Tuesday, June 27, 2006

It's All Just So Simple...

A recent letter to the editor in the DesNews from Steve Blackham of Salt Lake City got my dander up a little bit again, because I think so many of us oversimplify the issues that are before us -- in this case about the topic of suburbanization and what to do about it.

Though I've given the link, let me just quote Mr. Blackham's letter here in full:

"For years now, people have been flocking to suburbia, displacing cheap farmland and open space and clogging up transportation corridors meant for interstate travel, all for their benefit of obtaining supposedly 'cheap' housing. This has been possible because of low energy cost to power their commute and subsidies from the general public to build their infrastructure.

"Now gasoline is $3 per gallon and will soon be $5 to $6 per gallon. Their suburban 'bargain' has become a fool's paradise. They are screaming bloody murder, and politicians are running around frantically to try to satisfy them.

"Officials are proposing a general property tax to fund these transportation projects and are asking the urban Salt Lake City neighborhoods to subsidize their suburban neighbors at a ratio of roughly three to one. Urban neighborhoods are already paying more for their fair share. Suburbia needs to face up to its obligations and carry its own load."

OK, let's take some of the arguments that Mr. Blackham makes and look at them a little more closely.

First, he's right in that people have been fleeing to suburbia for years now. In fact, that has been happening since the days of the trolley cars. With most of the jobs in the urban core as well as the tenements and crowded conditions, as soon as there become a means for people to get out to nicer conditions, they did so. Shocking.

What, however, would things be like if everyone were prevented (how would you do that?) from moving out to the suburbs and instead were required to live in the urban core? What would the environment in that core be like? What about the price of housing?

Where would the work for these people be? Would that also continue to be concentrated in the urban core? My, that would make for an interesting environment. Los Angeles, interestingly enough, is one of the most densely populated urban regions in the country -- is congestion for travel there any less because of it? On the contrary, it is much greater (partly, I do concede, because they haven't put the investment into transit that would help that situation - but wait, one of the objections of Mr. Blackham is that we are proposing more investment in transit to make things work better).

What do we do now, "force" everyone back into urban neighborhoods? Again, what would happen to the price of housing in those areas? How would everyone get to their jobs out in Sandy and Lake Park and Hill Air Force Base -- wouldn't the commute just be in the opposite direction then?

I don't do this to make fun of Mr. Blackham and his views -- their are some valid points in the issues he raises. But, as in most topics we deal with these days in our sound bite world, there is much more complexity and subtlety to them than we realize or seem to be able to take the time to recognize.

But, hey, at least someone is paying attention to this topic!


At 11:04 AM, Blogger google_PEAK_OIL said...

Funny, I don't remember Mr. Blackham saying anything about suburbanites being marched at gunpoint to urban concentration camps. He merely argued that suburbanites generate a disproportionate amount of public infrastructure costs and that the tax policy should reflect that.

I don't agree with him about public transit however. The trains travel both ways and will take city dwellers to their destinations in the outskirts as well as bringing suburbanites in. They will encourage denser transit oriented development around stops and save some of that farmland. Most importantly they will give large numbers of people a realistic chance of conducting their lives without being totally dependent on their cars.

There are too many of us to conceive of a city as a place small enough to walk from any point to any other point. Despite our municipal boundries, our actual functional cities are conglomerations of what used to be a city and several smaller towns. We need transit to tie it all together.

At 8:53 PM, Blogger Utah Peaknik said...

One thing that needs to be cleared up, is that density doesn't always equal livability. If you live in a subdivision with .20 acre lots, but the subdvision is not at all within walking distance of a grocery store, some form of transit, your church, or at least a few places that you visit on a regular basis, then it's not livable. So by that standard, those four unit per acre subdivisions in South Weber and above Davis Blvd. in Bountiful are not livable.

Now, if a higher density development is designed very carefully (with proper aesthetics, function, etc.) and is within walking distance of important places, then yes, it is livable.

Some of the more livable places in Davis County are the "downtowns" of Bountiful, Centerville, Farmington and Kaysville. They're not exactly high density, but they are within walking distance of important places. You can see more about these places on my blog, although so far I've only covered Farmington.

At 10:38 AM, Blogger vagabond said...

I think for the most part that Blackham is correct.

Surburbia as we know it will change in many ways as we see our supply of cheap and finite oil supplies dwindle and it is not wise or prudent to just try to build our way out of congestion. Other intelligent decisions must be made by individuals such as living closer to work, reducing non-essential car trips, carpooling and using transit.

Suburbia is here to stay and it has its place (I happen to live in it) but it will become increasingly painful and expensive to live there in the future unless we create efficient mass transit options and for heaven's sake, build employment centers other than the obvious ones in downtown SLC and at HAFB. But how do we do that when those places have been covered with low density single family developments?

Those of us who are in favor of more dense, walkable developments found in many other parts of our nation and especially around the world are frustrated at the intransigence of elected and appointed officials who stubbornly ignore sound recommendations from planners and demographers that to grow bigger, we have to grow smaller in terms of house size, lot size, etc.

Its ridiculous how Utah cities keep spitting out large lot subdivisions as if they can just manufacture land when they run short of it. My biggest concern is that we can't generate any more water and we keep insisting on irrigating our bluegrass lawns with culinary water! Water that is needed for industry, recreation and conservation.

Councils, Planning Commissions and the general public have got to wean themselves off the sprawl bandwagon and look further down the road (pun intended) in terms of land use planning.

I wonder, is there anyone really brave enough to call it like it is and vote against every project that continues the same old patterns we have been stuck in since the 60's? Strong enough to not care if people vote them out if they don't protect the status quo?

Maybe such individuals have not been born yet. Maybe it will take this next generation of humans to do what the past two generations would not do and this is to simply say "no" to lazy, easy, mindless development.

At 10:51 AM, Blogger Utah Peaknik said...

Amen, Vagabond.

Let's review people...

The earth is not a closed system. If it were, we'd all be dead by now. We do get energy input from the sun, which is directly or indirectly the source of all of our other energy, whether it be plants, fossil fuels, etc.

But the earth is finite. There is only so much land, and only so much surface area to recieve energy from the sun. There is only so much water, and so much steel, etc.

Our current model of perpetual growth, energy use and farmland depletion can't go on forever. It has to stop at some point. That's just physical reality.

It's taboo to say that constant population growth is bad. People insist that it's good for them to have six kids, and for their six kids to have six kids, and so forth.

But just remember, it can't go on forever. You might not like to hear that, but the truth hurts.

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