HEADING HOME from a pleasant break on Cape Cod, I have a new appreciation for the joys not just of sand, sun, and sea, but of public planning.
Travelers to Cape Cod may wonder why it has been spared the relentless strip-malling that has blighted most of our vacation spots. Or why most of the Cape's magnificent shoreline is available to ordinary people who come for a day or a week, as well as those fortunate enough to own oceanfront property.
The answer, of course, is far-sighted public planning.
Thanks largely to Massachusetts Senators Leverett Saltonstall and John F. Kennedy, who conceived it back in 1959, Cape Cod is part National Seashore, which preserves 44,000 acres of the Outer Cape from private development. The National Seashore also guarantees general public access to pristine beaches that stretch the whole length of the Outer Cape.
In many states, beachfront land is chopped up into private parcels. You have to be the property owner, or a guest of the resort, to have access to the loveliest waterfront.
Even worse, much of seaside America, whether Florida, New Jersey, or the Carolinas, has fallen victim to the blight of universal strip malls, with the same couple of dozen national chains that make everywhere in America look like everywhere else.
In Florida it is hard to find a locally owned restaurant. Thanks to developer manipulation of Florida's tax laws, strip malls are built and then abandoned because there are more lucrative tax breaks to be had on new strip malls.
Zoning and planning have a bad name among the Sun Belt crowd who are currently running the country. If you want America to look like Dallas, you will probably agree with them.
But back on Cape Cod, east of Hyannis in the magnificent last 50 miles of Cape, its hard to find a franchise fast-food place or a mall. This is due less to the National Seashore than to strict local zoning and planning and a general ethic that this place is special.
What makes Cape Cod special is not just the natural beauty, which has been mercifully preserved, but the feeling that here is a place with some local character that hasn't been homogenized into just a copy of every other place. It's like stepping back into America of the 1940s.
Conservative opponents of planning and zoning contend that it is really elitist that it deprives ordinary people of cheap housing and low-cost conveniences like a McDonalds or a K-mart. The supporters of planning and zoning are said to be snobs who just want to pull up the ladder.
But think again. In the case of Cape Cod, it is farsighted planning that allows ordinary people who don't own beachfront property to visit some of America's loveliest beaches that will never be for sale to the highest bidder.
There may not be any fast-food outlets in the Outer Cape, but there are plenty of family-owned places that offer good value as well as local color.
What about the issue of cheap land? It's true that by putting prime land off limits to development, the National Seashore makes the Cape more attractive and perhaps drives up local property values. On the other hand, property values in metropolitan Boston have been rising even faster.
It was Michael Dukakis, a great antisprawl governor, who declared that we should want our cities to thrive as cities and our rural areas to retain their character as rural areas rather than having everything just meld into indistinguishable and inefficient sprawling suburbs. To do that, we need to channel where development occurs. Yes, this limits developers' freedom - but it enhances the freedom of ordinary people.
The cure for the shortage of affordable housing is not to carve up gems like Cape Cod into endless tract housing but to have higher-density housing coupled with planning for open spaces. And no matter how much sprawl we tolerate, affordable housing will require public dollars as well as thoughtful planning.
Speaking of Dukakis, when he was running for president the joke was that the earnest Dukakis was the fellow who brought on his vacation a book on Swedish land-use planning. By that standard, I suppose a good definition of a hopeless policy wonk is someone who looks at the glory of a Cape Cod sunset and is moved to write a paean to zoning.
Well, I plead guilty. If it weren't for the foresight of the planners, I might as well have stayed home and just visited my McDonald's down the block.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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