Stop Sprawl

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It’s a simple but powerful fact that the faster the rate of sprawl, the faster the rate of disinvestment in the inner city.

— Zack Semke of the Coalition for a Liveable Future, Portland.

If we continue to allow our cities to spread into the surrounding farmland and green space, we will never stop the flow of greenhouse gases from the increased number of vehicle trips and the loss of carbon-storing soil and forests.

In the U.S., green space is being lost to low-density sprawl at 365 acres an hour. The lower the housing density per acre, the more roads have to be built, the harder it is to make transit work, the more it costs to run our communities and the further people have to travel to get anywhere.

We cannot control greenhouse gas emissions unless we also control sprawl.

There is an alternative: old-fashioned, compact, pedestrian-oriented communities, the way towns used to be in the old days, where you live surrounded by green space, walk into town to do your shopping, meet your friends, and pause to chat in a neighborhood café.

The kind of community where you can cycle around with ease, and find work in the local economy. Vermont is full of this kind of community, and Vermonters love them. The solar community of Civano, outside Tucson, Arizona, is being built this way, and sales are booming.

Well-planned, compact growth also costs less for roads, utilities and schools. Who knows — it may even be that people who live in old-fashioned towns produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions because they spend less time buying “stuff” to fill up the emptiness of life in a barren, amenity-deprived suburb.

There are seven major solutions to sprawl:

1. Establish Comprehensive Planning and Urban Containment Boundaries

Map your region for its ecological assets. Develop an overall plan of where you want to be in fifty years, set urban containment boundaries to stop growth eating into the rural areas, and plan long distance greenways. Portland, Oregon, started doing this in 1973 and has benefited enormously, helped by the “1000 Friends of Oregon” group. Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey are also moving in this direction.

2. Write Model Development Codes

Development codes can be used to stipulate the need for prior ecological assessment, compact pedestrian communities with neighborhood centres, affordable housing, greenways, community-based economic development, energy and water efficiency, and a greenhouse-gas reduction strategy.

Set your development cost charges high, and then reduce them for each aspect of sustainability that a developer meets. Woodsong, North Carolina, and other new urbanism developments are moving in this direction.

3. Prevent the Loss of Farmland and Green Space

Protect farmland through designated protective zoning. Use “Purchase of Development Rights” programs to compensate farmers for not developing their land, and use tax dollars and bonds to buy threatened green space.

4. Encourage the Formation of “1000 Friends” Groups

1,000 Friends of Oregon is a nonprofit citizens group that was founded in 1975 to protect Oregon’s quality of life through the conservation of farm and forest lands, the protection of natural and historic resources, and the promotion of livable communities. Similar groups exist in Florida, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Mexico, Washington, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where they provide leadership, publish Sprawl Report Cards, educate the public and go to bat in defence of good planning.

5. Redevelop urban areas

Tax land instead of houses, to encourage more intensive use of valuable urban land (site-value taxation), as Pittsburgh does. Establish downtown tax-incentive “renaissance” zones, as Grand Forks, North Dakota, is doing. Ask your banks to use “Location Efficient Mortgages,” as Seattle is doing. Use codes and homebuyers’ incentives to encourage the redevelopment of urban areas.

6. Stop Proposals that Encourage Sprawl

Say no to the big-box retail stores, whether it’s K-Mart, Wal-Mart or Home Depot, as eighty-six communities across the U.S. have done. So too has Norway, where a nation-wide ban on out-of-town big-box stores is in place, supported by 443 out of 450 municipalities. Ireland has also banned out-of-town big box stores. Sprawl-Busters can offer resources, help and instances of successful legal and zoning decisions.

7. Share the Revenues

Make a pitch for regional consolidation, as Indianapolis and Montgomery County, Maryland, have done. Develop methods to assess the true costs and benefits of development proposals, as New Jersey and Delaware are doing. Eliminate the hidden subsidies that encourage sprawl. Share the revenues from new property taxes with neighbouring communities, as Minneapolis-St. Paul does.

Further Reading

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