I. Introduction: Better Living or "Sprawl"?

"Sprawl is a plague on the land."[1]

"People are looking at . . . ways to tame the monster called suburban sprawl."[2]

"From planning experts to community leaders to farmers, people in Michigan are alarmed at how fast sprawl is gobbling up open land."[3]

"As bulldozers plow their way through more farmland in southeast Michigan . . . agriculturalists, environmentalists and homeowners are trying to find new ways to stop suburban sprawl."[4]

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 with it.

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.[5] 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 industrial development.

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 question.