- Smarter Growth: Activism and Environmental Policy in Metropolitan Washingtonby John H. Spiers
The figure in the White House may change, the balance of power in Congress may tilt, wars may come and go, and budgets may shrink or swell, but one thing remains certain—the population of the Washington, D.C., area will grow. In Smarter Growth: Activism and Environmental Policy in Metropolitan Washington, John H. Spiers examines grassroots efforts to set limits on that growth within four suburban counties (Loudoun and Fairfax Counties, Virginia, and Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, Maryland). Local activists, he argues, propelled the region to the forefront of the smart growth movement during the last decade of the twentieth century. Smarter Growthtells this story through a series of public clashes over development. The author deftly reconstructs these flashpoints from the fragments of metropolitan governance. Each chapter includes a new cast of characters and an engaging narrative. Here, "sewer ladies" hounded local regulators to clean up the Potomac River (p. 28). Suburban high schoolers performed songs celebrating an undeveloped woodlot. Homeowners voted against a highway, and they packed county planning meetings to protest the construction of a mosque in an agricultural preserve. Such dramas were common as sprawl engulfed the region.
Most accounts of environmental activism published after the establishment of Earth Day in 1970 have emphasized the growing role of the federal government in cleaning up toxic waste, protecting endangered species, and mitigating environmental impacts. Yet, as Spiers notes, "robust federal policy making established a foundation, rather than a guarantee, for environmental protection" (p. 8). It was at the local level that "activists applied principles of environmental stewardship to advocate for growth that was 'smarter'" (p. 6). [End Page 753]Tracing the persistence of activism within this frame is the major achievement of the book. Smarter Growthpresents a continued evolution of the branch of suburban environmentalism that Christopher C. Sellers found among post–World War II families in Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America(Chapel Hill, 2012). This movement combined a defense of clean air, water, and soil with homeowners' desire to preserve nearby open space. Its vision was inextricably wrapped up in a particular suburban landscape. As Spiers explains, through smart growth activism, suburbanites "sought to buffer themselves from sprawl while preserving access to the natural amenities that made their communities desirable" (p. 52). To his credit, the author frequently notes the privileged status of his grassroots activists and the financial security that their arguments assumed. A case study on the limited success of smart growth activism in majority-black Prince George's County further explores the reasons that the movement has failed to gain traction among some communities.
As someone who grew up in northern Virginia during the 1990s, I have watched both sprawling development and the growing defense of nature that Spiers describes. When I return each year to one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, I often wonder what it would look like for the region to pursue growth that was both smart and just—to celebrate growth that offered natural beauty as a public good rather than a boon to private property values. Spiers notes that "communities where efforts to support environmental protection are more successful usually depend on a base of active middle- and upper-income residents who have the time, energy, and resources to be politically active and are willing to pay the higher costs of living in communities where significant environmental resources are protected" (p. 179). This insight is both astute and devastating. In light of this truth, it is hard to share Spiers's optimism about the movement's achievements or his insistence on referring to its members as "environmentalists." That being said, Smarter Growthprovides an engaging introduction to the movement and its efforts to save open space in a frequently overlooked metropolitan area.