Monday, January 30, 2006

To Suburb, or Not To Suburb

OK, time for a little break from the heavy legislative scene, and get a little brain-fare out to divert thinking for a bit.

Two polar opposites on the topic of growth, suburbs, sprawl, and so on, from two different writers a half a world apart.

The first is an excerpt from an upcoming book by Melissa Holbrook Pierson, called The Place You Love Is Gone, Progress Took It Away, published in January by Norton Press.

Pierson writes, "there is only a sense that these things are gone never to return. ... We won't speak of the fact that you will never again be able to visit the lovely beach of your childhood, because you can't get near it. ... Perhaps the only thing that can be grasped by any one of us is the sight of bulldozers just down the lane, grading the former hay meadow and giving rise to a dream vision of thirty-seven new taupe vinyl-sided 'homes' with white trim and yawning bays for several cars. Then we might see the future. It is composed of permanent mourning and unhappy accomodation. Once upon a time, only the king could place his fortifications on the highest ridge; now any king who owns an SUV can do the same."

In contrast, Bernard Salt, a partner with KPMG in Sydney, Australia, writes in a column in The Australian, "I have thought about this long and hard all summer. Should I disclose what I am about to disclose or should I continue to cover it up? ... I am of course talking about the heretics, the miscreants and the deviants who, like me, 'quite like suburbia.' There, it's out there. I am a 'suburbanist.' I confess to being a lover of suburbia and I refuse to be ashamed of how I feel.

"Inside Australia's most favoured form of residential dwelling live ordinary families: a father, a mother and two children. In some cases the families might be blended. But in all cases I imagine both parents working outside the family home. They have two cars. They don't use public transport. They don't travel into the CBD. The don't attend high-brow cultural events and festivals. But they do have a broad range of friends and family who live similar lives in nearby suburbs."

So take your pick. Who are we planning for? Who should we be planning for? Can we plan for both? Are they mutually exclusive, or is there room for all? Something fun to spend a little time thinking about.


At 1:06 PM, Blogger google_PEAK_OIL said...

Remove cheap and abundant gasoline, electricity, heating fuel, and clean water from Bernard Salt's suburban dream world and the dream quickly becomes a nightmare. Mr Salt is an example of someone who has erased the very real problems of energy and resource depletion from his consiousness because they are so at odds with his preferred version of reality. I hope that isn't true of you as well, Wilf.

The issue will soon cease to be where people would prefer to live, and become where can people afford to live. The facts of economy and geology will soon render philosophical arguments about preferred lifestyles moot.

At 10:10 AM, Blogger James said...

I think Google has a point there, but for now, while suburbia is still very much the reality we're facing, both styles of development can be accomodated.

At 2:01 PM, Blogger UNplanner said...

It is my opinion that most planners dont really plan; they accomodate or worse, react.

Planning implies making active preparations for the future while ensuring the development of today fits within what is or will be expected over the long term.

Accomodating on the other hand takes a lot less mental power. You got a development proposal, you try and fit it in as best you can. Sure there might be long term issues with it, but for now it is ready and will provide tax dollars/jobs or housing which is sorely needed in many jurisdictions and often the justification of most proposals.

Reacting, the least preferable way to layout a city or county is the most common task for many transportation planning staffs. Sure there often exists a long term vision and even map for eventual transportation cooridors, but for the most part, jurisdictions are playing catch up. Part of this is due to the hop-scotch nature of development which sees individual parcels transition at differing times, making wholesale improvements such as a street widening difficult to fund at the outset (DIF fees need to accumulate to pay for construction in many places before reaching sufficient levels to actually pay for the road). But part of this reacting is due to today's growth occuring in contradiction to poorly made plans of the past (which failed to anticipate micro or macro level trends) or bone headed decisions by politicians to cater to the needs of a particular land owner or developer against the better judgement of even the jurisdiction's own staffers.

So when it comes to the question posed by Wilf here, we will accomodate both types.

Planning staffs will continue to accomodate development proposals because this is the easiest way to deal with growth/change and react to the consequences. Visioning for the future takes brainpower by staffers and a great deal of cooperation/buy-in from politicians and the public at-large. Accepting of the status quo does not.

Developers will continue to propose more or less the same things they always have and only make incramental changes because this is what they know how to do and what usually sells.

Intrepid developers may go against this with a radically different proposal (think new urbanist) only if they can make the numbers work and make a profit. In increasing cases, this is indeed happening. Planners can and do encourage this by shaping proposals (accomodation again) and setting planning goals or specific codes. The market and geography probably plays a bigger role though. New urbanism always works better when the cheap and easy land has been taken.

So there you have it. We will keep doing what we have always been doing because it is easier than reaching concensus on fundemental shifts in direction until we reach a hard and fast limitation on something. We have reached a land limitation in many cities which has prompted new urbanism more than any planning staff could. We have reached a road capacity limitation in many areas FORCING consideration of non-vehicular means of transport. In LA new freeway means double decking which would be ungodly expensive (and queasy feeling to be stuck in traffic on the lower level in an earthquake prone region).

And as many, myself included have come to realize, a looming shortage in energy supplies will decimate the very foundations from which suburbia and our very existance are built upon. Until then, expect to be accomodating ever more suburban developments and reactionary road projects.

Just dont call it planning.

At 4:22 PM, Blogger google_PEAK_OIL said...

Euclid said...
I think Google has a point there, but for now, while suburbia is still very much the reality we're facing, both styles of development can be accomodated.

I am afraid, Euclid, that the supply of suburban housing that exists already is far greater than the supply of people who will be able to be able to shoulder the mortgage, the heating costs, and the transportation costs. The suburbs will become a people trap. As property values drop, many will find themselves upside down in their mortgages and unable to move to less resource-intense transport-friendly housing. This is why building ever more suburbia is expanding the magnitude of the coming social disaster.


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