Thursday, December 23, 2010

urban | design.banter:: All I Want for Christmas is to Replace Sprawl with Infill

urban | design.banter 
:: infill | re-knitting our urban fabric | cohousing | keeping small towns from becoming suburbs ::  
why shouldn't where you live be somewhere you would want to visit?

Not a very simple request, is it? But it seems that every time I go home for the holidays, the new "it" retail center is located farther away, as the newest neighborhoods are built farther and and farther out. I am well aware of the hypocrisy of lamenting lost nature adjacent to the suburb where I grew up. My parent's house, built in the early 80's, was once in someone's prairie. There are still plenty of acreage around us, with cows, horses, and even some emu happily roaming. What upsets me is the skipping over of large plots of land not being used by happy animals (and not designated parks and greenbelts, which are essential with increased density), abandoned strip malls, and underused parking lots in lieu of greenfield development many miles from nowhere.

I know that I risk sounding like a "no-growth-er." I'm not a no-growth-er, just a smart growth-er. The term smart growth is used a lot, but here I'll look at implementing a few smart growth principals in my beloved hometown, or should I say, home Metroplex of Dallas/Fort Worth, and similar cities with many miles of suburbs.  I believe we can maintain the positive quality of life aspects of suburbs that people love while reducing the aspects they don't love (namely traffic, long commutes and total dependence on a car).

Why not infill instead of sprawl?

"But, there will be so much more traffic." Yes, with any development comes more traffic. But building farther out decreases the density of an area, making everyone dependent on a car (or a ride from mom). In an already populated area, it may seem like the existing roads could not bear the traffic added by an infill development. But that is the point: transit, walking and biking are only more viable options when they are the easiest and most desirable. When you are stuck in traffic on the highway and watch six trains go by while you sit in the same place, that's when you will think about using transit. The more density in an area, the more efficient transit can become. More density can support more businesses per square mile, bringing things closer to you and therefore more walkable and bikeable. 

"But, the city says we need all that parking." Maybe on the three nights before Christmas Eve. But most of the vast seas of parking lots are rarely full, and as density with transit, walking and biking become more viable options, less parking will be needed. Northgate Mall, a somewhat sad, smaller, older city mall in north Seattle, was given new life with a suburban style lifestyle center face lift. Now, the parking that is remaining is always full due to the popularity of the new stores and restaurants, but a revival of the whole area has occurred, with an improved transit center and new multifamily development. If the mall was not located along a freeway (as most malls are), providing parking in the middle and the new shops along the exterior (with zero lot lines along sidewalks) would have been a even better "smart growth" design. I am encouraged by cities realizing how detrimental so much surface parking is to the urban landscape, and making exceptions to require less parking.

 The new lifestyle center exterior of Northgate Mall in Seattle. Photo Credit.

"But, we don't have the space we need for a proper development." Yes, master planned developments depend on economies of scale, and buyers have come to expect certain amenities. However, I believe that if subdivisions were not totally isolated, autonomous developments, residents wouldn't need these extra amenities. If new developments were built as infill, residents would already be close to schools, city parks with pools and sport fields, greenbelts, and places to walk and bike. Existing and new residents would not have to pay for the roads and infrastructure expansion (including new schools, as city schools are being closed due to under enrollment). Following smart growth principals, streets inside the developments can be thinner and more appropriate for low speeds (versus the freeway width curving streets found in new suburbs). 

As we begin to pull out of the current state of the economy, I hope that the decreased value of homes in places of unchecked sprawl and the hours spent in traffic commuting farther away will serve as reminders that we cannot afford to keep up the current pace of suburban green field development. I believe that smart growth will bring suburban commuters a higher quality of life, and the happy horses and cows will thank us.

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