The advent of the automobile, cheap gasoline, and an interstate highway system ushered in an unprecedented period of personal mobility.
"Sprawl is a plague on the land."
"People are looking at . . . ways to tame the monster called suburban
"From planning experts to community leaders to farmers, people in Michigan are
alarmed at how fast sprawl is gobbling up open land."
"As bulldozers plow their way through more farmland in southeast Michigan . . .
agriculturalists, environmentalists and homeowners are trying to find new ways to stop
These are just a few of the reactions from politicians and the press to the economic
development occurring in rural and suburban areas of Michigan. Many critics of growth use
the term "sprawl" to conjure up apocalyptic images of disorder, chaos, and
irrational decision making about land use by Michigan’s private landowners.
But there is another side to this debate. Suburbanization represents the creation of
new communities and the transformation of old ones: The farming community gives way to the
rural-residential community; the rural-residential community gives way to a full-fledged
suburb; the suburb may even give way to a larger, economically and socially diverse city.
This transformation of community inevitably means that people, jobs, and commerce shift
Development results from the entrepreneurial use and re-use of basic economic
resources — land, labor, and capital — to enhance the quality of life and standard
of living of people. This process, even when it manifests itself in low-density housing,
is not new. People have been suburbanizing at least since the 13th century,
when they fled the diseases and unsanitary conditions of the city. Suburbanization was, in
a sense, the product of the first environmental movement: by moving out of large central
cities, people moved to a healthier living environment. In the U. S., this
decentralization has manifested itself as low-density residential, commercial, and
What sets the modern era of suburbanization apart from historical trends is how these
economic and population shifts occur. The advent of the automobile, cheap gasoline, and an
interstate highway system ushered in an unprecedented period of personal mobility.
Transportation costs plummeted, making it easier for people to live further away from an
urban core. When these factors were combined with rising family incomes and cheap
(subsidized) mortgage lending, the demand for suburban housing increased dramatically. The
average working family could now afford, like managers and business owners before them,
larger homes on separate lots. This also allowed people to move to smaller communities
where government was closer to home. With the decentralization of jobs and the growth of
suburban cities, an era of truly competitive local government was born.
This new era of suburbanization and decentralization created new tensions and
conflicts: Farmers now fight new neighbors, often commuters who object to the routine of
farm life (e.g., smells, noise, etc.); native residents used to traditional agricultural
lifestyles now wrestle with the values of bedroom communities; environmentalists organize
to stop new development that threatens wildlife, forests, and pastures — the list seems
endless. In Michigan as in other states, the debate has escalated to the point where
suburbanization is no longer a local issue. It has captured the ears of state policy
makers and elected officials.
The proper policy response is still largely a matter of public debate. The record of
other states shows a multitude of options. Oregon and Florida opted for top-down,
centralized regional planning where population densities and development patterns were
guided by state goals. Georgia implemented a statewide system of growth management that
focused decision making at the local level, making state goals subordinate to local
control. Maryland recently enacted a "smart growth" plan that avoids top-down
planning in favor of a more market-friendly, incentive-based approach to land development.
In which direction should Michigan go? This study assesses the state of suburbanization
in Michigan, evaluates its consequences for residents and citizens, and offers policy
recommendations for state and local public officials to constructively address this