St. Louis Congregations Challenge Urban Sprawl

This is God’s world.
We are God’s people.

The voices of several hundred church members – black and white, Protestant and Catholic – somewhat tentatively followed the lead of the choir members from St. Peter’s African Methodist Episcopal Church.

We’ve been entrusted.
The land is in our hands.

By the second run-through of the new song, the assemblage sang with greater assurance. Joining hands, swaying in rhythm, they flung themselves into the final bars.

We must live together,
Our children are calling.
Black, white, rich, or poor,
For our future let’s do more.

It was the debut of “Our Song,” the battle cry of Metropolitan Congregations United for St. Louis. As the composer and lyricist, the Rev. Sylvester Laudermill Jr., jokingly confessed, “You can’t really sing ‘control urban sprawl.'”

Yet controlling urban sprawl was the goal of the umbrella organization of 60 churches gathered together from St. Louis City and suburban St. Louis County on a warm June evening last year. The occasion was the group’s Second Metropolitan Summit on Urban Sprawl. The first summit had been held the previous February on the downtown campus of St. Louis University. This second summit, held at Incarnate Word Academy in suburban Normandy, symbolized the group’s growing political support in the city’s suburbs.

At the summit the group scored its first victory. State Representative Ron Auer, a Democrat from South St. Louis, reported that earlier that day he had met privately with Missouri’s Speaker of the House. The Speaker had agreed to appoint a Special Legislative Interim Committee on Urban Sprawl.


“The battle is joined,” announced Rev. Laudermill, pastor of St. Peter’s AME and the Metropolitan Congregations United chairman.

Why urban sprawl? Why had this coalition of central city and older suburban church congregations targeted regional land use planning as its priority goal? “Growth management” had been almost the exclusive concern of farmland preservation and environmental organizations elsewhere in the country. Growth management had not developed much support in Missouri.

“We’ve come to realize that we can’t win the ‘inside game’ without winning the ‘outside game,'” explains Father Mitch Doyen, administrator of St. Mary’s High School, the interfaith coalition’s vice president.

“For a long time our churches have been discussing sprawl without knowing it,” Father Doyen continues. “Gut level conversations about membership decline, fear of crime, our children lost to drugs and gangs, shopping centers closing, hospitals closing, middle class flight, abandoned homes. Sprawl was at the heart of this decay. It just took an educational process for us to realize that.”

As part of that process, three existing interfaith organizations – Churches United for Community Action (North St. Louis County), Congregations Allied for Community Improvement (North St. Louis City), and Churches Committed to Community Concerns (South St. Louis City) – invited Minnesota State Representative Myron Orfield and me to conduct a workshop for their leadership on regional issues in August 1996. Orfield is the principal architect of the Twin Cities-inner suburb legislative coalition that has successfully pushed many regional reform measures through the Minnesota legislature. [See article by Orfield in this issue.]

I laid out the facts on development trends in the St. Louis region. Over the previous three decades the area’s urbanized population had grown a very modest 17 percent. However, urbanized land mushroomed 125 percent. Developers were paving over farmlands at seven times the rate of population growth. Despite the region’s slow population growth, builders had constructed 325,000 new houses and apartments – more than twice as many new housing units as there were new households to fill them.

That’s a formula for guaranteed abandonment of older housing in the city and older suburbs, I explained. Indeed, in that 20 years, the city had seen 70,000 housing units disappear. But the impact was not limited to abandonment of older housing. With such a soft housing market, the average home’s value throughout the region had increased only 29 percent after adjusting for inflation (compared to a 36 percent increase nationwide). Within St. Louis City, inflation-adjusted average home values increased only 14 percent, and not at all for African American homeowners.

For city dwellers, the net effect of uncontrolled development on the metropolitan periphery was constant disinvestment in the core. For years, many of the member churches had fought in vain to stabilize and revitalize their neighborhoods. The steady abandonment of city neighborhoods almost everywhere had been inexorable. In 1970, 51 census tracts had poverty rates above 20 percent – 11 above 40 percent. By 1990, the number of poverty tracts had grown to 70. The number of high poverty tracts had doubled to 20.

But the phenomenon of concentrated poverty wasn’t confined to the city. It was spreading out into many older suburbs in St. Louis County. In the same two decades, the number of suburban poverty neighborhoods had escalated rapidly from 5 to 19 – and the number of high poverty neighborhoods from just one to seven.

“When ‘urban problems’ are seen as just city problems, they have no political legs. When they reach out to become suburban problems too, then you can build winning political coalitions,” Orfield told the summit. “You are segregating yourselves by race and class throughout the region,” he continued. “From Maplewood to Spanish Lake, from Florissant to Webster Groves, average household income in older suburbs is dropping. Fiscal disparities are rising. The rich get richer out in booming St. Charles County, and the poor get poorer in the city and inner suburbs.”

“Are these ‘natural’ growth patterns ordained by God and Adam Smith?” Orfield concluded. “They’re not. Metro development patterns are shaped by major public policies – the federal interstate highway system, preferential financing for suburban subdivisions, tax policies that favor buying higher and higher priced new homes, dozens and dozens of hidden and not-so-hidden subsidies – a Marshall Plan for the rich.

“You – the residents of cities and inner suburbs – are at least two-thirds of the voting power. Organize a city-inner suburb coalition. Change the rules of the game. Level the playing field,” Orfield advised.

Almost 200 years earlier, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery set out from St. Louis for the mouth of the Columbia River. For policy inspiration, the St. Louis inter-faith coalition followed the same route to Portland, Oregon. Across the continent, business and civic delegations, state and local politicians, and professional planners are flocking to Portland to see the practical results of nearly 25 years of operating under different rules of the game. In 1973 the Oregon legislature enacted the Statewide Land Use Law. It required that urban growth boundaries be drawn around cities throughout the state. Portland Metro, the nation’s only directly elected regional government, is responsible for land use and transportation planning in the 1.5 million person metropolitan area.

Anticipating a 50 percent growth of population over the next 45 years, last November the Portland Metro Council voted 5-2 to add less than 8 square miles to Portland’s existing 342 square mile urban growth boundary. (The two dissenting votes felt the expansion was too little.) Opposition to greater expansion was led by many local officials like Mayor Gussie McRobert of suburban Gresham as well as many environmentally concerned citizens.

Portland’s urban growth boundary has succeeded in protecting farmland in Oregon’s rich Willamette Valley. If the Metro Council sticks to its plans, over the next 45 years, only about 4 square miles of current farmland will be urbanized – as much farmland as is subdivided in the state of Missouri every six weeks.

A big bonus is that shutting down suburban sprawl has turned new private investment back inward into existing neighborhoods and retail areas. Older Portland suburbs, including Milwaukie, Oregon City, and Mayor McRoberts’ Gresham, are booming. Property values in Albina, Portland’s poorest neighborhood, have doubled in just five years. As Metro Councilor Ed Washington, whose District 6 includes Albina, explained his vote for the small boundary expansion, “We are having redevelopment in my district for the first time in 40 years; we don’t want to lose it.”

In St. Louis last October, the legislative interim committee hearings on urban sprawl were front-page news in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The interfaith coalition and a wide range of allied groups made their case eloquently for a state growth management law. Major developers, homebuilders, and St. Charles County officials thundered that the coalition was trying to strangle the region’s growth. The white-hot public controversy emphasized how carefully the growth management coalition would have to craft its legislative strategy.

MCU leaders met with Rep. Auer, Senator Wayne Goode, and other supporters in early November. They agreed on specifications for the proposed state law. To minimize potential opposition from rural legislators, the bill would be limited to the St. Louis area. (Other regions like Kansas City could buy in if they could muster the legislative support.) Rather than set up an elected regional government like Portland Metro, the St. Louis Plan would first turn to the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, the area’s voluntary council of governments. It would set up a special land use commission composed of elected officials and citizen members. The commission would review and approve comprehensive land use plans drawn up by the five Missouri-side counties. The plans would have to meet specified state standards for preserving farmland, emphasizing development around Metrolink, the St. Louis area’s new light rail system, and providing “fair share” affordable housing in all parts of the region. The key element would be drawing a Portland-style urban growth boundary around the region.

“We are not going to solve the region’s problems by starting one more homeless shelter, or putting more food on the shelves of a food pantry,” explains Susan E. Sneed, executive director of the United Methodist Church’s local mission and church extension society. “Fundamentally, urban sprawl is about how we live together as a region. Many institutions, organizations, and leaders already know about the problems created by sprawl. The real question is do we have the political will to stop the sprawl and transform our core?”

It will be a long, tough legislative battle, but Metropolitan Congregations United and its allies are gearing up for this year’s session, and for as many years as it takes thereafter to win.

The St. Louis campaign may be fortified by church-based growth management reform movements in other states. In December the St. Louis organization hosted the national leadership meeting of the Gamaliel Foundation, the Chicago-based group that provides organizing support to interfaith coalitions in 17 Midwestern metro areas. Chicago’s Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations, Detroit’s M.O.S.E.S. organization, the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations, and the other Gamaliel-linked groups are all mounting regional campaigns to secure new anti-sprawl laws.

They have learned the key lesson still to be embraced by so many outstanding community development corporations and other inner-city groups struggling to reverse the disinvestment and abandonment devastating so many inner-city neighborhoods.

You cannot win the inside game without winning the outside game.

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