:

  • Communities must change the signals they send to the development market. Impact fees, for example, tax developers more the further they move from a city.
  • Americans must change their conception of open green space, which many see simply as space waiting for development.
  • Local governments must reform land use planning, and do away with ceilings for population density.
  • States must establish growth management agendas to provide a framework for local comprehensive planning, set statewide standards and growth boundaries, and foster regional cooperation.
  • The country must reform transportation spending priorities.
  • States must revitalize their cities by investing in downtown areas and inner suburbs.

    Despite the grim numbers and statistics, McGrady did offer some hope. "There is reason to be optimistic," he said. "Cities and counties are beginning to ‘get it,' but old habits die hard."

    Offering an international perspective, McGrady pointed out that urban sprawl is not a uniquely American problem. Symptoms of it are popping up in European cities, such as Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, which are dense urban centers but are beginning to follow the American model.

    Following his lecture, McGrady answered questions from several students and members of the community. One student from Houston, asked how McGrady reconciled being a Republican with environmental activism, which often calls for heavy government regulation. McGrady responded by saying that he believes environmentalism is a conservative value and should be a bipartisan issue. Ideally, the government should have a mixture of regulations and incentives for developers, he said.

    Will Bradshaw of the Davidson Housing Coalition questioned the idea of growth boundaries, which can skew land values and often leave people with undesirable plots of land and few economic alternatives. McGrady agreed that protecting people's interest was important, and cities and towns must make affordable housing a priority within their smart growth plans.

    McGrady concluded by reaffirming the importance of Hugh McCall's words, and stressing the need for Americans to become "citizen-activists" and support smart growth initiatives. He concluded, "Sprawl is the hardest of environmental issues to deal with because it involves all levels of government."

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