Road and Utility Policies are the Drivers of Community Development

By Dom Nozzi

Road and (sewer and water) utility policies are the political decisions driving community development, not the plans or policies a community adopts.

Our elected officials and many of our citizens have convinced themselves that widening roads and extending utilities are technical and therefore non-political. “We’re just protecting public health and safety, or providing jobs for poor people, or helping the economy.” They either don’t realize or deliberately hide the fact that such decisions are profoundly political, and are the most powerful factors driving sprawl, economic decline, environmental destruction, etc.

They perhaps comfort themselves by agreeing to adopt land use policies that discourage sprawl or environmental destruction. They perhaps believe such words are effective in stopping bad things, and road widenings or extensions of sewer and water into remote areas have nothing to do with it.

In theory, a long-range community development plan could state something like “The City shall not add road capacity” or “The City shall not extend utility service beyond the urban service line,”

but it is nearly impossible, politically, to adopt such policies. It takes politicians with courage and enlightenment, and we simply do not have such a thing.

So we continue to fool ourselves by thinking that a policy such as “The City shall discourage sprawl” or the “City shall consider creating a greenbelt” or the “City shall create large-lot zoning” will save us, not realizing that the critical land use and quality of life political decisions were already made when we decided to widen a road or extend sewer and water utilities, and that such “technical” decisions will overwhelm any chance of non-infrastructure policies having a chance. These non-infrastructure, feel-good statements only have a chance if we strongly intervene on the marketplace by our infrastructure decisions.

An example I see a lot in my work is the relentless avalanche of re-zoning petitions we get from people who have a single-family house along a widened, unlivable street. Naturally, the house now has much more value as an office or retail building (who’d want to live along a hostile, high-speed street?), so it is to be expected that the decision to create the speedway has set into motion a never-ending political pressure to beat planners and elected officials over the head until the re-zoning is granted (and we take a step toward more strip commercial). The alternative we often see is decline or abandonment of the home.

Sure, we could have a long-range plan that says we shall not allow strip commercial, and we shall protect residential along this street, but who are we kidding? Who’d want to live in such a home? It is unfair not to grant the re-zoning in such a case. So incrementally, regardless of who our elected officials are, we get sprawl and strip when we make the street and speedway, and it is merely ineffective lip service to have plan policies that say it won’t be allowed.

In sum, we need to figure out a way to stop the things that drive bad land use—things like road widenings and utility extensions.

On the positive side, we can redevelop our central areas so the market moves toward wanting it, because it is so wonderful. But also realize that such improvements are doomed if we keep widening and extending.

The question, then, is what tools we have to do those things? I guess it could be the long-range plan. I’m just not hopeful that the plan is the place to find such salvation. Staff and commission are too timid. We are a reactive society that usually only takes such action when a serious crisis emerges.

Yes, elected local officials often strive to limit sprawl, and pay lip service to it, but they fail to do anything meaningful because there is no courageous leadership.

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

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