By Dom Nozzi
Nearly all of our elected officials and many of our citizens have convinced themselves that widening roads and extending utilities are technical decisions 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, harm to quality of life, and environmental destruction.
People that make the mistake of thinking that such decisions are technical rather than political 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 undesirable community development actions. That road widenings or utility extensions have nothing to do with inducing such things as sprawl development.
In theory, a community long-range 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 in the real world, it is nearly impossible, politically, to adopt such policies. Adopting such policies 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 prohibit sprawl” or “The City shall create 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 a sewer line, and that such “technical” decisions will overwhelm any chance of non-infrastructure policies having a chance to be effective. 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 planners 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 (after all, 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 the 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 community plan policy 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 decide to make the street a speedway. That decision is, in the larger sense, not a technical decision. It is a political decision that indirectly says the community has opted to create strip commercial sprawl. When the decision to widen the road is made, it is merely ineffective lip service to have long-range community plan policies that say strip commercial sprawl won’t be allowed.
In sum, communities need to figure out a way to stop the decisions that drive bad land use — things like road widenings and utility extensions. The question, then, is what tools we have to make the right decisions and prevent the ruinous decisions – the decisions that seem technical but are actually political. The long-range community plan is not that tool unless that plan is adopted by a community that consistently elects wise, courageous leaders. Because we are a reactive society that usually only takes such action when a serious crisis emerges, it is my opinion that only major crisis or significant discontent is experienced by the community. Such things as a substantial economic downturn, an enormous increase in gasoline prices, or severe traffic congestion.