Growth and development are generally welcomed with open arms throughout Mississippi and elsewhere in the country. But unplanned growth can lead to a phenomenon known as “sprawl” that creates serious traffic congestion, air pollution, commercial encroachments on established neighborhoods, and other problems that can affect an area’s quality of life.
Two of the most egregious examples of sprawl in the South are Atlanta, Ga., and Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla. Atlanta has been favored by tremendous economic development in the past 20 years, but the resulting growth has created traffic nightmares, air and water pollution, and a general deteriorization in the quality of life.
Normally when that comment is made the Mississippi is behind other states regarding development issues, that would be considered a negative. But when it relates to sprawl, the fact that Mississippi is less developed than many other states means the state also has the chance to do a better job managing sprawl.
“We have the opportunity to look at the mistakes some other states have made, learn from those mistakes, and not make those same mistakes here,” says Pete Walley, director of the Bureau of Long-Range Economic Planning at the University Research Center. “Atlanta officials have said if they had to do it over again, they would do it differently. It is clear their qualify of life has gone down even though Atlanta has had a great deal of economic development. How can we learn from that and apply some things that will work in Mississippi?
“In Mississippi we don’t have any density of population yet. We are 20 years away from having a metropolitan area like Birmingham or Atlanta, but we are headed in that direction. So, how do we plan for growth instead of just letting it happen?”
Need for land-use planning
Walley said there is almost no land use planning in Mississippi, yet that is a vital component of wise or smart growth. While there is a mechanism on the state government level for long-range planning, Walley says the governmental system as a whole in the state doesn’t embrace long-range planning.
“We are low on the learning curve relative to planning and implementation of land-use planning,” Walley said. “Individuals in the system are trying, but we have a long way to go. I think we are beginning to see more public awareness of the problem.”
On the Coast sprawl issues are often on the front page of the local newspapers. A large number of neighborhood groups have formed to fight proposed condominiums, casinos, apartment buildings and even the proposed new north-south highway corridor. Most people agree there is a need for a new north-south corridor, but they don’t want it in their neighborhood because it would diminish property values and the quality of life.
M.O. Lawrence, a Coast banker active with local conservation groups such as Biloxi Future Now, said he isn’t anti-growth. As a banker he has a vested interest in seeing the Coast grow and expand.
“But I think it can be done on a much higher plane that it has in the past and as it seems to be occurring today,” Lawrence said. “We’ve got money to afford the best, and we settle for the least. There has been an attitude shift in that probably seven to 10 years ago we were looking for any development because we were starting from such a poor foundation. Today because of the changed economic environment of our community, I’m seeing more people saying that we don’t have to have development just for development sake alone, and that we should be focused on quality development that adds to and enhances the community.”
New residents affect attitudes
Lawrence said he believes a major factor driving the change of attitude towards development issues on the Coast is an influx of new residents who have lived in other areas of the country and the world. They realize the consequences of poorly planned growth, and don’t want to see the Coast make the same mistakes.
“They have seen from experience that you don’t have to go to the lowest common denominator,” Lawrence said. “They have seen shopping centers that retained green spaces, and had atriums and other attractive amenities. You don’t have to have a shopping center that is absolutely stripped bare and has nothing but asphalt parking in it.”
Lawrence said people who have visited places like Orlando, Fla., and Scottsdale, Ariz., realize that public green space, attractive landscaping and even aesthetic touches such as attractive road signs and utility poles can greatly improve the tourist experience and quality of life for residents.
“Our coastal area can afford to have those amenities that make for quality life,” Lawrence said.
He doesn’t believe just building more highways is the answer to growth problems on the Coast. For example, instead of building a new east-west corridor between U.S. 90 and Pass Road, he suggests purchasing right of way now north of Interstate 10 in that rapidly growing area and putting a new corridor there.
“We ought to be planning now those major transportation corridors in the northern part of our county, and begin to acquire the land today rather than wait until all these little county roads are covered with development and then have to come in and pay high purchase prices to acquire the rights of way,” Lawrence said. “The other thing we as a community need to come to grips with is if we are going to have more population coming into the area, we can only accommodate growth in two directions. We can have flat, urban spread or become more concentrated and have redevelopment in a lot of urban blighted areas of Biloxi and Gulfport. To do that we’re going to have to start accommodating multi-story housing.”
Lawrence believes some of the opposition to high-rise apartments and condominiums has been counterproductive to combating sprawl. He believes urban sprawl will produce more environmental damage than building high-rise condominiums if the high-rise buildings are done properly.
Another problem he sees is the willingness of city officials to give zoning variances. He said land use planning and zoning can’t be effective in preventing sprawl if variances are the norm instead of a rare exception.
DeSoto County a leader in smart growth
The only area in the state that is in a large metropolitan area is DeSoto County, which is part of the greater Memphis area. The county is considered a state leader in land-use planning.
“Fortunately in the mid-1950s the county looked ahead by establishing the first countywide land-use controls in the state, and by consolidating the public schools,” said Jim Flanagan, president DeSoto County Economic Development Council. “Those two pillars laid the foundation for the growth we are experiencing today. The county and cities have been very proactive planning for the future with the establishment of comprehensive plans that help lay the infrastructure network.”
Currently, DeSoto County is in the process of providing countywide sewer, a critical infrastructure item needed for smart growth. Federal appropriations are helping to pay for the sewer system improvements.
DeSoto is the fastest growing county in the state, and represents the fastest growing area in the Memphis Metropolitan area. DeSoto was ranked seventh in the nation in highest growth potential out of 841 metropolitan counties by Demographic Journal magazine. An average of seven to eight families per day move into DeSoto County.
Growth driven by location, good schools
Flanagan said the growth is being driven by the county location near Memphis, transportation advantages, an exceptional school system, and a secure suburban environment. All those add up t
o a good quality of life. About 60% of DeSoto workers drive in
to Shelby County, Tenn., for employment.
DeSoto County is starting a new comprehensive