For decades it was a given that growing suburban communities benefit from the development that comes their way. Township supervisors were eager for development to expand the tax base of their municipality. It didn’t take long, however, for residents and local officials to begin to see the downside from sprawl as open space disappeared, roads became jammed with traffic, and the unique crossroad villages of their previously sleepy rural township became consumed by an endless, mind numbing array of strip malls, track housing, and nondescript industrial parks. The local sense of place was lost to the ubiquitous auto-bound culture that is suburban sprawl.
Early studies indicated that not all development was good for the tax base. Although industrial development generated revenue and made little demands on services and commercial development usually was a break even proposition, residential development most definitely did not pay for itself when built in a low density fashion. Housing brought kids which put a strain on the school system, requiring more teachers and class rooms to teach a burgeoning student population. Transporting students by bus across spread out distances added more cost to educating our youth. More residents meant eventual need for a professional police department, perhaps a professional fire department, and expanded demand for parks and other recreational amenities. Single use zoning required more roads to connect the dots of life among sprawl and all of this cost more than property taxes on residential units would be able to sustain over the long term.
Now a new report from Smart Growth America provides additional evidence that sprawl is expensive and costs a lot more than traditional neighborhood development does. Surveying 17 studies of compact versus sprawl development across the country revealed that compact development cost 38 percent less in upfront infrastructure than sprawl because it requires fewer miles of roads, sewer, and water lines than the low density pattern of development that is the norm in suburbia. Compact development also cost 10% less in ongoing service delivery costs by reducing distances that police, fire protection, and garbage trucks have to travel to serve residents. On top of it more traditional, compact models of development yield, on average, about 10 times more tax revenue per acre. It’s all pretty obvious but culturally elusive that traditional town development would yield higher revenues, while reducing delivery of service costs, and reducing infrastructure costs too.
Building in a more compact, denser form does not mean overcrowding. Indeed, some of our most cherished communities in America are built with anywhere from 10 to 15 residential units an acre and accommodate both the car and pedestrian in a walkable, multi-travel-route street grid with tree shaded sidewalks. The mixed use nature of traditional development lends itself to greater walkability, convenience, vitality, and the vibrancy that come from a mixed use setting of homes, shops, schools, parks and places of employment all within a compact form. Think of places like Georgetown, Savannah, Park Slope in Brooklyn, or the Lehigh Valley’s extremely stable and desirable neighborhoods of College Hill in Easton, Allentown’s West End or Bethlehem’s downtown neighborhood located around Main, New, Church, and Market Streets and you begin to get the picture. In addition to the wonderful quality of life factors that come from traditional patterns of development and foster a true sense of community, more compact development simply yields a better tax base with less of the costs that come from the spread out, overextended pattern of development that is suburban sprawl. For more details on the Smart Growth America report, go to: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2013/05/quantifying-cost-sprawl/5664/.Our guest blogger, Representative Robert Freeman, represents the 136th Legislative District of Northampton County. During his previous 12 years in the House, Freeman served as chairman of the House Select Committee on Land Use and Growth Management (1991-92), which recommended ways to improve growth management and reduce sprawl. He was one of the leaders in revising the Municipalities Planning Code in 2000 and authored the Elm Street Program designed to revitalize older residential neighborhoods. The Elm Street legislation was signed into law in February 2004. He also teaches a course at Lehigh University entitled on growth management and the politics of sprawl. Representative Freeman joined the Renew Lehigh Valley Board of Directors in 2013.
Guest blogger, Ron Beitler, from Friends for the Protection of Lower Macungie, will blog today and tomorrow about the Strong Towns presentation being held tonight in Easton at Lafayette College and tomorrow at Lower Macungie Township Offices. To view location details, visit http://www.strongtowns.org/pennsylvania-tour/. This is his report:
On January 9th, Charles Marohn will bring the Strongtowns.org ‘curbside chat‘ message to the Lehigh Valley. The chat is a presentation, followed by a community-specific discussion, about the financial health of our places.
The Strongtowns message is important because it transcends politics. Personally I get nervous when folks assume one particular party has ‘ownership’ over the smart growth issue. At it’s core smart growth is a fiscally conservative philosophy. Some such as Kaid Benfield have went so far as to call the Strong Towns message a conservatives manifesto against sprawl.
While many associate “sprawling growth patterns as rooted in their effect on the landscape, the environment, and severely compromised populations left behind,(All very important messages!) Marohn is all about the money. As Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Marohns book) makes quite clear, Chuck believes that sprawl is a Ponzi scheme and we the taxpayers are the ones left holding the empty bags.” – Benfield NRDC Switchboard
The chat addresses the following fundamental issues:
- Why are our ‘places’ short on resources despite decades of robust growth? What went wrong?
- Why do we struggle at the local level just to maintain basic infrastructure?
- What do we do now that the economy has changed so dramatically?
The answer according to Marohn is in the way we’ve developed and the financial productivity of our places. The Strong Towns message takes the traditional smart growth narrative and looks at it from a fiscal sustainability standpoint. Marohn explains a growth Ponzi scheme in the following way:
Swapping long-term obligations for near-term cash works for a while, but as with any Ponzi scheme, it ultimately collapses under its own weight. We have grown in a pattern that is inefficient, making poor use of our resources and investments.
‘Friends LMT‘, an East Penn smart growth advocacy group brought Marohn to the area a few months ago via webcast. I found the presentation eye-opening. I will definitely be attending the Lower Macungie Township visit to see Chuck in person. The message is relevant to a place like Lower Macungie that may be falling into the trappings of hyper growth for two decades and only now beginning to feel the effects of the second life cycle of developments.
What: Chuck Marohn Curbside Chat
Where: Lower Macungie Municipal Building
When: January 9th 8-9:30am
Free & Open to the public
Ah yes, the old adage from the classic baseball film, “Field of Dreams.” Great movie, but the unforgettable line from that movie can be applied to a lot more than baseball diamonds. Did you ever think it could be applied to the Lehigh Valley?
According to the latest numbers from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, the Lehigh Valley is expected to grow by another 145,000 by 2030. The US Census projects an even larger population growth. This means another 72,000 households will be added to the Valley, not to mention probably the same number of cars added to our roads and more strain on our utilities and resources. I’m not saying that growth is a bad thing, but it can be disastrous if not planned for correctly.
The Lehigh Valley uses about 26% of its land for residential purposes, while about 56% of our land remains “green space.” But how long will this last with the guaranteed future population growth? Will we continue to sprawl outward and develop this “green space” for more houses? Some of that open land may be used for housing, but wouldn’t it be better to plan for this growth now and preserve that open space? Though some may be frightened by the term, higher density housing is not a bad thing. It is not the reincarnation of the city tenements of long ago; rather, high density housing can encourage economic recovery, ease transportation by providing options for walking and biking, and provide alternative housing choices. It also allows for the preservation of open space, rather than allowing for further sprawling development.
It is imperative that we plan for this inevitable growth now. Why not build options and provide for these higher densities now, rather than waiting for the population to increase and not knowing what to do? Why not make our communities more sustainable and preserve the valuable open space we have? I’ve heard farmers mention at our Envision Lehigh Valley meetings that this farmland is some of the most fertile land in Pennsylvania. Why not keep it that way, rather than outward sprawl that will create more traffic and more strain on utilities?
It is inevitable that they will come; so why not build a community that world-class people will want to join? Why not provide options for a diverse workforce necessary to become the livable, equitable, and economically competitive region we know we can be?
Our neighbors in New Jersey have implemented a new way to hem in urban sprawl using new municipal ordinances. Noncontiguous clustering is an innovative tool “that preserves farmland and open space with private funds by an alternative to conventional subdivisions; instead of building homes on large lots, a developer may use the developmental potential of a parcel or parcels where preservation is desired on a different, nonadjacent property.”
A recent report by the organization New Jersey Future, provides insight into the study of the nine municipalities currently utilizing the planning tool. The study, “Preserving Land Through Compact Growth: Case Studies of Noncontiguous Clustering in New Jersey,” provides a detailed description of the situation in each of the nine townships with visuals to highlight the plans in place. Read the full report here.
The nine townships featured in the report that have adopted noncontiguous clustering ordinances are Delaware, Hillsborough, Hopewell (Mercer County), Middle, Monroe, North Hanover, Ocean, Plainsboro, and Robbinsville. One of the authors did note, however, that only four projects have been completed over the 16 years that such ordinances have been available.
Still, it is encouraging to see that townships in neighboring areas have adopted ordinances to combat the spread of sprawl. Municipalities within the Lehigh Valley could learn a lot from these townships by studying what worked for them in the process and what obstacles hindered progress. Farmland and open space can be preserved. Smart planning and development can be achieved. It takes smart policies with the power of enforcement, as well as cooperation among local government and developers, in order to prevent more sprawl.
CEOs for Cities put out report findings that suggest that sprawl is the direct cause of the long amount of time that we spend in our cars. Read their report, Driven Apart.
I think I see the Lehigh Valley included in that circle surrounding the greater Philadelphia region.
Tonight on WDIY, Alan Jennings will host a segment on transportation and land use in the Lehigh Valley. The one-hour segment, airing from 6-7pm, will include four guests who will speak about the links between transportation and land use, and the importance of this linkage to the Lehigh Valley. Further, they will discuss how the Lehigh Valley can move forward on a multimodal approach to transportation that is both environmentally and economically sustainable– encouraging development while preserving the regional assets that make the Lehigh Valley unique.
From 6-6:30pm Jennings will host Representative Bob Freeman and PennDOT’s District 5 Press Officer, Ron Young. For the second half of the show, from 6:30-7pm, we will hear from Deana Zosky, co-chair of RenewLV’s Board of Directors, and Steve Schmitt, Executive Director of the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation.
Be sure to tune in to 88.1 FM WDIY tonight at 6! This segment will address many of the issues and questions that will be the focus at the Regional Transportation Forum on April 19th, 6:30-8:30 pm, at the Historic Hotel Bethlehem. Find out more about the event at our event page, and sign up online!
The one thing that I took away from yesterday’s so-called “Snowpocalypse” is that I wish I lived in a walkable neighborhood. Though my home was sufficiently stocked up with all the necessary amenities, and, thankfully, I wasn’t one of the many households that had to deal with a power outage, it still would have been nice to walk to local coffeeshop to hang out with the rest of the neighbors (I heard that some Allentown residents did this at Brew Works).
Needless to say, good urban design is key – especially when you’re stuck in a snowstorm.
On this point – urban design – I was under the impression that the new federal “Let’s Move” campaign (launched yesterday), spearheaded by Michelle Obama, would have included some ties to land-use and urban planning. And I’m not alone in my impression. Megan from The City Fix was also expecting this, but just like me, she was surprised that there was not much explicit focus on this matter within the campaign. She writes:
There have been brief mentions of “small changes” families can take to encourage their children to be more active, including walking to school and urban farming. During her launch remarks, Mrs. Obama acknowledged that “urban sprawl and fears about safety often mean the only walking [kids] do is out their front door to a bus or a car.”
However, all of these “small changes” related to designing better cities and providing better transportation are far from central in the “Let’s Move” campaign.
Indeed, given my brief research on public health, it seems that this component (land design) should have a bigger role in this campaign. What are your thoughts on this?
Passenger rail took the spotlight this the weekend after Seattle opened its first light rail, named Link, to successful ridership numbers. The project is being hailed as forward-thinking and economically fruitful for the city. Indeed, Jon Talton, veteran financial journalist for The Seattle Times, published a provocative commentary about the rail line, which boasts of the system’s financial benefits and opens readers’ eyes to some unknown facts about light rail. For instance, he mentions that “modern light rail has succeeded in every city in which it has been built,” citing auto-loving Phoenix as a surprising success story. Talton believes that rising energy costs, frustration over traffic congestion, and a distaste for sprawling developments will nudge most metropolitan areas into making smarter transportation choices and funding rail projects. Couple these reasons with evidence that rail attracts investments and business centers, and Talton’s prediction might ring true sooner than later.
However, before any big decisions are made, the question always seems to center on funding mechanisms, or “Who will pay for the projects?” While the issue of light rail is still being debated, the Obama administration has made it clear that a high-speed rail system will be a high priority over the next few years. This investment is a top administrative goal, as a recent Miami Herald article notes, since $8 billion of the stimulus funding has been allocated solely for high-speed rail projects. As reported last week, the United States Department of Transportation already received over 270 project applications from states vying for a piece of the funds. While this tremendous demand will mean that some projects will be turned away, it certainly suggests that rail is the way of the future.
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While some impacts of the economic crisis have been salient, it remains to be seen how development patterns and land-use planning will be affected in the long-term. Nonetheless, predictions are emerging. On the heels of the recent discussions about the impact of the stimulus on transportation, various agents have offered comments about the sustainability of the sprawl trend of the past decades.
The Architectural Record published an article that explores the recession’s impact on sprawling developments, citing a June report published by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In the annual State of the Nation’s Housing Report, the data for foreclosure rates was very high in the suburbs, especially when compared to the numbers for urban neighborhoods. While this statistic suggests that sprawl is on the decline, Kermit Baker, chief economist at the Harvard Center, is quick to warn that the verdict is still out over whether this trend is merely a short-term recurrence or a long-term pattern.
Municipalities have not committed much funding for new developments lately, but brownfield redevelopment still seems like a viable area for infrastructure investment, given the current economic climate. These project opportunities usually lie within urban cores, and the centrally based locations have much potential for attracting new businesses and residents to cities. But public policy must encourage such development, a point highlighted by President Obama in his recent speech at a summit planned by the White House Office of Urban Affairs. Obama stressed that his urban policy will focus, in part, on transit and high-speed rail, as a means to combat the pattern of “sprawl, congestion, and pollution.” Indeed, if the administration keeps the broad goal of smart growth at the forefront of urban policy-making, it is likely that sprawl will continue its decline.
Check out StreetsBlog for updates on infrastructure projects and sustainable development initiatives, and as always, keep checking this blog.