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How the (unintended consequences of) the EIS process fostered suburban sprawl

Developer Jonathan Rose is one of the most-lauded developers by environmental and affordable housing advocates; on November 3, he was honored by the American Institute of Architects' New York chapter to give the annual lecture in honor of Samuel Ratensky. He was the first developer chosen for the honor, which goes to those who have made significant lifetime contributions to the advancement of housing and community design.

And Rose, who by the way whose initial effort at developing the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (ATURA) was stymied in the 1980s, thinks the environmental review process went awry, starting with a federal law, which, I'll add, spawned state laws like the one under which Atlantic Yards was evaluated and approved.

Rose, who lamented the loss of the big picture, blamed environmentalists too focused on the opportunity for legal challenge and developers who realized that they could avoid or beat back most challenges.

Where the growth is

"In the next 50 years, America will grow by somewhere between 90 and 100 million people," Rose said at the lecture. "What you can see is the largest increases--a lot of them are in the South and Southwest in places that are either subject, like in Miami, in Florida, the whole place could be washed over by rising sea level, or places where they need a whole lot of air conditioning and where they don’t have much water and they’re frankly, from an environmental point of view and a global security point of view, the worst place to have dramatic population growth. But this is where the population growth seems to be."

Back to 1970

"We as a nation have done nothing to plan for this," he continued. "So I’m going to take you back to 1970, there were two bills in Congress, the National Planning Act and the National Environmental Protection Act [NEPA]. And all my environmental protection friends hate it when I tell you what I’m about to tell you."

Lawyers and developers

"The National Planning Act would’ve created a framework for national planning that would’ve dealt with our infrastructure issues and decided where development should be and shouldn’t be, and land preservation," he said.

"But the environmental community, which was basically formed by lawyers at that time--really the most vociferous environmental activists--and the real estate community both decided to endorse NEPA, which created the environmental impact statement [EIS] and a legal framework for reviewing individual projects. So everybody voted to say--the developers said, Y’know, listen, we can beat this thing, they’re not going to sue on every project, it’s just an impact statement, we can deal with that, planning could actually restrict growth and development, we don’t want that. And the environmentalists said, We’re a bunch of lawyers, we want the ability to take everybody to court."

The loss of national planning

"So the effect was that we turned our back on national planning, and we turned our back on a national infrastructure policy," Rose said. "And, at the same time, here’s what happens: 1000 individuals choose to subdivide a parcel in the suburbs, or the exurbs, and it falls under the screen of an environmental impact statement, each one is one individual act."

"One person chooses to build a 1000-unit urban project in a city and they get held up for five years in an environmental impact statement," he concluded. "And so the unintended consequence of NEPA actually was one more of the many things that made it easier for suburban sprawl to proceed from 1970 to 2000 instead of urban redevelopment."

Note that, in the mid-70s, NEPA spawned numerous state variants; in New York, it was the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), as explained in Nicholas A. Robinson's 1982 Albany Law Review article, SEQRA's Siblings: Precedents from Little NEPA's in the Sister States.

Atlantic Yards was approved under SEQRA.

Systemic observation

Jane Jacobs, of course, was wary of planning, though she focused on cities rather than national policy. Would she have opposed the National Planning Act? Did she? I'm not sure, but she was no fan of suburban sprawl.

Previous comments

In a December 2007 interview with Planning magazine, Rose spoke similarly:
"If you wanted to build a 1,000-unit project that is mixed income, mixed use, green, next to mass transit, you could spend years going through the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process. However, if 1,000 home builders each built just one house, leading to sprawl, there's no environmental impact statement required. But which creates the most traffic? Which is more wasteful of energy?

Clearly the 1,000 single homes, but because each one is used independently rather than synthetically, each one falls below the screening limit of NEPA."

To Rose, this is just one way the system currently favors sprawl over high-density, environmentally sustainable mixed income housing. Last May, while testifying before Congress on ways to expand the low income housing tax credit, Rose called for the federal government to take a leadership role in leaving "a more sustainable development legacy to future generations."

A key problem, as Rose sees it, is that the U.S. has no national plan, only regulatory statutes such as NEPA and the Clean Air Act. "Essentially we created a regulatory environment in which we made our decisions based on science and law, a good thing, but insufficient," he says. What is missing from this piecemeal approach, he says, is values. "You could no longer say we will preserve this historic landscape because it is important to our national heritage, because it is who we are as a people, because it is part of our moral regional value system, our social values, our spiritual values."

NEPA is also a poor planning tool, he says, because of its heavy reliance on environmental impact statements, whose accuracy he believes is unproven. "I ask this of Planning magazine readers: Does anybody have a good, broad-based study of a diverse group of environmental impact statements of [completed] projects that 10 years later were back-tested to see if the predictions were accurate?"

One of the reasons he believes they can't be accurate is that "they look at projects from a granular point of view; essentially, they look at a project by itself, and not the whole system."


  1. I don't quite see how "individual" vs. "synthetic" falls here. If "1000 individuals choose to subdivide a parcel in the suburbs", the original (unsubdivided) parcel still had one owner. Can't this one owner impose some conditions (house must be "green," certain houses must be low-income rentals, etc) when selling each individual subdivision?

    There may be a need for some local laws to cancel out the effect of national laws, such as certain road/electricity/sewage pipe arrangements, but it looks to me that local policies still have much influence over how easily a construction project may proceed.


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