Remarks By Al Gore
The Brookings Institution
Wednesday, September 2, 1998
Since it was first seen by human eyes, the new world has been a revelation to the old. The American countryside used to make travelers stand still in astonishment. That's how beautiful it was.
From the Lakota storytellers who described the vast clearness of the Western sky as a metaphor for inner courage; to the Hudson River painters whose canvases and brush strokes grew ever larger and wider in an effort to show old Europe just how majestic were the cliffs of the Storm King; from Thoreau, who saw an entire pilgrimage in a still body of water in a Massachusetts meadow; to Mark Twain, who wrote back to his Eastern readers that the Tahoe depths were so lucid, you could see straight down a mile to the stones on the lake's bed; to Spanish settlers who named the high places in California after the views they commandedBuena Vista and Alta Vista; all these Americans knew that their home was a place of natural grace.
This nation's cities and villages used to be a model of civil life. We were the experts at creating the gathering-places, the very architecture, that set the stage for democracy: the Puritans built their villages around common greens; the livestock grazed there, but, more importantly, the village green was where news was proclaimed, and where neighbors chatted or argued over the issues of the day.
As our cities grew, their life took the vibrant shape of America: the mixed-use building of dwellings over small shops allowed people to work long hours, raise families close by, and start the climb up the economic ladder; as the nineteenth century drew to an end and America looked around at its new wealth and diversity, the City Beautiful movement was inaugurated: proud civic buildingslibraries and post offices, town halls and colleges, parks and recreation areas for working men and women's days off, ornate commercial buildings and statuaryproclaimed to the world that though Cleveland or Milwaukee or Corvallis or Tuscaloosa were new, they had plenty to be proud of.
The great civic buildings and recreation areas drew the people together in the heart of the cities: at best, the working people mingled with the affluent, Latin families picnicked alongside Anglos, and students of Chinese parentage sat in reading-rooms alongside those whose folks were Irish. The civic spaces, by drawing people together in pride and enjoyment, also helped create the diversity and self-respect that characterized our bold new country.
In the hearts of our cities, those who are willing to seek them still find the precious gifts of culture and history. Our communities are a reflection of who we are as a people, and where we have been. From 18th Street and Vine District in Kansas City; to the Bronzeville area in Chicago, one of the homes of jazz; to historic Beale Street in Memphisour cherished landscape tells the story of how we came to be just who we are.
We can still see the greatness of what those Americans saw in our natural and civic landscapebut all too often, in too many places, what we see is only the traces. Because over the last thirty years, bad planning has too often distorted our towns and landscapes out of all recognition. We drive the same majestic scenery, but in too many places, the land we pass through is often burdened by an ugliness that leaves us with a quiet sense of sadness. The burden is national. No state has escaped it.
From the desert Southwest to the forested Northeast, from the most pristine snowfields in Alaska, to the loveliest hollows of the Carolinasthickets of strip development distort the landscape our grandparents remember. We walk through the hearts of the cities, but too often the downtown is a wasteland of boarded-up storefronts that goes silent at night, as commuters start their grueling commute to further and further periphery suburbs.
Many of our walkable main streets have emptied out, and their small shops closed, one by one, leaving a night-time vacuum for crime and disorder. Acre upon acre of asphalt have transformed what were once mountain clearings and congenial villages into little more than massive parking lots. The ill-thought-out sprawl hastily developed around our nation's cities has turned what used to be friendly, easy suburbs into lonely cul-de-sacs, so distant from the city center that if a family wants to buy an affordable house they have to drive so far that a parent gets home too late to read a bedtime story. In many such developments, an absence of sidewalks, amenities, and green spaces discourages walking, biking, and playingand kids learn more about Nintendo and isolation than about fresh air and taking turns.
Houses in such places were built fast and heedlessly by bulldozing flat an ecosystem, and ripping out the century-old trees that had sustained the neighborhood's birds and wildlife. People move in and make their lives, but as the bulldozers leapfrog their dreams, they begin to long for something they rememberthe meadow that used to be the children's paradise at the end of the suburban street, the local shops where neighbors passed the local news from one to another, the park where families shared picnics.
The problem which we suffer in too many of our cities, suburbs, and rural areas is made up of so many different pieces that until recently it has been a problem that lacked a name. "Sprawl" hardly does justice to it.
But Americans are resourceful people. While the blight of poor development and its social consequences have many names, the solutions, pioneered by local citizens, are starting to coalesce into an American movement. Some call it "sustainability;" some call it "smart growth;" others refer to "metropolitan strategies;" still others prefer to talk about "regionalism." In New York and Portland, in towns like Celebration, Florida and in many other areas nationwide, it's been called the movement for "livability." And that's as good a name as any to describe the many solutions that local citizens are crafting.
This movement across the country is showing us how we can build more livable communitiesplaces where families work, learn, and worship togetherwhere they can walk and bike and shop and play togetheror choose to driveand actually find a parking place!and get out and have fun.
A livable suburb or city is one that lets us get home after work fastso we can spend more time with friends and family, and less time stuck in traffic. "Road rage" is only one of the newest manifestations of this commuting-induced stress. It is one that restores and sustains our historic neighborhoods, so they are not abandoned and bulldozed under, but are alive with shops and cultural events. It is one that preserves among the new development some family farms and green spacesso that even in the age of cyberspace, kids can still grow up knowing what it's like to eat locally-grown produce, or toss a ball in an open field on a summer evening. Most of us can't afford to travel to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon every time we want to enjoy the rich American landscape; a livable neighborhood lets you and your spouse walk through a natural ecosystem as you simply take an evening stroll down your street. That's spiritually renewing.
A livable community cares about parks as well as parking lots, and develops in a way that draws on local strength and uniquenessresisting the "cookie-cutter monster" that has made so much of our country look all the same.
And increasingly, in the 21st Century, a livable community will be an economically powerful community: a place where a high quality of life attracts the best-educated and trained workers and entrepreneurs. A place where good schools and strong families fuel creativity and productivity. A place where the best minds and the best companies share ideas and shape our common future.
So many towns and suburbs are building more livable communities, and showing that you can embrace community development while growing stronger economically in the process. Indeed, first and foremost, our cities, suburbs, and neighborhoods need continued economic growth and strength to thrive.
That is why our efforts to make communities more livable today must emphasize the right kind of growthsustainable growth. Promoting a better quality of life for our families need never come at the expense of economic growth. Indeed, in the 21st Century, it can and must be an engine for economic growth.
In the last fifty years, we've built flat, not tall: because land is cheaper the further out it lies, new office buildings, roads, and malls go up farther and farther out, lengthening commutes and adding to pollution. This outward stretch leaves a vacuum in the cities and suburbs which sucks away jobs, businesses, homes, and hope; as people stop walking in downtown areas, the vacuum is filled up fast with crime, drugs, and danger.
Drive times and congestion increase; Americans waste about half a billion hours a year stuck in traffic congestion. And the number is growing rapidly. An hour and a half commute each day is ten full workdays a year spent just stuck in traffic. The problem isn't the cars themselves; for so much of this century, cars have given us the chance to pursue our dreams. We just never expected to hit a traffic jam along the way.
So the exhausted commuter seeks affordable housing further outand can't help pushing local farmers out of business, since family farms can't pay the rising property taxes. Orchards and dairy farms go under; the commute gets even longer; and nobody wins, least of all our children. America, which is now losing 50 acres of farmland to development every single hour, could become the largest net importer of food by the next century, instead of the world's largest exporter.
This kind of uncoordinated growth means more than a long drive to work; it means a half hour to buy a loaf of bread; it means that working families have to spend thousands of dollars a year more on transportation costs when they might want the option of spending that money instead toward a year of a good college for a son or daughter. It means that people coming off welfare and eager to work, especially if they have children, find that they don't have a way to reach an available job and still pick a child up from day care.
It means mothers isolated with small children far from play-mates, and older Americans stuck in their homes alone. Air and water quality go down; taxes go up; there are no sidewalks, and even if there were, nowhere to walk to.
We gather at the mall, but there is nowhere to sit outside with family on a fine day. And suddenly we see: this is not the community that we were really looking for.
I've often referred to the well-known theory called "broken windows." When a criminal sees a community with broken windows, garbage strewn on the street, and graffiti on the walls, there is a powerful message, if often an unverbalized message: if you're looking for a place to commit a crime, it's here, because this community has a high tolerance for disorder.
If a young family is looking for a place to live, or an entrepreneur is looking for a place to start an exciting new business, what kind of message is sent by community that has no parks and green spaces; nowhere to shop and walk and play with your children; no running paths to help people stay well and productive; no nearby countrysides or family farms?
The message is clear: you'd better not raise your family here, because we don't value the quality of life that you want. But a livable, walkable, playable communitylike a safe community or a good, modern classroom, sends a very different message: we care about this place, we place a high value on it, and you should, too.
So many generations moved out to the suburbs to find the good lifemore space, more safety, more privacy, and a better quality of life. Today, it is where the vast majority of new jobs are created. We should be able to reclaim that dream.
We're starting to see that the lives of suburbs and cities are not at odds with one another, but closely intertwined. No one in a suburb wants to live on the margins of a dying city.
No one in the city wants to be trapped by surrounding rings of parking lots instead of thriving, livable suburban communities. And no one wants to do away with the open spaces and farmland that give food, beauty, and balance to our post-industrial, speeded-up lives.
Fortunately, all across America, communities are coming together to meet these new challenges of growthto restore historic neighborhoods, to protect centuries-old farmland, to turn shopping malls into village squares, to preserve both our natural and our cultural heritage. These communities are proving that America can grow according to its valueswhich include goodness, and also include beauty. By working together, they show us we can build an America that is not just better off, but better.
What is being gained is not just livability, but also new life for our democracy. As citizens come together to plan their common futureas they realize that they can make a difference right in their own neighborhoodswe open the door to more vibrant civic life and self-government on a much broader scale. That is why smart, sustainable growth must happen at the local and community level.
The American Heritage Rivers initiative rewards communities that restore their rivers and waterfronts. Empowerment zones unite communities to revitalize central cities. These initiatives reveal that rediscovering the pride of place, the delight of home, has an unparalleled power to reinvigorate democracy.
In the words of Daniel Kemmis, who was one of several thinkers who joined Tipper and me at our home eighteen months ago for a series of lengthy discussions on this subject, "what holds people together long enough to discover their power as citizens is their common inhabiting of a single place." In other words, to paraphrase the TV show: "everyone needs a place where everybody knows your name." When I was a child, I spent a lot of time living in a community just like thatCarthage, Tennessee. I've often described it as a place where people know about it when you're born, and care about it when you die. There are a lot of Americans who want to live with their families in a community that has that feeling.
Let me share a few examples of what America is doing about it, and they're causing to happen across the country:
Consider Chattanooga, a city of black and white families, both affluent and working class, in my home state of Tennessee. Like the Spanish settlers who made their home on the Buena Vista, Chattanooga's founders were entranced by the beauty of the land that lies between two majestic mountains and a sweeping bend of the Tennessee River. Each feature of the landscape speaking to the soul, in Wordsworth's memorable phrase, "like a mighty voice." But by the time I was growing up, that voice had grown hoarse. The smog was so thick people couldn't even see the mountains. The air was so polluted that on some occasions, when women wore nylon stockings outside, their legwear actually disintegrated from the pollution. The riverfront was littered with dilapidated warehouses and a vacant high school, and you couldn't even see the river. The town's oldest bridge was considered so unsafe the state wanted to tear it down. According to one council member, in Chattanooga, "the prosperity of one generation became the burden of the next one."
Then the people of Chattanooga decided to reclaim the natural beauty of the place. More than 2,500 people turned out for public meetings and listening sessions. They looked at pictures of different neighborhoods and communities, and they were consulted for their ideas and preferences. Students proposed turning the old warehouses into an aquarium that families could visit. Soon after, the vacant high school reopened as a nationally-recognized magnet school. The old bridge was reinforced, and reopened as the country's longest pedestrian walkway over a beautiful river. As Tennessee's Senator, I was proud to help Chattanooga develop an electric bus system to give people an alternative to all those hours in traffic. And best of alljust as those students had dreamedthose old warehouse properties were turned into the largest freshwater aquarium in the worldattracting 1.3 million visitors every year since it has opened, making kids, retailers, and fish very happy. Today, Chattanooga is not only cleaner than it has been in decadesit led the entire state in job growth for the first half of last year.
I joined the President's Council on Sustainable Development at a two-day meeting in Chattanooga where we talked about these new development patterns.
In St. Paul, people like Mary Gruber are showing us the power of citizen action. She is a nurse living with her husband a pipe fitterin the working class north end of St. Paul. She is also active in the St. Paul Ecumenical Alliance of Congregations. In the early 1990s, she met a social worker who told her that she spent the first six weeks of every school year looking for shoes for the children. She saw that poverty was undermining their community's efforts to provide a good education. But when she wondered where all the jobs would come from, all she saw in her neighborhood were abandoned old factories. Doing a little research, she found that there were more 4,000 acres of abandoned factories in inner cities, barring job growth.
Together with the members of her religious coalition, she helped bring together 45 inner-city and suburban churches, environmental groups, synagogues, developers, and government officials to clean up those old sites and bring jobs back. They came up with their own slogan: "Turn Polluted Dirt Into Paydirt." They held rallies, they sent letters, they met with state legislators. And they persuaded the legislature to pass a seven-year plan to reclaim 175 acres of polluted sites, create more than 2,000 new jobs there, and leverage up to $70 million in private investment in the once-neglected community. One of them summed it up this way: "I hate to sound like a civic cheerleader, but...you come away thinking that this is worth your time." In St. Paul, changing the physical landscape meant a change for the better in people's lives.
In Routt County, Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains, residents and businesses became concerned that an explosion of year-round resorts and tourism was degrading the character of their small ranching and mining community. On summer weekdays, in a town with a population of just 15,000, it wasn't unusual for 28,000 cars to come through the town. One bank president said: "It's not a question of whether we are going to grow. It's a question of how we're going to manage that growth to maintain the things we all came here for." They also realized that destroying their rural way of life would also hurt tourism. So more than 1,000 residents worked on a plan called "Controlling Our Own Destiny," which led to plans for affordable housing, more open space, and better transportation and schools.
Now, more than 10,000 acres have been set aside as permanent land-ranches that the town can grow around. And former adversaries, from ranchers to business people to conservationists, are now working closely together for strong, sustainable, and beautiful growth.
And then there is the City of Detroit. Lots of folks remember how, just a few years ago, Detroit seemed to be in a free-falllosing jobs, losing businesses, gaining crime and poverty. Distrust between the city and the surrounding suburbs was the norm. Today, Detroit is experiencing an economic renaissanceand much of that progress is due to Mayor Dennis Archer's efforts to work with the surrounding counties.
Our Empowerment Zone in Detroit not only helped them attract $4 billion in private investment and thousands of jobs to the once-ravaged city core, it also linked the zone's residents with available jobs out in the suburbs. The natural surroundings benefit, too. Communities have come together to protect and preserve the Detroit River as one of our new American Heritage Rivers. Thirteen communities, three counties, and the state have banded together to fight urban blight along Detroit's northern border. And last year, city residents even approved $38 million in improvements for recreational facilities located out in the suburbs. The partnership is really working. Diverse religions are seeing a common interest. They all realize that the only way to achieve growth and prosperity for everyone is to work together.
In the 1970s, Portland, Oregon was consuming 30,000 acres of its rich agricultural land every year, and threatening the pristine forests leading to Mount Hood. To protect the land, Portland passed a smart growth plancreating a more walkable, livable community while preserving historic areas rather than builder farther and farther out. They were told that it would be impossiblethat the new emphasis on quality of life would force out businesses and force down property values. Instead, the opposite has come to pass: high-tech campuses sprung up, home values have increased, Portland's population has swelled with families fleeing sprawl and congestion elsewhereand a new light rail system has attracted 40% of all commuters in the city.
Today, the environment is better protected; developers advertise "not sprawl but community villages;" new developments, crafted with care, boast community spaces, light rail stations, and on-the-block day care; and Portland's community spirit has become one of joy.
As one newspaper described: "many of the newer companies in Oregonlike Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Hyundaisay they moved here because there are forests, fruit orchards and meandering creeks just across the street from the contained urban areas. The employers said they wanted to locate in an area that could attract educated workers who were as interested in quality of life as a paycheck." Or as one employee of Intel put it: "companies that can locate anywhere they want will go where they can attract good people in good places." Coming together as a community made good common sense, and made good economic sense.
And we see this kind of success across the nationfrom Chicago to Fresno to South Florida to Indianapolis to San Antonio. I could mention many other examples.
How, then, can the federal government encourage and strengthen smarter, more livable, sustainable growth? Again, smart growth is about local and community decisions, and we don't want to tell anyone where to live, or where to locate a business. But I believe there is nevertheless an important role for federal support for local energies.
We in the federal government can start by getting our own house in order, and making it look good. We should start paying closer attention to livability in the building and planning we provide to taxpayerssuch as where we locate new post offices, new libraries, new federal buildings and so on, and whether we should fix up old beautiful old buildings in historic areas before rushing to build bland new ones farther out.
Secondly, we can get our own house in order by reexamining federal policies that may have been well-intentioned, but have encouraged and subsidized the wrong kind of growth and runaway sprawl. For example, in some cases, federal subsidies actually gave handsome financial rewards to communities to extend sewage lines far out into undeveloped areas, rather than spending those funds for needed improvements and expansions in places where families already relied on them. And until we changed the policy, the federal government gave employers big subsidies to offer parking spaces to their employees, but much less help if they wanted to help cover their employees' mass transit costs. We need a national dialogue on the kinds of policies that actually subsidize and encourage the wrong kind of development.
Third, we can provide carefully targeted incentives to encourage smarter growthsuch as support for mass transit and light rail systemsnot to restrict growth in any way, but to reward growth that strengthens family-friendly communities.
Fourth, we can play an enormously positive role as a partner with cities, suburbs, and rural areas, as we have already started to do through our empowerment initiative and through out work with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Association of County Organizations on their brand-new Joint Center for Sustainable Communities. That way, whole regions can create a vision and build together for their common future.
President Clinton and I have already worked hard to make the federal government a better partnerpart of the solution. We are cleaning up old Brownfield sites and toxic waste dumps, and replacing them with parks, new businesses, and new homes. The President's Council on Sustainable Development has worked very hard to encourage better, more livable communities. Our community empowerment strategy is bringing billions of dollars in new private investment to central cities, and breathing new life into America's central cities. We passed targeted tax cuts for families, small businesses, and communities. We are rebuilding and modernizing crumbling schools. With our new transportation bill, we are giving local communities an unprecedented local control over the kind of infrastructure they choose, and we will make sure that control is preserved. We are putting 100,000 community police on the sidewalkspolice who walk a neighborhood beat and know the kids on the sidewalk by name. We have taken new action to help local communities protect their farmland, wetlands, and private forests.
And today, on behalf of President Clinton, I am pleased to announce three additional steps that we will take to help encourage smarter growth and more livable communities all across America.
First, today I am announcing that FANNIE MAE will launch a new $100 million pilot program that will recognize an economic reality that has long been ignored by our mortgage system: families that live near mass transit save as much as hundreds of dollars a month, and therefore should qualify for larger mortgages than they presently do according to formulas that don't take these savings into account. These new location-efficient mortgages, which come with a 30-year transit pass, will give families more choices, by enabling them to live in more desirable neighborhoods, with higher property values. They will also illuminate whether this financial innovation will encourage smarter growth nationwide. We hope and believe that it will.
Second, I am announcing two new initiatives to give more information to communities that want to pursue livability options. We will offer grants that enable communities to obtain and display federal information on easy-to-understand computerized maps, to see all the parks and buildings and farmlands in the region, and to chart predictions of future growth. This will make it dramatically easier to envision and plan smarter, more livable growth for the future.
Third, we are taking new action to protect our farmland. If you lose an acre of fertile farmland, you lose it forever. That's why, two years ago, we reached out to states, tribes, and local governments and asked them to help us protect our farmland through the purchase of easements. Today, I am proud to announce today that we are awarding more than $17 million to 19 states to ensure that thousands of acres of our very best farmland are preserved for generations to come. This investment will protect more than 53,000 acres of precious farmland on 217 farms across America. It is a good beginning. Our kids will see horses, cows, and farms outside books and movies.
This is just the beginning of a renewed federal commitment to smarter, more livable growthand I will be announcing additional actions in the coming months. But in every case, our goal will be to put more control, more information, more decision-making power into the hands of families, communities, and regionsto give them all the freedom and flexibility they need to reclaim their own unique place in the world. That is why I will begin this fall by holding several listening sessions on livability and smart growth, to hear first-hand what is working, and what the federal government can do to become a better partner. In the coming months, members of the President's Cabinet will hold several additional sessions around the country as well.
What is clear to the local and federal governments, more and more, is something any parent has known when struggling to afford and then protect a home, and that is: places matter to people; they shape people, for good or ill. Our communities must be more than mere plots of bulldozed land, more than mere networks of roads and soulless buildings. They must allow us to come together, to walk and bike and play with our children, to know that we can shape the communities we want for their children. They are a reflection of who we are as a people.
We must preserve and protect what is special about our natural landscape, and about our built landscape as well. That is why America must always seek strong and aggressive growthbut growth that is consistent with local values.
Wallace Stegner once reminded us that, as deeply as we treasure the mythic cowboys and pioneer men and women and lone rangers who tamed America's great frontier, we treasure our traditions of homesteading and community-building just as much. As Stegner 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."
All across America, you and your neighbors have started to do just that. And it's high time. Because this land is your land. From California to the New York islandfrom the Redwood Forests to the Gulf Stream watersthis land was made for you and me. Thank youand God bless America.