Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Seeking solutions to suburban problems

As cities and counties across North Carolina and the nation scour budgets for ways to trim spending and – at least one hopes – make more economically prudent decisions for the future, they should look hard at what last 50 years of spread-out, low-density, auto-focused development has cost them. And how to change those costly ways.

After all, it costs a municipality (and rate-payers) more to spread sewer lines across subdivisions with 2- or 3-houses per acre than across blocks with 20 or 30 dwellings per acre. It costs more to serve cul-de-sac neighborhoods with adequate fire and emergency services, because in order to meet acceptable arrive-by times in areas with disconnected streets, you need more stations and personnel. (Here's what I wrote in February 2009 about that point - "Sprawl's dipping into your pocketbook," and a Charlotte city study that illustrates that point.)

Large expanses of highway right-of-way mean large expanses of property off the tax rolls. Big surface parking lots are not the best way to get high-value property onto the tax rolls. And so on.

But we've built our suburban style, single-use neighborhoods with streets that don't connect and shopping centers you have to drive to. What do we do now?

That's the topic of an upcoming conference at N.C. State University in Raleigh on Feb. 12: "Sustainable Suburbs: Re-Imagining the Inner Ring." (Disclosure: I'll be moderating the conference.)

Here's my quick two-cents on the overall topic:

Cent No. 1: "Inner-ring suburbs" means different things to different people. Does it mean the first municipalities beyond the city limits of a major city, such as Mint Hill, Matthews, Pineville, etc., regardless of when they were formed and how they were built? Or does it mean neighborhoods built on a suburban template, even those within the limits of the major city, such as Charlotte's Merry Oaks, Chantilly, Sherwood Forest, even Myers Park? I hope we can define the terms before we end up talking at cross-purposes.

Cent No. 2: Many planners, designers and even transportation officials understand the need for connected, walkable streets, higher-density buildings, mixed uses and access to transit – things lacking in many neighborhoods built after World War II. . But in many instances that form of development still isn't happening (and wasn't, when the financial crisis put a stop to almost all development in these parts.) So it would seem that the major stumbling blocks aren't in planners' minds, but in other areas: policies and laws, financing practices, existing ordinances, politics, and even in Americans’ cultural expectations. Can those stumbling blocks be overcome?

Conference registration closes Feb. 7. Among the speakers will be:

William Hudnut III, ex-congressman, ex-16-term mayor of Indianapolis, author, Urban Land Institute fellow emeritus, clergyman and all-around knowledgeable fellow. Among his books: "Halfway to Everywhere: A portrait of America’s first tier suburbs."

Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-author of the award-winning "Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs." She'll talk about the problem of dead malls, vacant commercial strips, aging office parks and apartment complexes. Her book offers several dozen examples of suburban retrofit projects.

Patrick Phillips, CEO of the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, who'll talk about what the financial crisis may mean for the prospect of building a more sustainable suburbia.

If you've read this far, you'll almost certainly be interested also in this early February Charlotte conference. The New Partners for Smart Growth conference, "Building Safe, Healthy and Livable Communities," will draw planners, designers, transportation and public health professionals, and others to the Westin Feb. 3-5. The website says scholarships are available, but deadline to apply is Jan. 14. It's sponsored by the Local Government Commission, a Sacramento-based nonprofit (and not the N.C. governmental agency).


Anonymous said...

Urban is great. Just ask Detroit.

Anonymous said...

sprawl is great. Just ask Atlanta

Anonymous said...

Choices (in housing and lifestyle) are great. Just ask Charlotte.

Trippler said...

Your critics disdain city life? Perhaps they should try living in rural areas such as Western Minnesota or the Dakotas where hundreds of towns have lost incorporation because they do not have money or resources to create jobs or pay taxes. There wouldn't be any rural electrification, highways, or farm subsidies if it wasn't for the city taxpayers underwriting their lifestyles for them.

Yes, city life has its shortcomings. But try living in a rural area where your lifeblood depends on the payments made by others.

FARMer said...

Trippler:"There wouldn't be any rural electrification, highways, or farm subsidies if it wasn't for the city taxpayers underwriting their lifestyles for them."

There would be no food for paper-shuffling urban taxpayers if it wasn't for rural dwellers. Think before you speak, guy. All the raw materials which make urban life possible - food, water, metals, coal for energy, and so on, are stripped from far-flung rural areas to provide for the mass-consuming and largely non-producing urban masses.

The problem with most modern American cities is that very little is actually produced in them nowadays - it is all number-manipulating and paper-shuffling desk jobs. American cities used to be centers of manufacturing, but all of those jobs have of course been outsourced to Asia. And at least many European cities still have a healthy manufacturing base, especially many German cities.