Community planning’s dirty word: Sprawl

Managing growth can prevent sprawl and encourage the development of prosperous Michigan cities and countrysides.

There is a dirty word in land use planning: sprawl – even mentioning the word can ignite controversy. There are many in rural areas that see sprawl as a forced invasion of city and suburb life into their communities. Others see sprawl as a negative attack on progress and growth that deprives cities of valuable resources. In truth, sprawl is simply the unmanaged growth we frequently see that consumes land at a rate many times greater than our population growth. Over the past several decades, Michigan has seen a consumption of land at a rate many times greater than our population growth. In several of our fastest growing suburbs, this rate once reached as high as 30 prior to the onset of the economic recession!

The relationship between a city and its surrounding countryside can and should be a mutually beneficial and dynamic union. This symbiotic relationship ensures that as one entity prospers, so does the other. Sprawl, however, acts as a cancer to this organism, simultaneously draining cities and choking off the surrounding countryside. As cities loose valuable businesses, residents and reinvestment; rural areas become fragmented and see increased operational and financial hardships on townships, farm operations and a loss of natural resources.

The primary problems often seen associated with sprawl are increased infrastructure and services costs. Many townships near urban centers have already had to learn this lesson the hard way. Studies have shown that the long-term costs of unmanaged growth, such as sewer, water, maintenance and services provisions, are far more costly to a community than the initial tax revenues they generate. Many of these communities are now dealing with paying off multi-million dollar debts that they were unprepared to manage.

Sprawl is a lose/lose venture that destroys the character of cities and devastates the rural nature of the surrounding countryside. There is hope, however. Communities can manage growth by directing new growth toward areas where it should occur and away from areas that should be preserved. By managing growth through proper planning and zoning techniques at the local level, communities can direct growth towards existing infrastructure and away from valuable farmland, forests, and other natural resources. Doing this not only saves communities valuable tax dollars, but it actually encourages economic growth and preserves and enhances the social benefits provided by cities and countrysides!

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