Letter to the Next President

Edward Ziegler

Professor of Law
Letter to the Next President

Published in Vol. 60 Planning and Environmental
Law 7 (2008) American Planning Association

A Land Use and Planning Agenda for the Next President

Editor’s Note: The land use and environmental challenges confronting us today have never been more serious, demanding attention at all levels of government. With the upcoming U.S. Presidential election, this is an opportune time to take stock and question what the role of the federal government should be in addressing these challenges.Consider the following events in October 2007. California fires raged across southern California leaving in their wake more than $1 billion in damages in San Diego County alone and more than 1,500 homes destroyed; Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue asked President Bush to declare the northern part of the state a major disaster area because there’s only enough water to serve three million residents for 90 days; and Kansas became the first state on October 18 to reject a coal-fired power plant because of its global warming impacts. Let’s not forget the Katrina catastrophe in New Orleans and the Gulf communities two years ago. Those communities and families are still struggling.

The intersection between local, state, and federal responsibilities for protecting our citizens, building sustainable communities, and planning for the future requires our leaders at all levels to think outside of the box. We asked four prominent land use law professors to write a letter to the next President of the United States, providing some guidance and ideas about what he or she might do upon assuming office in January 2009. Perhaps these suggestions will stimulate some discussion from the candidates themselves; even better, they might spur some much-needed action.

American Cities, Urban Collapse, and Environmental Doom

Edward H. Ziegler

Ed Ziegler is a Professor of Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and is a founder and past president of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute . His writings, which include the five-volume treatise Rathkopf’s The Law of Zoning and Planning, are cited and quoted in land use cases by state appellate courts as well as by the United States Supreme Court. Professor Ziegler’s consulting, research projects, and lectures on land use planning have included projects for the City of Paris, the Institute for the Study of Public Law at the University of Barcelona in Spain, the Federal Institute for Spatial and Landscape Planning in Zurich, Switzerland, and the Shanghai Institute of Urban Planning and Design in China.

What follows are some thoughts about your presidency and America’s future. No doubt you are looking forward to your first term in office. Here are a few things that you might consider when you think about your pledge to be America’s first GREEN president.

The next time you are aboard Air Force One you might take a hard look at the American landscape passing below. No matter what metropolitan area you are then flying over, you will, no doubt, be looking at what we in the business call low density regional sprawl. All of the land uses and developed sites are isolated low density pods of completely automobile-dependent development. While the scene below appears peaceful and prosperous, the value and good order of that landscape is built on the promise of an abundant supply of low priced oil and cheap energy from fossil fuels. Those days are gone and the blueprint for our future embedded in that sprawling built environment poses a number of serious dangers to our urban way of life, to our economy, and to your presidency.

First of all, the hard infrastructure supporting that metropolitan landscape (and future economic growth in this country) is enormously expensive, inefficient, and is not being maintained. As the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis makes clear, our roads, bridges, tunnels, overpasses, levies, pipes, rail lines, and port facilities are actually crumbling. The infrastructure deficit in this country is now estimated at about 2 trillion dollars and increases at the rate of about 100 billion dollars each year. This is the built environment we are passing to our children.

That sprawling landscape also poses dangers to both places and people in this country. The cycle of outward expansion and core urban deterioration continues in many major cities and is now affecting older suburban areas. In the last decade alone 28,000 homes were razed in Detroit. Many American cities, both large and small, continue to lose population. There are now thousands of abandoned shopping malls as businesses leave depressed urban areas for subsidized development sites in expanding regions. As for people, since 1950 more than 2.3 million people have been killed in traffic accidents (that’s more than twice the number of battle deaths in all of America’s wars combined) and more than 6 million people have been disabled.

Newark 2010

You talked during the campaign about the economy, job growth, oil imports, global warming and climate change. These things are now increasingly mixed together in a potentially dangerous combination, both in this country and throughout the world. Our economy is completely oil dependent and increasingly vulnerable to fluctuations in global oil supply and price. Over 80% of our oil consumption each year goes toward transportation, largely for navigating our automobile-dependent landscape. Each year, miles driven increases, we add three million vehicles to this country’s roads, and we continue to increase the amount of foreign oil we import. Consumption of oil in this country between 1995-2005 actually increased by 1.1 billion barrels more a year – about the same amount as it did in China.

Rising oil prices harm our global competitiveness, are an enormous tax on job creation, depress other consumer spending, harm our housing market (over 80% of our new homes are detached single family homes and are built in our automobile-dependent expanding suburbs), and pose the real threat of urban collapse and economic depression in this country. The economist Rudiger Dornbusch once noted: “The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think and then it happens much faster than you would have thought.” There is growing support for the idea that Dornbusch’s observation may be particularly true with respect to the impact of rising oil prices in this country. Perhaps there is a lesson in the news that high energy prices this year resulted in urban riots in six different countries around the world. Interest rates, inflation, foreign investment, a weakening dollar, and severe hurricanes are all variables that could hasten the impact of rising oil prices in this country and cause this to happen sooner rather than later here.

Detroit 2009

Oil consumption, largely for automobile use, is the largest single consumer source of greenhouse gases in this country. Fossil fuels still produce nearly 90% of our energy, and their use in this country is increasing. According to one report, solar and wind produces less than 1% of this country’s energy. We have a long way to go in addressing the problems of peak oil and global warming. Moreover, things may get worse before they get better. This country’s population is expected to increase by 100 million people in just the next thirty years causing our demand for energy to grow enormously. We are expected to build over 70 million new residential units, mostly in newer suburban areas to accommodate this growth. We also are expected to build a volume of new nonresidential construction that exceeds all the nonresidential space that now exists in this country. To accommodate all this growth, we are expected to build hundreds of new power plants by the first half of this century.

That’s a lot of development. If it occurs in the form of low density automobile-dependent urban sprawl, our chances of successfully addressing the sustainable development issues related to our built environment will be substantially diminished, if not lost forever. Illegal immigration and rising energy consumption, moreover, narrow the window of time and opportunity that exists for our country to address these problems.

The problems of our sprawling built environment are not simply the work of the private enterprise of free markets. The visible hands of government have produced this landscape though federal, state, and local supporting policies, subsidies, and legal restrictions. Nearly everywhere in this country, low density regional automobile-dependent sprawl is legally required as the result of local exclusionary zoning and growth management programs. Whatever the original wisdom of those public policies, that time has passed. Any national comparative analysis makes clear that today low density urban sprawl has nothing whatever to do with rates of home ownership, housing appreciation, job creation, per capita incomes, or economic growth (just ask people in Luxembourg, London, Barcelona, or Shanghai).

Higher density and less automobile-dependent development is not only GREEN but makes increasing economic sense as we move in this century toward building a sustainable future. It will also result in the building of truly world class American cities. Fortunately, the fastest growing segment of the residential real estate market is for higher density, mixed use, and less auto-dependant development. In a very real sense, reducing sprawl is about increasing private choice in lifestyle, spending, and transportation, choices that government needs to facilitate rather than limit. It’s also about the adoption of government policies that reflect the real human, energy, and environmental costs of sprawl.

New Orleans-Katrina

Energy conservation and efficiency are unlikely to solve the related problems of population growth, economic development, rising oil consumption, and global warming. Building greener at higher densities and reducing automobile-dependence holds the promise of finding real and sustainable solutions to these problems. The cleanest and cheapest power plants and cars are the ones we don’t have to build or use due to smart urban planning. Talk to your advisors and you will discover that no one has a clue on the specifics of how we otherwise move toward energy independence, cut oil consumption and greenhouse gases, and build a sustainable economy. I am afraid we wait at great peril for the invention of the American “dream car” or some other yet unknown technological fix that solves these problems. While research for alternative energy technologies needs to be robustly funded, there are simply no better and sustainable solutions now in sight.

It won’t be easy. Entrenched local fiscal and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) interests dominate zoning and growth management programs. These local regulatory programs also are impeding the sighting and development of cleaner alternative energy wind and solar facilities. Urban planning today is clearly no longer a matter a purely local concern. It’s a legal-structural problem of governing authority commensurate with the magnitude of the regional and global problems that have to be addressed. For a variety of reasons, local governments are good at talking the talk but not at actually walking the walk in these areas. Their lead role in this field needs to be substantially tempered by national and state green development policies.

I doubt that I need to make specific policy suggestions. You and your advisors are smart enough to figure out policies to curb regional sprawl and promote greener and less automobile-dependent development in this country. There are no constitutional impediments to this change in policy. Essentially, the problem is how to turn urban planning and zoning from being a large part of the problem, into an important part of the solution to these twenty-first century problems. A lot of smart people are already hard at work figuring this out, both in this country and around the world.

People in this country may be ready to respond to an ethic of “stewardship” which also holds out the promise of sustainable economic growth and a brighter and greener future for their children and grandchildren. What is clearly needed now is your leadership at the national level and the formulation of clear and substantial federal and state policy initiatives. Tell people the truth. The whole world is watching. I wish you luck.


May, 2008