BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : AUGUST 30, 1999 ISSUE

Many Americans are disturbed by the fruits of the relentless expansion of the suburban frontier. Last November, voters passed numerous ballot initiatives to preserve open space or otherwise reshape development

Kendall is a prime example of sprawl. What passes for the downtown of this south Florida suburb, a few miles southwest of Miami, is a hodgepodge of office buildings, a mall, parking lots, auto dealerships, and a dingy canal. But over the next 40 years, Miami-Dade County planners hope to pack Kendall with people, creating a European-flavored town center with romantic canal-side walkways, tree-lined boulevards, trolleys, colonnaded sidewalks, and stylish condominiums and apartment houses. The theory is that the best way to keep people from spreading out all over the landscape is to give them a good reason for working, playing, shopping, and living close together.

A dream? Maybe. But as the new century approaches, many Americans are disturbed by the relentless expansion of the suburban frontier. Right now, 1,000 to 3,000 acres of farmland, forest, and other unbuilt-upon land are developed every day. In once-bucolic Loudoun County, Va., outside Washington, ''all of a sudden, people are sitting in traffic jams, with crowded schools and higher taxes--and wondering how the hell development is good for them,'' says Scott K. York, chairman of the county's Board of Supervisors. Says Carol M. Browner, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: ''People want a different kind of future.''

Glimpses of such a future exist. Stockholm, Sweden, a city of islands and winding streets, is one of many in Europe that are meccas for walkers and paragons of mass transit. Stockholm is surrounded by compact satellite communities connected by trains. More than half of the residents of the suburban town of Vallingby commute by mass transit. The area's beauty proves that clusters of development around rail lines don't have to be ugly.

SCHMOOZING ON PORCHES. In the 1970s, metropolitan Portland, Ore., drew a line around its core, severely limiting development outside of a 230,000-acre area. That, coupled with an expanded rail and bus system, has enabled the metro area to accommodate a 50% increase in population since the 1970s with only a 2% increase in developed land area and only a moderate rise in the number of trips by car. Communities built by anti-sprawl planners, such as Seaside, Fla., and Kentlands, Md., make it easy for people to schmooze on front porches and walk to stores. Seaside is so popular that one-bedroom cottages can go for more than $500,000.

Far bolder plans are on the drawing boards. The five counties in South Florida, already home to 5.5 million people, are expected to swell to 7.5 million by 2020. Three-fourths of the growth is taking place west of the I-95 corridor, where there's more open land. That's costing the state billions for new roads, while threatening the Everglades just to the west. So the region has launched an Eastward Ho! initiative to funnel growth into the eastern section. A key part is attracting people back to places such as Kendall. ''People are realizing it's dumb to throw away parts of our communities,'' says Isabel Cosio Carballo, Eastward Ho! coordinator at the South Florida Regional Planning Council.

Atlanta, so choked with traffic that companies are deciding to leave or not relocate there, has also decided to make changes. The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce has recommended creating a regional superagency to build new transit lines and redirect development. BellSouth plans to move 13,000 employees from the suburbs to offices in the city near transit stops. Employees who work on the train ride home will be able to zip off faxes and E-mails from facilities at the station before hopping in their cars.

Trying to create neighborhoods and downtowns where residents can walk to shopping or catch a streetcar to work is an echo of America's own past. In Silicon Valley, high-tech CEOs see transportation bottlenecks and housing costs as barriers to economic growth, so they're pushing clustered developments and transit. ''It is a return to the communities that we had in America in the 1940s,'' says Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, an industry-backed organization.

Making a real dent in urban sprawl is an enormous challenge. ''Americans are accustomed to cheap gas, weak land-use controls, and subsidies for roads,'' says Columbia University historian Kenneth T. Jackson, author of Crabgrass Frontier. And people don't like the idea of cramming more homes and apartments into high-density pockets for the sake of controlling sprawl elsewhere. It's a dilemma, says Ohio developer Charles J. Ruma: ''Americans hate two things: sprawl and high density.''

Local ordinances often help cause sprawl by mandating big lots and too-wide roads. ''We worked with a township that had an ordinance requiring that roads on the interior of a subdivision be at least 34 feet wide. That's enough room for three semis to have a race,'' says Keith Charters of the Traverse City (Mich.) Area Chamber of Commerce. He figures an 18-foot road is plenty wide enough.

But attitudes are changing. Vice-President Al Gore has made sprawl a bogeyman of his Presidential campaign. Last November, voters passed more than two-thirds of 240 ballot initiatives, authorizing $7.5 billion in new spending, to preserve open space or otherwise tackle sprawl. ''We can redirect development patterns anywhere we want,'' says Robert W. Burchell, professor of urban policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. As traffic jams worsen and farms disappear around our cities, we may be willing to begin a profound reshaping of the American landscape.

By John Carey

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