Thursday, May 12, 2005

Volume 1, Issue 4

Seventy-five years ago the considerations that would prevent sprawl and create sustainable and healthy communities, such as a close proximity of living, working, and shopping, were simple common sense. Furthermore, community building is not merely a matter of aesthetics; it is a matter of social, economic, and environmental health that shapes the quality of life for millions of Americans. In today’s competitive world, municipalities will be forced to compete with each other for migrating populations and the taxes that go with them as more and more people become fed up with suburban sprawl. Any municipality that is able to offer safer, more efficient communities to live in will have the advantage. Therefore the cooperation of state, federal, and especially local governments with architects and designers to promote healthy communities is vital to the creation of successful cities and towns that will increasingly be in demand. Nonetheless there are many complex issues that make the elimination of suburban sprawl a difficult process. (Suburban Nation 29, 219-221)

The Role of Policy in Healing Urban Sprawl

There are essentially three tools for manipulating the physical environment. They are design, policy, and management. It is important that all three tools be used together. For instance, crime is an urban problem that can and should be affected by all three tools instead of only one. Design is the purview of Architects and Developers who should hold themselves to a higher standard of design that will properly address the problems of urban sprawl. Policy and Management on the other hand are in the arena of local governments and are necessary to ensure the implementation of lasting and meaningful changes to the urban environment. (Suburban Nation 216)

For example: if there is a problem with crime in a neighborhood, a designer can effect many designed elements, such as easily monitored public spaces, that can make a neighborhood safer but only policy can ensure that these elements are implemented throughout a neighborhood or city. Proper management, such as neighborhood cops who are familiar with the area can also significantly decrease crime. If the neighborhood is strewn with trash, it is not a design problem but one of management. If people are speeding down the streets, the issue is more complicated. Street widths and geometries that effect the speed of traffic are design issues but are determined through local municipal standards. Such standards may have been predetermined by county or state standards, which may have been influenced by uncountable factors both state and local. (Suburban Nation 216-217)

For example, in Dade County, Architects Duany Plater-Zyberk were constantly being frustrated by huge street-width standards based on the maneuverability of the city’s large fire trucks which was in return based on the local firefighter’s union that dictated the minimum number of firemen per truck. Such standards can most likely be traced back to federal and state regulations in the positive law tradition. So through an indirect chain of events, “the desire of firefighters for job security resulted in speeding on neighborhood streets.” (Suburban Nation 217)

In this way, “unsatisfying physical environments” are the unintended result of the ever increasingly complex interactions of our “highly evolved” regulatory system. A long list of regulatory forces from local zoning codes to federal automobile subsides has proved caustic to the health of communities in unforeseen ways. Sometimes the only way to improve our environment through good design is to identify and amend policies that actually make it impossible through participation in the political process. In that way we put all three tools of design, policy, and management at our disposal to implement lasting change. “Because government policy has played a major role in getting us where we are today, it can also help us to recover.” (Suburban Nation 218)

Municipal and County Government

People fail to recognize the consequences that our physical environment has on our lives. When the subject arises, it is most likely in the form of vicious citizen protest of something gone, or about to go horribly wrong. Furthermore, sprawl is like a disease that has become so chronic that people are accustom to living with it and they only fight the symptoms and not the real problems that cause the condition in the first place.

For this reason, elected officials who desire to create a change for the good and create meaningful urban places must make design apart of their public policy and try to understand the lasting effects of their decisions. As we have seen before, sprawl “can be traced back to rules and regulations that are instituted with little understanding of their likely physical outcome.” sprawl was not an accident but it was the implementation of regulations conceived of the Modernist Programme “without a specific vision of its physical form or of the life that form would generate.” In some instances these regulations were documented as words and numbers only without the aid of drawings or other visuals. Drawings are far more understandable to the average person when it comes to technical issues where technical language only confuses and masks the real problems. As architects and planners we believe that drawings and other design media can be extremely useful for decision makers as decision-making tools and generators of value. In this way, effective policy can be accompanied with a specific vision that will prevent unintended consequences such as those that accompanied the regulations that led to sprawl. (Suburban Nation 19, 220-219)

With these tools in the hands of officials and decision makers they should begin the process of rewriting the existing and typically outdated zoning ordinances. The new regulations should not be overly complicated but should represent new solutions incorporating lessons learned from the mistakes of the past. New regulations should not only make new neighborhoods possible but should protect instead of damage the integrity of historical neighborhoods. (Suburban Nation 221-222)

For example, existing regulations impose strict building codes on new construction, which in turn take on a dramatically distinct form from that of the surrounding neighborhood. Such construction denigrates the character of historic communities either by sticking out like a sore thumb and creating an incoherent streetscape or through the newness of the new construction creates a standard by which the old buildings are judged. Modern building codes are also negative because they make the renovation of historical buildings nearly impossible though stringent rules that make reoccupying historical buildings uneconomical for developers. (Suburban Nation 222)

In 1988, architects Duany Plater-Zyberk, along with engineer Rick Chellman developed the Traditional Neighborhood Development Ordinance as an alternative to current zoning codes. This code was based on the proven patterns of America’s older cities and towns and traditional neighborhood street design. The TND can be implemented at the Municipal or County level as a complete replacement of existing land use regulations or as an optional alternative. Even the second path is a step forwards as traditional patterns of urban structure are actually illegal. If the TND and other ordinances of the New Urbanism school are disseminated throughout the United States as quickly as “pro-sprawl zoning codes” were in the 1960’s there may be a day when the sprawl can be eliminated from American cities and towns. (Suburban Nation 223)

In most municipalities Duany Plater-Zyberk suggest that it is a mistake to try to fix an old zoning code. The result will be a code that is even more confusing. It is better to start from scratch. The problem is not in creating new codes but in throwing out old ones. Since codes are linked to property value any change in zoning codes may result in millions of dollars of lost profits for influential people with strong political ties who can stop the changes in their tracks. Furthermore, such people are able to sue and win on the grounds of lost compensation. (Suburban Nation 223-224)

It is important to include the citizenry in the decision making process. The public process does not always promise the best outcome. Acting out of fear and self-interest, neighbors will usually respond to locally undesirable land use by violently rejecting it. This is known as the “Not in my backyard” phenomenon. Duany Plater-Zyberk suggest that it is precisely because there is no outlet for public participation that can educate people about the underlying causes of sprawl that new projects to revitalize the urban environment are often effectively opposed by the citizens. (Suburban Nation 226)

Lastly it is important to practice what you preach. Municipal and county governments should not abandon historical buildings and downtowns to relocate their offices on the fringe along with all of the other office parks. They should not put up large parking lots in front of public buildings or face a blank wall to the street. Every government building has the opportunity and the responsibility to make a good impression on the community and set the standard for urban development. (Suburban Nation 227)

Urban Growth Rings (or Urban Growth Boundaries) are a “cutting edge” land use strategy that proposes that an area surrounding a city a city be parceled off for extremely low density so that growth in that area is severely hindered. When growth is prohibited in this area it stops urban sprawl and forces people to remain in the city and even re-inhabit the historic neighborhoods. If done with care and with a plan of action, including the seamless integration of the high-end residences with low-income housing, carefully designed open spaces, and other New Urbanism ideas, an urban growth ring can foster enormous positive growth. Property values will rise and the city will once again be a desirable place to live. True, if property will rise then low income families will struggle for a while but they will quickly find employment at restaurants or retail stores that will relocate to the city centers to serve the rich. Instead of historic neighborhoods becoming slums or ghettos the money coming in from the rich will help breath new life into them. Furthermore, the economic segregation caused by sprawl will be eliminated. Whenever the lines for a new Urban Growth Ring are drawn there bound to be people who are upset. Nonetheless, every city in Oregon has adopted an Urban Growth Ring that has been coordinated and approved by Oregon’s planning agency, the Land Conservation and Development Commission. Sources indicate such steps are necessary in Oregon to defend precious natural resources and protect people from potentially devastating natural disasters if unchecked suburban growth spread into the path of such calamities. (Cullingworth 147-151)

Specifically, Portland, Oregon is praised for having among the best planning policies in the country. They have resulted in building a city with “outstanding urban form.” It features unique public spaces, less traffic congestion, better public schools, and a diverse housing market. The Urban Growth Ring has forced the downtown district to become an energetic mixture of shops, office, and homes that creates a healthy and stable community. A fifteen-mile mass transit rail line connecting the downtown with the suburbs has reduced the amount of traffic and pollution. It has been phenomenally successful with many more riders than were ever projected. Such outstanding results have made the city a wonderful place to live. This would not have been possible if it were not for dedicated public officials involved in planning and a citizenry with a sense of community and pride in and determination to create a beautiful city. Such cooperation and public involvement springs from Oregon’s community centered heritage that can be traced back to Oregon’s first settlers. The whole community, including the media, has cooperated in creating a city worth living in sometimes at the expense of their personal self-interest. Even newcomers have quickly adapted to the Oregon heritage and supported efforts to improve Portland. In some cases the citizens pushed certain construction projects in opposition to elected officials by personally purchasing over 50,000 bricks. Portland is an example of how Urban Renewal is most successful when the public is intimately involved in the city making process. (Smith 90-94)


Concerning the role of government in the elimination of urban sprawl, Duany Plater-Zyberk ask the question whether it “is the role of government to promote individual rights while defending the common good, or to promote the common good while defending individual rights.” They assert that unfortunately our governments have favored the former. This is a very important question when it comes to property rights and the right of the individual to do whatever he pleases on his land. (Suburban Nation 218-220)

According to Downs, local governments must take into account both the individual, public, social benefits, and costs generated by growth management policies to promote the general welfare. But this does not happen as it should. Governments tend to focus on only one of these factors creating unfair policies. Furthermore, policies that rely on voluntary market forces rather than mandatory regulations are preferable but this does not ensure that inequitable spillovers do not occur; such as the noise and pollution of a busy shopping center spilling over into residences. Moreover, the policies of one locale may cause unforeseen consequences that spillover into other localities. (Downs 31-32) Such spillovers represent the inefficiencies in both our intergovernmental relations and land use policies.

Sprawl is inefficient because it is resource intensive; containing hidden externalized costs that spillover to both the societies of today and of the future. It is so inefficient in fact that it requires government subsidies just to maintain an acceptable infrastructure for today. Furthermore it has other unforeseen disadvantages such as social stratification that do not promote the general welfare. The policy reforms that architects and designers such as Duany Plater-Zyberk envision are not about increasing the size of government but rather reforming the government’s influence on the built environment. (Suburban Nation 220) In fact it was the progressive policies of the post war era that are responsible for the increase in government’s role in the built environment that generated the “pro-sprawl zoning codes” in the first place. For these reasons, policies that tend toward New Urbanism are not inherently progressive because once the traditional principals of town and city growth are widely accepted the subsequent society needs less government intrusion. The result is a decreased size of government and a more independent and self-sufficient (not to mention maintainable) society. Therefore, thinking of government’s role in purely Moralistic vs. Individualistic terms is overly simplistic.

The fact is that the government already regulates land use with zoning regulations. Real estate developers already adhere to regulations established by public policy. So the question is not whether the government should interfere in private land use, because they already do. The question is whether they will promote the public welfare through healthy communities. If state and local governments do not make a firm commitment to community in establishing new policies and zoning reform, the actions of the private sector “cannot be expected to be anything but self-interested and chaotic.” (Suburban Nation 218-220)

Though it may seem naive and unlikely that government could produce such a commitment, the first quarter of the twentieth century provides evidence that it is possible. The City Beautiful movement was an unparalleled era of urban revitalization and new construction where wise leaders, on both the local and federal level, promoted the virtues of civic pride, beauty, and community. However, today our approach must acknowledge the global issues that have come to bear on land use since that era. The development of new communication and transportation technologies, globalized markets, and massive social fluctuation has intensified the need for well-designed communities. (Suburban Nation 219)

It is clear that at the very least the establishment of zoning reform and urban growth rings will begin the process of urban renewal. The best we can hope for from state and local governments is a strong commitment to community and to make design a part of the public agenda. Better yet, unprecedented cooperation between governments and public involvement are also necessary ingredients of lasting and meaningful change.