By Dom Nozzi
November 8, 2002
It is extremely common for a local government and its planners to strive to discourage new development in outlying areas (in other words, to discourage suburban sprawl).
But how is that done effectively?
Unfortunately, the strategy nearly always used is utterly ineffective. Long range plans that prohibit sprawl. Zoning regulations that state such a prohibition. Electing anti-sprawl candidates to local office.
None of these approaches have been shown to meaningfully reduce sprawl.
If the road infrastructure in the region creates a scenario in which large volumes of cars can travel at relatively high speeds from remote areas to job centers (as has been done in nearly all communities – and doing so with public dollars, I should add), there is no force on earth that can stop the tidal wave of market pressure to build in remote areas.
As my published writings and speeches point out, the human species is hard-wired to have an average tolerance level of about 1.1 hours of commute time per day (roundtrip). If the community has built big roads, the equilibrium for that 1.1-hour threshold will create an enormous commute-shed in the community – a commute-shed that extends far into the hinterlands.
Within that commute-shed, we are inevitably going to see suburbanization over time.
Oh, sure. We can maybe buy that outlying land, but there is so much of it, and it is so costly, that it is unrealistic to expect a community to be able to buy it.
Or we can enact development regulations to prohibit development of it, but the huge market forces will trump it either in the near term, or when the current collection of elected officials is replaced by the many pro-sprawl, pro-car citizens of the world.
The only realistic (albeit long-term) remedy I see for a “big roads” community that seeks to avoid unbearable sprawl is to incrementally put roads and parking on a diet. That is the only way to cut the legs out from under the “market pressure” monster created by the big roads.
In the interim, a “big roads” community has what is perhaps an unpleasant “lesser of two evils” choice: Either give the green light to conventional, auto-oriented residential subdivisions (as nearly all communities have been happy to do for several decades and including today). Or we can approve the development IF it abides by rigorous, walkable, mixed use, “small town” development regulations.
In most cases, I’m willing to “hold my nose” and support the latter option. In part because we DESPERATELY need compact, walkable (often called “new urbanist”) projects to stand as shining examples of the way ALL new urban area development should be done (the envy factor).
Today, we have too few models to do that. And we have too many communities blithely approving conventional developments in remote areas without a peep of opposition.
Overall, as I’ve said before, we have the extremely unpleasant task of somehow contending with the “road-building sins of the past” (and often, the present). Nearly everywhere, we must decide how to deal with the Market Monster, which is devouring the countryside with the Big Roads fuel it has been fed.