Is It a Good Idea to Build Walkable Developments in Greenfields?

And Will a Strong Plan and Strong Elected Officials Be Sufficient?

By Dom Nozzi

August 2, 2000

I think as a culture, we need to make sprawling, poorly-located projects and happy cars the Great Satan, the Number One Moral Evil.

And we need to figure out what conditions will result in such a change.

Frankly, I think one of them is building traditional, walkable neighborhood developments (TNDs) in greenfields. Admittedly a compromise, but it is one of the few market-based leverage points we have. I think that once most of us become convinced that our future development can ONLY be TND, contiguous, properly located development rules will inherently follow. As it stands now, only a few pointy-headed intellectuals understand seasideaerialthat important need, because we’ve poured trillions into building big highways and thereby locking ourselves in to having a huge majority that wants to flee the city for the cabin in the woods.

It seems to me that broadly speaking, we have two realistic tools for reversing unsustainable sprawl:

 

  1. Use TNDs as a leverage and educational tool in greenfields; or
  2. Stop widening roads and starting road dieting a great many roadways.

In the near term, I think #1 is much more likely. The outrage is that #1 means the loss of important natural areas (not to mention fragmentation), but it is almost certainly the price we must pay in the near term for committing the sin of pouring trillions into highways. I do not think it is feasible for us to find the political will and cultural values shift in the near term to fight for:

  1. TNDs, and only contiguous to an existing town.

Yes, polls encouragingly show that the majority across the US oppose sprawl. But we know that there have been huge majorities that support environmental conservation for DECADES. Of course, this has merely been lip service. It is so easy to tell a pollster what you think is best, based on what our culture says is moral, but then not walk the walk in our own lives.

It is a concept known as “Social Desirability Bias,” where people dishonestly tell pollsters how they think or behave not because they actually think or behave in such a way, but because they do not want to admit to the pollster that their thoughts or behaviors are unethical.

We need to be careful and not kid ourselves about how successful we can be in the near term to discourage development in undesirably remote places. Boulder CO, for example, typically elects Council members who are strongly in favor of tightly controlled growth and development. And history shows that south Florida somewhat similarly fought hard for environmental conservation and against sprawl.

The results are not pretty.

Reaction to such elected officials in Boulder sometimes results in the election of folks relatively supportive of unrestrained development, and even with a majority of Council members supporting strong growth management, such an aggressive stance tends to result in poorly designed sprawl occurring in towns around Boulder that are not affected by Boulder’s regulations. Most of that sprawl houses people who commute into Boulder. And we know what has been done in south Florida.

I wish we could successfully manage new development with nothing more than political will and well-crafted plans. But if the market, HEAVILY DISTORTED BY GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES, calls for the opposite, we will get what the market wants, regardless of having even the most impressive elected officials and plans.

I often get into a shouting match with my Gainesville, Florida planning department supervisors, who still fail to realize that the long-range comprehensive plan merely records what has already been decided or what is already on the ground. This is the case despite Gainesville currently having a majority of “liberal” (albeit spineless) commissioners for a number of years. I’m hoping to have a minor effect with the transportation plan, but my early call to have “no net increase in road capacity” has already been chopped out by my supervisors.

The comprehensive plan is nearly irrelevant with regard to development that occurs, even if it calls strongly for no sprawl and is backed by five no-growthers on the city commission. What matters is the market. We must change that, with the few tools we have, if we want to have an impact. End public subsidies that fuel sprawl, stop widening roads, stop requiring a huge amount of parking, stop making mixed use and slow and narrow streets and granny flats illegal, encourage admirable model TNDs, etc.

More Thoughts on the Above Topics

We are nowhere near putting a halt to sprawling, remote, car dependent development. Given that political reality, I’m much happier with a TND in remote locations than a conventional sprawl project in such a location.

We certainly need to determine what it will take to muster the political will to effectively stop sprawl. Mostly, we need to stop widening roads, start putting a huge number of roads on a diet, start requiring pedestrian-friendly and auto-inconvenient mixed use projects via development regulations, and modify market preferences for cabins in the woods. How can we do that? I’m hoping that part of the solution will be to get some of the sprawl subdivisions (which is 99.9% of what is built) to be TNDs instead, so they can stand as visible INDICTMENTS of auto-dependent shlock. We need more envy on the part of the upper classes (who tend to be opinion-leaders and power-brokers) for new urbanism, and an excellent way to do that is with greenfield TNDs.

We need greens to stop fighting like mad — and burning themselves out in the process — to stop an infill project in order to save a few trees. They will win a few battles, but lose the war as they turn a blind eye – comparatively speaking — to the eco-rape happening at a much larger, more environmentally costly scale, in our greenfields. Too often, it seems like greens fight hard against TNDs, yet barely raise a peep when it is an auto-friendly project in a remote location.

It is fortunate that Sierra Club is finally starting to realize that a key lynchpin on saving our remaining, important natural areas is to address transportation. Transportation drives what happens with our land use (and, indirectly, our conservation). If we fail to stop our single-minded efforts to make cars happy, our natural areas are doomed to the sprawl steamroller even if every single elected official in the US supports strong growth management.

I agree that time is of the essence. We must therefore work quickly to reverse our car dependency trends, since, more than anything else, such trends are wiping out our greenfields with a HUGE number of new  subdivisions every week. I don’t think it is healthy or sustainable for us to keep fighting against greenfield developments. There are too many battles, and not enough of us. And the market forces — mainly due to the huge roads we’ve built — are too overwhelming.

As for concerns about such things as habitat fragmentation, it is a clear threat. And the number one cause? Not greenfield TNDs. The big culprit is roads and auto dependence.

I agree that requiring only contiguous development will buy us time. But our car culture makes that rather unlikely, since the market pressure to leapfrog is huge.

I like the jujitsu concept here. I’m often trying to figure out a way to use the power of the enemy against it. We need to get the market to help us. Remove subsidies. Build admirable models. Tax what we dislike…

I guess our ultimate dilemma is that stopping the road-builders remains a MONSTROUS undertaking. Perhaps as difficult as finding the will to simply stop sprawl development through, say, an urban growth boundary. I’m convinced one of our best hopes is that it soon becomes unaffordable for us to continue widening.

Then we need traffic congestion to do its many positive things.

 

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Filed under Economics, Environment, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

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