The city of Ann Arbor is to be commended for its effort to establish a greenbelt of sprawl-free land around the city. Last week, Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Land Use Leadership Council expressed the need to preserve open spaces and farmlands against development. Granholm established the council to provide recommendations for reducing out-of-control urban sprawl, a significant contributor to decaying urban centers, vanishing farmland and traffic congestion. The leadership that Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje is showing by proposing his greenbelt initiative to the city’s voters is in the spirit of the land use council’s findings and must be a model for governments across the state.
With urban sprawl occurring several times faster than southeast Michigan’s population is growing and costing more than the tax revenues it brings in, it should come as no surprise that the region is host to so much urban decay. Getting a handle on urban sprawl is necessary in order to revive the state’s cities and to save the state’s environment.
It is necessary for county, township and municipal governments to work out a regional development program that will approach land use on a regional scale, an important foundation for establishing regional economies that are both accessible and sustainable. Ann Arbor voters should embrace the goal of a greenbelt and support it if and when it appears on the ballot. Citizens in Ann Arbor proper should encourage their government to show support as well, realizing that a region’s economic vitality is not independent of its central city.
Around the state, jurisdictions should adopt programs similar to this Ann Arbor Parks and Greenbelt Program. Other options include urban growth boundaries, successful in cities such as Portland and beneficial to preservationists and developers alike. Regional subsidization boundaries, such as in Grand Rapids, where municipalities will not subsidize new development beyond a boundary is an idea that state officials should seriously explore.
It is critical that greenbelt and other checks on growth do not force new development even further outward. The purpose of preservation programs is not only to establish where development may not occur, but also to decide where it may occur responsibly, designating build and no-build zones on a regional scale. In their awareness of how open-space preservation programs wield regional influence, it is the responsibility of Ann Arbor and surrounding jurisdictions to ensure that new development that results within the city is beneficial to the population at large. Public assets such as parks and neighborhood retail districts are important, but affordable housing and diverse housing options for all income levels are crucial to a sustainable economy. Preventing housing rates from surging should be a priority for the city.
There are many Michigan citizens opposed to policies that the land council recommends and that Ann Arbor may decide to implement. It is important to recognize, however, that the council contains members with diverse viewpoints, and in order to balance legitimate concerns held by those on both sides, not everyone will be happy with the final report.
While a great challenge, many cities across the country are making progress in slowing sprawl. Overall, development must be both contained and diverse. Ann Arbor is learning that in order to remain vibrant, it must combat urban sprawl and prevent population drainage that results in severe decay.