Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Desire for Open Space -- A Trojan Horse?

The DesNews this morning ran a story on the Dan Jones poll commissioned by the Utah League of Cities and Towns asking people what their most pressing local concerns were, and their opinions on this topics. Some of this was discussed at the League annual conference in September. Growth and the way it is handled are among the top concerns among community residents. At the League conference, Dan Jones even went so far as to say that the issue of how growth is handled would be the top issue of next year's municipal elections.

What I find particularly interesting is the strong support for open space preservation. On the surface, this seems like a great result, something many have been working for for some time. But as I looked at the overall survey results, it is summed up in how one of the questions was asked -- should open space be preserved to resist further development?

While I think people are generally sincere in their desire to see open space preserved, there is another motivation at work here -- that is, if we preserve open space (particularly the pieces near my house), then we've stopped new development, or at least shifted it to someplace else.

If we are truly desirous of seeing the pattern of suburban development change, then we should also be supporting the intensification of density so that the same number of dwellings will still be built in a given area, just that more of the area will be in open space. Otherwise, don't we risk just pushing development even farther out because the land that would have had new homes built on it is now unavailable? But I don't see our citizens supportive of increasing densities near their homes -- if anything, their opposition has become even stronger.

If the public doesn't want to come up with the money to pay for all that extra open space (though right now it seems they are willing to do so -- we'll see what happens with the measures that are on the ballot in Utah this November), then what better way than to incentivize developers by giving them increased density for setting aside open land?

Just a little something to keep in mind as there are more calls for preservation of open space.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Expand Transportation Options

Another opinion piece is in the papers this morning supporting the passage of the transportation propositions that are on the ballot this November in Salt Lake and Utah counties. In my mind, there is no question that these questions should pass to help us expand our transportation systems and give more travel options to commuters.

As I've said in the past, I believe that the transportation sytem is the "skeleton" of a metropolitan area, on which we hang the substance of its character (the kinds of homes and businesses that make it up). The Wasatch Front metropolitan area is somewhat unique in that it is long and relatively skinny -- we have natural urban growth boundaries with the mountains to our east and the Great Salt Lake/desert to our west. Such a configuration allows transit to work particularly well, because much of our daily commerce moves along in narrow corridors.

The downside, however, is the complex pattern of commuting that has developed in recent years. The latest edition of on-going studies of our commuting patterns by Alan Pisarski points out that the dominant commute these days is not suburbs to central city, but suburb to suburb. I see evidence of this by just looking at the commuters who live in my neighborhood in Kaysville. Only a couple of them travel to downtown Salt Lake City -- most go to a great variety of destinations: LakePark, International Center, Draper, University of Utah, one even drives to Orem every day.

I asked the Wasatch Front Regional Council staff if they had good figures on what percentage of Davis County commuters goes to downtown Salt Lake each day -- their answer was about 10-15%. Our transit system, however, is primarily focused on getting people to and from downtown Salt Lake.

I have long maintained that even with the best and most extensive transit system, it will accomodate only around 10% of the commute, because that is the most it does in other metro areas. And yet, even with that fairly paltry number, I feel that it is needed, for a couple of reasons.

First, in sizeable metro areas around the world today, there has to be another way to get around other than by car because it just isn't possible for many to drive, and because it gives everyone options. If I have to go in to Salt Lake on a given day, and if I hear on the traffic report that there is a bad accident blocking I-15, or its a bad weather day, I have no option right now other than to drive (or take the express bus, which will also have to sit in traffic). We need options to keep our population appropriately mobile.

Second, I believe it is an indication of the relative strength and vitality of a metro area to have a good transit system. It is a factor in economic development, so to speak. It says to the world, "Salt Lake City is a world-class player, it has an extensive transit system." It's just one of those things that business people seem to look at when they contemplate making investments in different areas.

So vote for the transportation questions on the ballot right now. We need it, it is necessary, but just keep in mind, it won't be a panacea.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

I'm Baaack! Let's Talk...Kotkin!

Well, I guess I might finally get back in the saddle and fire up this old blog again. When my home computer blew up, it took me a while to get a new one (I tried to get the old one fixed for a while, before finally giving it up). Then, I just lost the desire to pick it up again! It is rather demanding trying to keep up a blog, finding things to blog about, thinking what to say, etc. I know, whine whine whine, but hey, it's good therapy!

So what's got be ready to go again is a piece in MetropolisMag by Joel Kotkin on the "suburban village" concept that he's talked about before, and that I rather like (this will get my old friends, the Peak Oil guys, going again, I'm sure).

Kotkin derides "traditional" suburban development as unsustainable and wasteful, but he also recognizes that packing more density into existing urban cores isn't going to a) appeal to the vast majority, or b) provide enough housing for the expected 100 million additional people expected in the U.S. in the next forty or so years.

He advocates a series of suburban centers or villages, which makes a lot of sense to me. Find ways to densify and centralize in the suburbs and create an "archipelago" of new development. In our own area, this seems to be where Kennecott Land is heading with the long term plans for the west Salt Lake Valley and Oquirrh foothills.

This approach works well when you have a large blank slate to work with, like Kennecott land has. But how do you make this happen in someplace like southwest Salt Lake County, or west Utah County, where the land is not in the hands of one large owner, or under the control of one political entity?

Also, the idea that people will live and work in a particular center or village is a nice thought, but looking at how we live our lives today, it is more likely that we will live in one village and work in another, greatly complicating commute patterns and making effective transit difficult or impossible.

We need to keep exploring new ideas and work things out.

Great to be back, I think. We'll see if blogging is a release, or becomes a taskmaster again.