One of the most promising areas for bipartisan political compromise comes in the form of rising constituent concern over suburban sprawl. If air and water pollution were the environmental bogymen of the 1960s and 1970s, then suburban sprawl is becoming their 1990s equivalent.
There's nary a city in America that has not doubled or tripled in physical terms since the 1960s and whose suburbs, which were barely in existence a mere four decades ago, have vastly outpaced in size, economic vitality and population, the urban cores around which they were originally formed.Washington, D.C., is one such example. When this writer moved here only 23 years ago, Potomac, Md., was a distant town dotted by horse farms. The outpost's crossroads consisted of a general store across the street from a gas station and a few quaint shops on a third corner.
But then the roads to and from downtown D.C. became bigger and travel time from lucrative downtown office jobs to secluded homesites in idyllic Potomac contracted. Now, nouveau-riche, rather garish manses stare down each other's bathroom windows, separated by tiny yards of just a few feet. And development after development of expensive but nonetheless tacky houses and strip malls line the suburb's main road for miles and miles to the north. So, too, in the suburbs of Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta and Miami.
It's not just an East Coast, Southern or Midwest phenomenon. California's attraction as a home state has diminished greatly since suburban sprawl ate up formerly rural paradises. Commuters suffer through as much as two hours of traffic in either direction to reach jobs in both urban cores. And stressful commutes are no longer confined to weekdays.
The Sierra Club reports that between 1970 and 1990, almost 20 million acres of rural land were developed nationwide. Another 400,000 such acres are being consumed each year by developers' bulldozers for industrial and residential purposes: roads, malls, home communities and office buildings.
So what's the political solution? A number of enlightened state and county lawmakers are fighting back against suburban sprawl by dedicating portions of state budgets or county bond issues to buying and preserving open land. New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman last month made a politically courageous proposal to raise the state's gas tax and use the money to buy undeveloped land. As an opponent of almost all new taxes for social purposes, this is one proposal I would wholeheartedly support.
The New York Times reports Whitman is not alone in her campaign to save what little greenery her state still affords (only 2 million out of New Jersey's 9 million acres of land have been spared desecration by concrete). Georgia lawmakers are asking voters to support a real estate transfer tax to set up a land conservation fund. Connecticut Republican Gov. John Rowland wants to spend $160 million on bonds to buy and save 20,000 acres over five years. And Minnesota legislators approved $140 million to buy parkland and open space for citizen enjoyment.
It took almost two decades, but we have begun to conquer our most pressing environmental problems - air and water pollution. Skies over most cities boast relatively clean and certainly breathable air. Once-dead rivers (such as Washington's Anacostia) are now safe for fishing and swimming. Our next battle is preserving what little green space we have left. And politicians of all parties who want to win votes in November's elections would be wise to keep this issue front and center.