Myron Orfield

The Politics of Growth

Like Georgia state legislator Julian Bond, Minnesota Representative Myron Orfield has an impact that extends far beyond his state’s boundaries. As a national authority on urban sprawl, he advocates what he calls “metropolitics,” a regional approach that joins communities together in common interests. Orfield, a member of his state’s unique Democratic – Farmer – Labor Party, is now engaged in a run for Minnesota’s State Senate. He directs the Metropolitan Area Research program, serves on sprawl-related committees of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Planning Association, and is working on his second book about urban-suburban problems for the Brookings Institution Press.

E: Everyone says they’re against sprawl, so why does it always seem to accompany growth?

Orfield You can have sprawl without growth. Metropolitan Detroit lost eight percent of its population and grew 35 percent in land area in the last 20 years. Cleveland lost 11 percent of its population and grew 38 percent in land area. There you have shrinkage and sprawl. A lot of us in the environmental movement say that we’re not against growth—we just don’t want it to waste resources or land unnecessarily, or cause excessive traffic congestion. Growth has to be planned.

Can cities and suburbs work together on sprawl issues, or are they natural antagonists?

They have worked together in many parts of the country. They’ve done it in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, where I’m from, and in Oregon, Washington State and Maryland.

The fact is that suburbs have widely varying interests: A third of suburbanites live in communities that stopped developing 20 years ago. Another third live in suburbs that are growing so fast they can’t afford developmental infrastructure. And the other third live in employment centers that have become the most congested places to live in America right now. So one suburban type is very similar to the city in its orientation and interests; the others have growth-related problems and are pretty hostile to the status quo development pattern. The only people in the suburbs who like what’s happening are the developers, who are getting rich, and the city councils, which are mostly in the developers’ pockets.

Cities win praise as inherently environmentally structured, but if the middle class “colonizes” urban areas instead of the suburbs, doesn’t that result in gentrification?

People expect cities to become poorhouses for the entire region, and when they attempt to gain some fiscal capacity by attracting yuppies, they get attacked. Gentrification does displace people, but it is a natural part of the regeneration of a city. You hope at the end of the day that you’ll end up with a mix of housing choices in neighborhoods.

You say in your book Metropolitics that the federal government has largely abandoned urban policy. So what do you think about Vice President Gore’s recent initiatives on sprawl?

It’s very good what Al Gore has done. The money that’s getting invested is small when compared to local or philanthropic efforts, but he’s the first federal official to address these issues. Politics are incremental. It can start small and then build from there.