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Remarks As Prepared For Delivery By Vice President Al Gore
National Town Meeting For A Sustainable America
Detroit, Michigan

Tuesday, May 4, 1999

I want to welcome everyone to our National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America. We are joined today by more than 3,000 delegates here in Detroit—and more than 60,000 people who join us by satellite from more than 100 locations nationwide. The size of this meeting is a story in itself. Some think this is a movement that came out of nowhere.

But the presence of tens of thousands of you here today proves better than anything: the drive to create a sustainable America isn't just a meeting, it's a movement. For those who wonder what this movement is all about, let me start by asking a few questions here today. Let me see a show of hands:

How many people believe we can grow our economy and improve our quality of life at the same time? How many believe we don't have to accept two-hour traffic jams as a condition for living where we want? How many believe that we don't have to accept job loss in the inner city as a permanent condition? How many believe we don't have to accept the loss of nearly a million acres of farmland every year as fate? How many want good schools and safe streets? Last question: how many believe we can build more livable communities for everyone?

Now think about this: there are more than 60,000 people participating in this meeting today. You come from cities, suburbs, and rural America. You are family business owners and family farmers. You are industry leaders, environmentalists, mayors, teachers, parents, legislators, and ministers. Yet on every question, nearly every single one of you raised your hands. That is what this issue is all about.

We have come here today to say with one voice: when we work together to make the right choices, we can craft solutions that are good for cities, suburbs, and rural areas. We can sustain our prosperity, improve our quality of life, and restore a sense of community—for all Americans.

Some call this movement "smart growth." Others say "livability." No matter what we call it, the message of this movement is clear: working together, we can create an America that's not just better off—but better, in every way.

We have all seen the alternative. We know the problems, and the ways in which they spread out across our communities. In too many older neighborhoods, walkable main streets have emptied out, leaving a nighttime vacuum filled with crime and disorder. The sprawl that has developed around our cities has transformed easy suburbs into lonely cul-de-sacs, so distant from commercial centers that if a family wants an affordable house, a commuting parent often gets home too late to read a child a bedtime story.

People move out to the suburbs to make their lives, only too often, congestion follows them. They long to give their kids the experience of a park at the end of the street—or a family farm by the side of the road. Many communities have no sidewalks—and nowhere to walk to if they did.

This kind of sprawl is harder on families than just the long drive to work and back; it means working families must sink thousands of dollars into extra commuting costs, when they may want the choice of devoting those funds to a year of state college. It means that people leaving welfare and eager to work have no way to get to where their new job is, and still pick up a child in day care. It means that resources are siphoned away from older neighborhoods to build ever more distant new amenities in new communities. It means that air and water quality go down, and taxes go up.

These are issues that touch the lives of every single American. And when we consider what is at stake—our economic strength, our public safety, our air and water and open spaces, the strength of our families, and our very sense of community—we realize that this truly is a great national challenge for the 21st Century.

In last fall's elections, more than 200 communities discussed—and more than 70 percent adopted—measures to pursue smarter growth into the 21st Century. I believe there is a deep significance to this growing grassroots movement. These measures are not just new ideas at the dawn of a new century—they are the dawn of a whole new kind of prosperity in America—one that is based on our oldest and most enduring values.

Many Americans today are reaching for a new prosperity defined not just by the quantity of their bank accounts, but also by the quality of their lives. They want smart growth that produces prosperity while protecting a high quality of life.

That's a message American business is hearing loud and clear as well.

At a time when companies can locate anywhere they want, they are going to locate in places that have good schools, clean air and water, and safe streets, because that is where they can attract the most talented employees and their families. This new prosperity is built on new innovations—in areas such as fuel efficiency, industrial ecology, renewable energy and new efficiencies in building and construction—that create new economic opportunity while protecting our environment.

At this meeting, we have set a goal of stimulating 2,000 commitments from individuals, companies, and communities across America by the year 2000 to help create this new prosperity. These are 2,000 building blocks toward a more sustainable America. I am proud that the federal government is doing its part. I am proud to announce today that during the course of this week, we will be unveiling 50 new federal commitments—from building new courthouses downtown to a new initiative to connect family farmers with urban markets—that will help help turn these goals into a reality.

But I want to be clear about the federal government's role. Our national government must not try to serve as a beauty commissar. It must not be a national zoning board. Washington should not be making local planning decisions. Instead, we must empower those at the grassroots level by giving them the tools and resources they need to create the communities they want.

This is about providing more choices for communities. If local residents want parks instead of contaminated brownfields in their communities, they should be able to make that choice. If they want to build a playground instead of a strip mall, they should be able to make that choice. If they want to build subways instead of highways, they should be able to make that choice—and we should help them.

I know this kind of partnership can work—because I have seen it happen with my own eyes.

Over the past six years, as Chairman of the Community Empowerment Board, I have held forums across the country with parents and community leaders. In Sacramento, I met townspeople who reclaimed an old brownfields site and turned it into a thriving residential community. In Portland, I helped dedicate a new light rail system to build, in the locals' own words, a Portland with "fewer arteries and more heart."

We just heard Jenny Reid talk about Chattanooga.

Chattanooga is a city that lies between two majestic mountains. But when I was growing up, the smog was so thick people couldn't even see the mountains. The riverfront was so littered that you couldn't see the river.

But together, the people of Chattanooga decided to reclaim the natural beauty of the place. More than 2,500 people turned out for public meetings. Those suggestions were turned into real action. Soon after, a vacant high school on the waterfront was reopened as a nationally-recognized magnet school. An old bridge was reinforced and reopened as the country's longest pedestrian walkway over a beautiful river. And at the suggestion of a group of students, old warehouse properties were turned into the largest freshwater aquarium in the world—attracting more than 1.3 million visitors every year. Today, Chattanooga is leading the state in job growth.

All of you have similar stories of your own. What is being gained in these communities is not just livability, but new life for our democracy. As citizens come together to plan their common future—as they realize that they can make a difference right in their own neighborhoods—we open the door to a more vibrant civic life. That is why smart, sustainable growth must happen at the local and community level.

And it must happen not just within borders, but across borders as well. We are finding that the places that are most successful are those willing to reach out to neighboring communities—and develop shared solutions to shared problems.

Here in Detroit, when the needed expansion at Wayne County's airport threatened wetlands, Executive Ed McNamara put together an innovative plan to preserve 100,000 acres of nearby wetlands by creating the Crosswinds Marsh—which has been praised for its environmental impact. In the 21st Century, we must understand that many of the challenges we face don't recognize defined borders—and neither can our solutions.

That was the very spirit that drove the President's Council for Sustainable Development in the first place. On behalf of everyone here today, I want to say: thank you, President's Council for Sustainable Development, for a job well done.

It's the same sense of cooperation and empowerment that our comprehensive new Livability Initiative seeks to promote today—to help communities have the tools and resources they need to preserve green spaces, ease traffic congestion, improve schools, and enhance economic competitiveness.

Let me tell you what we're proposing, and why it is so essential that Congress approve it.

It starts with more than $700 million in new tax credits for state and local bonds to build more livable communities. We call them "Better America Bonds" and they will help communities reconnect to the land around them, preserve open spaces, build parks, improve water quality, and redevelop rusty old Brownfields. These bonds will help save farms from being turned into strip malls. They will help save parks from being paved over. They will help to acquire new lands for urban and suburban forests and recreation sites. They will help set aside wetlands, coastal and wildlife preserves. Above all, they will help create jobs. We estimate that Better America Bonds will help leverage nearly $10 billion in investments over the next five years. That's an investment worth making, and I urge Congress to pass it.

We are proposing new steps to ease traffic congestion. Last year, President Clinton and I gave communities unprecedented new opportunities to invest in mass transit and reduce traffic congestion. This year, we want to go further—with the highest investment in public transit in American history—more than $6 billion to help communities develop alternatives to building more highways.

I am very proud that this Saturday, the President and I proposed new regulations to make our air even cleaner—in the most cost effective and flexible ways. For the first time, we would require all passenger vehicles and trucks to meet the same tough pollution standards. And for the first time, our plan addresses not only the cars we drive, but also the fuel they use. The health benefits would be enormous. And the benefits of the proposal outweigh the costs by as much as four to one. We've taken great pains to make sure these new standards will not cause hardship for industry, or reduce consumer choice. With the help of industry, public health groups, and all of you, we believe we can finalize this proposal by the end of the year—and create a cleaner America for the 21st Century.

We are also proposing a $1 billion Lands Legacy Initiative to protect natural treasures across the country—places like the Everglades, and California's ancient redwoods—and to help states and local communities save precious lands closer to home. This initiative represents the largest one-year investment ever proposed for protecting America's land resources, and roughly half would go to local communities to restore urban parks, save threatened farmland, and preserve vital wetlands, coastlands, and forests. And, to sustain these efforts in the century ahead, President Clinton and I are proposing permanent funding of at least $1 billion a year—every year—with at least half dedicated to state and local efforts. I urge Congress to pass it.

There is more we must do to help communities grow and thrive according to their own values. I am proud that I led our Empowerment Zone initiative, which has brought more than $4 billion of new investment to Detroit. Now, I call on Congress to fully fund our second round of Empowerment Zones, which have the potential to create 90,000 jobs and stimulate more than $20 billion in public and private investment. Let's give our cities the hope and opportunity they deserve.

And then, to make sure our children get the skills they need to work those jobs, let's pass our plan to build and modernize more than 6,000 schools. We all know: it's not just a question of whether we build these schools, but how we build these schools. In too many places in America today, we are building classrooms in the middle of cornfields, without any connection to the larger community. Today, we have an incredible opportunity to get it right. Let's work together to build schools that are not just centers of learning, but centers of their communities.

The 2,000 commitments we are seeking by the end of this meeting will help turn some of these goals into a reality. But let me make two commitments of my own.

First, I will do all I can to make the federal government a better partner in creating more livable communities across America. Second, I will carry this message across the country, to create a new prosperity for all Americans.

I believe that refocusing communities across the country on ways to sustain prosperity while improving quality of life is one of the greatest challenges we face as a nation. If we're going to meet that challenge, we need your voice and we need your leadership.

And don't believe for a second that it can't happen. Just look at what happened in Georgia. Last year, Governor Roy Barnes ran on the issue of livability. But he didn't speak alone—behind him were thousands of local residents and community activists demanding that something be done. Because of their leadership, the Governor's message was powerful. The papers had to write about it. And the Legislature had to act upon it. Today, Georgia is beginning to take the steps it needs to take to build more livable communities for everyone.

If we can build that same sense of energy, that same sense of urgency, that same sense of possibility in every community in America, we create a new prosperity for all Americans.

As Wallace Stegner once wrote: "this is the native home of hope. When America fully learns that cooperation . . . is the pattern that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then, [we] have a chance to create a society to match [our] scenery."

Working together, pushing together, fighting together, I know we will. Thank you.


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