Sprawl in the Sunbelt: Lessons from an Award-winning, “Unworkable” Plan

By Evangeline Linkous (University of South Florida)

Sarasota County, Florida established a reputation as a leader in smart growth planning with adoption of its Sarasota 2050 plan in 2002. As an alternative to sprawl in the countryside, the plan envisions a new form of development composed of compact villages and open space protections for land beyond the county’s urban growth boundary. In 2003, Sarasota 2050 was recognized with the Charter Award from the Congress for New Urbanism.

Less than a decade later, the plan was described as “unworkable,” with not a single project in development. Dissatisfaction with the plan resulted in a controversial plan update called 2050 Revisited that provides greater flexibility for development but deviates substantially from the original plan’s intent. Specifically, the update reduces open space protections aimed at protection of rural character and environmental resources, increases developable land, and fosters more typical suburban development forms. The policy changes better align Sarasota 2050 developments to market conditions, but in doing so allow the sprawling development the plan was designed to prevent.

My article in UAR captures my effort to understand the seeming derailment of a promising strategy for managing growth beyond urban areas, and to understand what lessons Sarasota’s experience offers for policymakers grappling with changing rural landscapes. The article focuses on planning policy for exurbia. Exurbia is a term used to describe low-density communities located at the urban fringe where population growth is changing both land uses and economic functions.  Exurbia presents an important research agenda for those interested in planning and growth management because exurban areas are growing at twice the rate of metropolitan areas overall. It is also increasingly understood as a phenomenon with distinctive regional patterns and processes, and is especially prominent in the American South, where more than 47% of the total U.S. exurban population live.

From my research, three interrelated themes emerge that explain how Sarasota 2050 went from “consensus” to “unworkable.” First, global economic forces were reshaping Sarasota’s rural lands from productive to consumptive landscapes. Sarasota’s rural landowners included many multi-generational cattle and citrus operators diversifying into development due to downsizing in these agricultural industries in Florida. Although the original Sarasota 2050 plan envisioned agricultural greenbelts of grazing cattle surrounding compact villages, the plan did not account for whether and how agriculture and other rural uses would remain viable, especially near the growth boundary and interspersed with new cluster development. At the same time, Sarasota’s rural lands were (and continue to be) attractive to amenity-seeking exurbanite homebuyers. Many of the new communities under construction in central Florida seek to attract footloose, affluent homebuyers seeking a mix of recreational and community-oriented amenities within a natural setting. The global recession also led to political pressure to create jobs and loosen restrictions on growth. Another external factor of critical import was the weakening of Florida’s state growth management system under the 2011 Community Planning Act. The 2050 Revisited initiative—which increased development and reduced open space protections on 2050 lands—would have faced scrutiny and possible rejection under the old state growth management rules and review process.

Although external factors loom large in the Sarasota 2050 story, the local political economy played a critical role. Although Sarasota 2050 offered a rational-technical resolution to a long-standing debate between “move-the-line” development interests and large agricultural landowners and “hold-the-line” urban citizenry and environmentalists, continued politicking after plan adoption meant Sarasota 2050’s role as a compromise solution was gradually undermined by the incompatible policy agendas pursued by each faction. Development interests—which represented a coalition of builder-developers and large agricultural landowners—used plan review and amendment processes to forge flexible development options that supported more typical subdivision development forms. Controlled growth advocates launched ballot box initiatives that inadvertently destabilized 2050 by leaving few other options to relieve growth pressure. Although the plan mediates between the two sides as a policy document, the more dynamic processes of plan implementation and local politics made Sarasota 2050 vulnerable to change as different interest groups jockeyed for influence.

Finally, the Sarasota 2050 story calls attention to the ways urban planning and politics undervalue rural and exurban processes. In Sarasota, the county’s rural landscape was conceptualized primarily in vague, urban-centric ways that were unrealistic about changing agricultural conditions, rural economic processes, and emerging growth pressures. This resulted in a plan that lacks substantive policy for these landscapes.  Conventional planning ideology for exurbia usually emphasizes a no-growth solution (often implemented through a growth boundary and large lot zoning) or managed growth solution (usually implemented through clustered residential in planned developments). Although these spatial policies complement planning’s environmental imaginary of exurbia as the battleground of sprawl, these solutions may be misplaced where there are political and economic synergies between productive rural sectors and amenity migrants who desire rural landscapes. These approaches fail to accommodate visions of low-density exurbia where urbanization is actively resisted in favor of rural amenity. Also, as the Sarasota case makes clear, clustered development may be too fragile and may make little sense if demand for urban development is not otherwise being met and support for agriculture or conservation is fragmented. Planning’s focus on no-growth or clustered development as an antidote for rural restructuring falls short of a coherent vision for exurbia and fails to imagine new approaches that may better account for the shifting politics and presences in rural landscapes.

The article concludes with two questions for future research:

Are there in-between zones—neither urban, suburban, or traditional rural—that better rationalize exurbia’s emerging economic, political, and environmental processes and address exurban needs and interests?

Is there a distinct political ecology of exurbia in the Sunbelt, and is the Sarasota case—where a rural agenda failed to generate political capital—representative?

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Lance Asper on Unsplash

Author Biography

Evangeline Linkous is an Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of South Florida. Her research interests include land use policy and law, growth management, and agricultural and food systems planning.

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