Friday, April 29, 2005

It's Simple - Just Stop Sprawl

A few days ago I read an opinion piece by Bonnie Erbe, host of the PBS TV show "To The Contrary," titled Suburban Sprawl Eats More Than Its Share of Taxes.

I keep coming back to it in my mind, as she made some good points, but she also grossly oversimplified the issue (which, by the way, I think most anti-sprawl advocates do.) It is not a simple, one solution issue, but is far more complex and reaches deep into our social make=up.

Erbe writes, "Too many Americans buy into the common presumption that suburban sprawl is a revenue generator for local government." She points out s couple of studies that show how much more it costs to service suburban residential development than what they produce in taxe revenue.

From my experience, that's not news to hardly anyone. Most people, including the hard-line large lot advocates, seem to recognize that residential development does not produce enough tax revenue to pay for all the services residents require, especially if you throw in the cost of schools.

The studies Erbe points to indicate that commercial and agricultural use of land are far and away positive generators of revenue. What that seems to argue is that suburban communities should go after commercial development (which they do, and which is just as big a sprawl generator as allowing lots of low density residential development), or keep all the farmland they can and not allow development at all.

What I think Erbe is really advocating, however, is "smart growth" -- that is, build new residential in existing developed areas and not out on the greenfields.

Again, I think this is a great idea, but an oversimplification and a failure to recognize that pushing such development exclusively has consequences of its own. Take a look at the piece by Timothy Egan in the March 24 issue of the New York Times, where he points out that such strategies seem to have caused the cost of housing to go up so much in such areas that young families and low-income individuals cannot afford them.

There have also been numerous accounts lately of how everyone thinks smart growth in Maryland (ostensibly the birth place of the concept) is a great idea, but no one wants to do it. See Paper by Gerrit-Jan Knaap of the University of Maryland, and an article in the Washington Post for a couple of examples.

For my money, it seems we need to pursue a variety of approaches to growth. Taking on only one will bring with it a whole new set of problems that will need to be addressed.


At 12:49 PM, Blogger Planner Perplexed said...

I have read some of the articles mentioned in this particular blog and they make valid points.

It would seem that the American public has a head in the sand approach to land use planning..."if we just ignore the problem, it will go away". However, planners have an obligation to present factual and empirical data that show what large lot development does to communities. There is nothing immoral or wrong with larger lots, per se, but there is something insidious about exclusion of other rational and viable lot size plans within a community. We often see good planning go by the wayside based upon racial, or in Utah's case, religious profiling due to proposed "density" developments.

Example? How many New Urbanist or TND projects are being built in Utah presently v. how many have been proposed since the Quality Growth Commission started funding planning for this type of development?

Some economists have said that sprawl is good and not economically damaging to our country. I think intuitively, it is. Here's why; time. Sprawling development mathematically speaking requires people to drive further from home for basic services such as schools, shopping and recreation. This fact easily translates into higher stress levels for parents and driving teens by increasing fuel consumption, insurance, number of cars per household, etc, etc,. etc. The emotional and economic costs of families are undeniably increased. For that reason alone it would be wise for everyone to look for ways to conserve our time and money by living more compactly. Not everywhere and in every instance, but at least allow for more TND type development which was standard practice (yes, even here in Utah) prior to WWII.

My beef with our current land use system in Utah is that we have plenty of large lot alternatives for people can or want to afford them, but what about simply allowing ourselves include more traditional neighborhood design along with the sprawl?

Are we so immature that we can't see how we are shorting ourselves with this selfish land use pattern?

We ought to make the DayBreaks of the world permitted uses and large lot residential conditional!!! We permit the most inefficient land use and condition the crap out of the extraordinary and efficient or deny it.

Where is the sense in that?

At 12:06 PM, Blogger Neville_O said...

I studied planning years ago and if I'd not been a victim of crime, which changed my career objectives, I'd probably be sitting in the planner's chair right now. I understand some things have changed in the years since I was trained, but the basics are still there.
Recently I built a new house and went out of my way to in-fill. We obtained a lot where we could sell half of it and build on the other half.
As "they" say, No good deed goes unpunished. The party line is "we need to avoid sprawl if at all possible. However, on the ground there were no incentives from the municipality to promote a development the city will be better able to and more economically serve. There was no more guidance than they provide the sprawl developers and apparently no interest in handling it as anything other than business as usual. I sold that other lot and every dime went into infrastructure, fees and delays that I could directly link to the policies of the city and water district for my area. I would have been better off financially to find a piece of ground on the suburban fringe and develop there for all the interest and accomodation I saw. If our cities want to promote this type of development from non-developers like myself, they need to look at the dis-incentives they throw in our way. I didn't need a big break on anything, but I didn't get any encouragement either.
I'd hate to have this viewed as whining because that is not my intent. If our cities are going to work against sprawl, they need to find ways to encourage the kind of development they desire. It may be through minor fee reductions or better cooperation with the parties who put on a developer hat just once in their life.

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