Traditionally, the way towns and cities grew was a strictly local matter. But Americans have been waking to the wider impact of these local decisions for decades. The country has now reached the point where growth policies - or, specifically, the sprawl such policies often have encouraged - is becoming a national issue.
The Clinton administration is helping shape that issue. The president plugged controlled growth and land preservation in his State of the Union address. Vice President Gore has stewardship of the administration's "livable communities initiative," which embraces limited federal incentives to save open space, build public transit, and curb pollution.
Clearly, this is an issue that politicians with an eye toward what might enliven a presidential campaign are eager to exploit. Federal efforts, such as the Environmental Protection Agency's "antisprawl" campaign for New England, may have some impact. But, as with education, the important action is at the state and local levels.
Suburban sprawl is a concern coast to coast. Valuable farmland is transmogrifying into housing tracts in California's Central Valley, and in the rural counties that abut Chicago and Milwaukee. Open space and once-quiet country towns are engulfed by hop-scotch development patterns in Eastern Seaboard states like Maryland and New Jersey.