The Short Answer: Bruce Babbitt

Bruce Babbitt was governor of Arizona and later U.S. secretary of the interior in the Clinton administration. His new book, Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision of Land Use in America, was published in September.

Mike
Mike Paulson

You compare ideal cities to an archipelago.

I think of cities as defined places in a landscape. The surrounding area should be devoted to agriculture, historic preservation, and environmental protection. Planning should capture the idea of medieval cities, which tended to be distinct rather than characterized by endless, metastasizing sprawl.

Why are urban growth boundaries a good idea?

I try to avoid the term "growth boundaries." Instead, let's say "expansion boundaries." We're not talking about limiting growth; it's about directing it. The one thing that does not work is just simply saying, "Stop, right here. There's the last subdivision. That's the line."

Have they worked anywhere?

Absolutely. The New Jersey Pinelands is the ideal example because it speaks to the growth issue. It says, "We're going to have growth, but we're going to set up a system of land-use planning that facilitates development, preserves open space and historic landscapes, and provides a return from the development process to those landscapes that are being preserved." Oregon is another excellent example. The process in place there for 30 years has preserved, largely intact, the landscapes of the Willamette Valley, where the state's population is centered. It doesn't establish fixed boundaries, but draws a line and then says, "The line will be expanded according to some criteria to accommodate growth." What it does is keep the growth compact. Ventura County in California takes a very different approach. It says, "There will be no development unless the voters approve each case, one by one, on the ballot." It's a populist method that shoves planners aside and lets the people decide.

What about Las Vegas?

Las Vegas has the reputation as the ultimate example of uncontrolled growth, but that's unfounded. Its expansion boundaries are set at some distance from the present margin of development, allowing people to get used to them. The stop sign is three or four miles from where construction ends today.

Which cities need expansion boundaries?

Phoenix may be the most woeful example, but the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area runs a pretty close second. I would also include Atlanta and most of the cities in Texas, with the exception of Austin.

There is a contention by some interest groups that land-use policy ought to be a local matter. You have argued the opposite for more than a decade. Why?

The great irony is that the federal government has always been in the land-use planning business. It implements farm, highway, and flood-control programs. A striking example is this summer's transportation bill, which has $300-and-some-odd billion devoted to building roads and bridges, which are the pre-conditions of development. We need to put all of these federal development programs into a national framework for landscape protection. By setting up incentives and directives, states can meet the appropriate criteria for protecting both historic and environmental open spaces.

Which land-use decisions should be made locally then?

The issuance of private building permits and where to locate schools, local parks, and public structures—all the things that go on in the developed area of the city.

What lessons can we take from the history of the Everglades, its attempted development, and its eventual restoration?

If there's local support for a plan, change comes ultimately through the political process. Citizens can get together, look at a large landscape, and translate their wishes into federal action.

The Bush administration seems keen on contracting environmental programs. Is this a good time to pursue the expansion of land protection?

The administration is dismantling much of the environmental progress made on a bipartisan basis during the last century. But based on 30 years in public life, I think it's important to sow the seeds of change. We have to set an agenda for the future.

Has growing up in Arizona shaped your views on land use and conservation?

Oh, has it ever! I grew up in a little town in northern Arizona, a wondrous place at the base of a sacred mountain an hour away from the Grand Canyon. I was enraptured by the environment and landscape. I go back now to Phoenix and watch all these things I value just disappearing because no serious attention is being paid to land use. I'm sort of caught between past and present in my lifetime.

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