Land use

KNIGHT-CENTER2Some land use story ideas

A tipsheet by David Poulson, associate director, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism

Walking the talk

Advocates of growth-shaping policies say that the key to efficient land use is to convince people that they can live comfortably on less land and in vibrant urban cores. Do they?

Examine their lifestyles. Where do they live? Downtown? Or do they commute great distances from 10-acre country plots – the same kind of building sites they deplore?

Murray Carpenter checked out this angle when the Northern Sky News ran a story about Augusta as Maine’s capital of sprawl:

“At that time, the governor was giving a lot of lip service to fighting sprawl. Meanwhile, he opted not to live in the Governor’s mansion in blighted downtown Augusta, choosing instead to commute 40 miles each way, by SUV, from his home in a coastal town. The state’s anti-sprawl planning guru, meanwhile, was commuting 60 miles each way to avoid living in Augusta. “The regional story that is probably universal is for policy experts and politicians to advocate density for the masses, while living in mini-estates in the burbs and commuting great distances in single occupancy vehicles. This is a quick, simple story that readers really respond to.”

The point isn’t to embarrass these people. But this is an effective way to look at the overwhelming psychological forces that drive these issues. And there are a number of Smart Growth advocates in Michigan who are ripe to be asked these questions.

Lack of coordinated planning

The gripe about land use is that there is too much local land use planning and not enough coordination between local, county and regional plans. Michigan in particular has a plethora of government units (more than 1,850) that have something to say about the way land gets used.

How bad is it? Find out. Go to every municipality within your circulation and ask for their “buildout analysis.” This is a study that shows the number of homes, businesses and industries that would result if the municipality was “built out” to what zoning allows.

Many communities will not have such an analysis, but with the help of a local planner you can probably come up with some rough estimates, particularly with residential development.

Now aggregate all your information to get a sense of what your entire region would look like if each community got what it planned for. Interview local leaders and ask them what would happen to their community if the neighboring community achieved it’s built out. How would it affect schools, traffic, jobs, emergency services, and water and sewer services?

What if your entire circulation was built out as zoning allows? Does this make sense?

More uncoordinated planning

When a school district decides to build a new school, it produces a magnet for growth and development. Did it discuss that impact with the community that will have to manage that growth? Can that community handle it? Did the district consider the impact of its decision on neighboring schools and communities that could be drained by that growth? Can they handle the impact? Will public buildings be left abandoned or under used?

These are fair questions. They are seldom asked by school board members, let alone by journalists.

Is density a bad thing?

Interview advocates of higher density communities. Interview people who live in them. Do they feel crowded? Get perspectives from experts, such as the Michigan Farmland and Community Alliance’s Kurt Norgaard, who have done visual preference surveys.

This could stand alone as a story. But it can also provide critical perspective in stories about debates over the density requirements of proposed developments.


Even non-believers love to read about religion. And it’s an unusual land use hook that draws in readers. What’s more, West Michigan is a bit of a hotbed of people with strong views on this issue.

On the philosophical level, there are groups that disagree over the meanings of such terms as stewardship and dominion. In west Michigan, you can find several interesting perspectives including a free-market view from the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, (616) 454 3080, Another view is provided by the Au Sable Institute based in Mancelona, (608) 663-4610, Other area sources: Steven Bouma-Prediger, Hope College, Holland, 616-395-7757,; David Warners, Calvin College, Grand Rapids,, 616-957-6820; Uko Zylstra, Calvin College, (616) 526-6499,; Dean Ohlman, RBC Ministries, Grand Rapids, 616-974-2726,; Randall Van Dragt, biology department, Calvin College,616-526-6497,; Janel Curry-Roper, geography dept., Calvin College, 616-526-6869,

On the practical level, check out how faith-based environmental justice groups in urban centers are partnering with rural faith groups worried about the loss of a rural way of life.

And what about those mega churches that draw thousands of people with sports, fitness centers, entertainment and even shopping? They draw traffic from great distances, can break noise ordinances, cause parking headaches, street congestion and even draw development. The federal courts and Congress have been trying to sort out conflicts between zoning restrictions and freedom of religion issues. James Schwab, a senior research associate with the American Planning Association in Chicago, has been closely watching these clashes. Schwab, co-editor of a zoning publication, has helped mainstream reporters cover this issue. He is at 312 786 6364 or

Rural roads

One way of getting a handle on development pressures in rural areas is to look at accident rates, particularly car-deer accidents. Are they going up? Can police handle the increase? Can the county road commission afford to maintain them as traffic increases? Michigan accident stats collected from every police agency can be found at

Urban roads

Along those same lines, Stuart Leavenworth, who covered growth for the Raleigh News & Observer, says reporters can find great stories by analyzing pedestrian accident data:

“It is always fascinating to learn which intersection in your area is the most dangerous. This isn’t always a sprawl story — sometimes accidents are higher in older parts of town than newer ones. But pedestrian safety is a big factor in whether people chose to walk or get in their car, so it all gets back to how we are designing our communities.”

Again, local data can be ferreted out from the Michigan State Police.

Scenic roads

Often the trip is as enjoyable as the destination. Conservancies are frantically trying to preserve view sheds along scenic highways in northwest Michigan. Is development ruining scenic highway routes in your community? Is it poised to? Is this a loss that should be weighed against the benefits of development? Rumor has it that even 28th Street in Grand Rapids was once an attractive rural road.

Sprawling cities, sprawling waistlines

Does sprawl make you fat? No less than the U.S. Centers for Disease Control makes that link. It’s no news that Michigan residents are particularly out of shape. Increasingly, health experts say communities that discourage walking contribute to the problem. And rising health care costs make it an economic problem.

How walkable is your community? Find out. Do a walkability audit.

Sources: Risa Wilkerson,, is the active community environments director for the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness. The Michigan Department of Community Health has an active community assessment tool at The governor’s council has a study linking $8.9 billion in health care costs to poor fitness at The MEDC, the economic development arm of the state, recently made the same link with another study.

Igor Vojnovic, an assistant professor of Urban and Metropolitan Environments at Michigan State University, is an expert on community design. He is at Other Web sites:


Can kids walk to school in your community?

Stuart Leavenworth, now at the Sacramento Bee says this is his favorite angle to the sprawl story: “The fact that, in most new communities, these days kids can’t walk or ride their bikes to school. New schools tend to be planned like strip shopping centers, surrounded by six-lane highways, so parents drive their kids to and from school, adding to rush-hour gridlock. Of course, there are other reasons parents drive their kids (fear of crime) but the design of communities is a big factor.

“This is a sprawl story that almost everyone can relate to, since most of us recall fondly walking to school (and being independent of our parents!)”

Interview parents of elementary school kids. Are they frightened to let their children walk to school? Better yet, do a walk-to-school audit. Walk from a new residential neighborhood to the school that serves it, and note dangerous intersections, high traffic areas and lack of sidewalks and crosswalks. More information:


You can find stats you need for local land use stories at Don’t just check out the population trends. Studies show that the number of households has a greater impact on the environment then just the number of people. So while the number of people per household drops, the number of households likely increases.

Get the local numbers and see. And for a broad perspective on this issue contact Jack Liu, 517 355 1810, a fisheries and wildlife scientist at MSU. His research found that worldwide fewer people in more households is a much greater strain on resources.

More Demographics

So just where are all your residents moving? Where did they come from? The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently analyzed census data and found that just over half of the residents fleeing its core community were moving to a nearby county. The census provides county-level origin and destination figures for people who moved in the past 5 years.

You may not find as clear of a pattern as Cleveland, but there could be a good story here, particularly if you can track it by zip code. Just pick your fastest growing area and figure out where the new residents came from.

Or look at the whole county and see where the out-migrants went.

School demographics

With Proposal A’s school finance reform schools need to maintain or increase their student population to hang onto or increase funding. Wealthier communities can no longer vote to tax themselves to boost local school funding.

They need bodies that their community’s zoning structure may keep out of the classroom.
Check out the demographics of a local wealthy district. If the senior class is larger than the first grade class, it is headed for trouble. Enrollment is in decline and along with it the funding that goes with those lost students.

How come a wealthy district is losing students? Look at the community’s zoning. Does it allow developers to build homes that young parents of young children can afford to buy? Or does lot size and other requirements mean only wealthy, older people can afford to live there.

Some wealthy communities have zoned out the parents of the next generation of students. In some situations wealthy Michigan districts are unsuccessfully lobbying their municipalities to allow affordable housing. Is that happening in your area?

Solutions are controversial and newsy: Let wealthy districts tax themselves and increase the disparity with poorer districts that prop A was supposed to solve? Pass a state law requiring that every community zone for affordable housing?

Make the lack of information a story

Paul Muschick, the Growth and Transportation reporter at the News&Record in High Point, North Carolina, did an extensive story exploring growth in his region. The most startling revelation: “No one in our planning community had been tracking how much land was actually being developed,” Muschick reports. “ To me, and several people I interviewed, that is a huge piece of information not to have in a community where growth and development is the number one topic of interest/concern outside of schools.”

So if data is missing, ask why. And ask community leaders how they can make critical growth decisions without it.

Odds and Ends

When a new development is approved, check to see if it is consistent with the community’s master plan. If it’s not, check if the community has a history of approving exceptions to the master plan. Quantify it, and then ask community leaders why they ever bothered to plan in the first place.

Compare minimum lot sizes in growing suburbs with older suburbs and inner city. How are increased minimum lot sizes in zoning ordinances contributing to sprawl?

When a new development comes to a rural area, ask county road commissioners how they’ll pay to improve the roads that serve the development. You may be the first to ask them, another example of uncoordinated planning. For additional perspective, get a recent study published by the Planning & Zoning Center, Planning and Zoning Center, (517) 886 0555 in Lansing that indicates planned density in rural townships often outstrips road capacity. It indicates the amount of development a rural area can take before affecting its attractions.

How well informed are your zoning board members and planning commissioners? Do they avail themselves of training? Should they?

Second (or vacation) homes on lakefronts have introduced a number of aesthetic and environmental questions. Check out the growth of second homes for your community. The U.S. Census does some tracking. What is the impact of intensive shoreline development?

Redevelopment of brownfields has been an ongoing urban story for more than a decade. What’s the status of your community? How many abandoned buildings or vacant lots are you warehousing? How many new businesses are springing up?