Thursday, February 11, 2010

What Kind of Neighborhoods Do Americans Want?

All day, I read blogs and studies citing the importance of progressive planning policy. These articles discuss all the benefits of creating developments that are walkable and "New Urbanist" in nature.

I do not disagree with any of these statements or opinions. In fact, I agree with the vast majority of them. These are not the important articles, though. I think most people can agree that building sprawlburbs for the next 30 years does not make a lot of sense for many reasons.

But what should the alternatives be?

This is a valid question because I don't think most people really know what they want. America has not built anything other than sprawl for a very long time. It's important to start thinking about and discussing alternatives now before people get jaded with the entire debate (remember health care?).

By talking to people, I get a pretty good idea of what people want in the future (and right now). I see people wanting a hybrid of sorts: New Urbanism + the suburbs.

The kind of areas I visualize would be similar to the neighborhood I currently live in: mixed housing densities/incomes (single family on the inside of the block, higher density multifamily housing on the outside), with multiuse on the edges of the block (commercial, retail). My neighborhood also has 2 bus routes (north-south, east-west) that come every half-hour on the weekdays, along with bike routes throughout the neighborhood.

This kind of urban diversity provides many benefits to residents. While driving is still the favored transportation choice by the majority of neighborhood residents, the design of this neighborhood makes it easy for residents to walk, bike or take the bus. Therefore, many residents (including myself) choose to use alternative modes of transportation.

At the same time, it is not a choice but a necessity for many residents as a result of income levels. This point demonstrates how everything zoning related is interconnected: since my neighborhood has a diversity of transportation choices, it supports a variety of income levels.

The main point here is that automobile dependency is not freedom: it is oppression. A diversity of transportation choices supports a diversity of lifestyles. It is easy to create places that are car accessible and not car dependent.

My neighborhood is proof of this ease of coexistence.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Extreme Importance of Zoning Policy

The cities we have created today are relatively unsustainable. By unsustainable, I mean a place that can not easily survive for a long period of time. The primary reason behind this is zoning policy.

There are two major issues with current zoning policy:
1) Subsidizing Sprawl: We continue to pour money into developments that make our city weaker instead of stronger.

We can even look at this kind of development from a purely economic standpoint: In the long run, it is far more expensive to construct and maintain new infrastructure than it is develop areas that already have infrastructure. For this reason, local and national government should give major tax breaks to infill development, opposing to greenfield sprawl. In places where infrastructure exists, other services (such as shopping, workplaces, schools, etc.) are likely to exist as well. This not only creates lower longer-term prices for taxpayers, but it also encourages and stimulates walkable development. As many studies have shown (the most recent one from the NRDC), walkable areas retain value much better than non-walkable areas do.

2) Single Use Automobile Dependent Zoning Policy: Most new development in the United States continues to be single use and car dependent. This kind of development is a major reason why the obesity rates in the United States have skyrocketed. Creating areas and communities where people do not have the option of walking, biking or using public transportation is detrimental to the health of this country.

America prides itself on the freedom and independence car ownership provides, but car ownership should not be (and is not) a necessity for everyone. In my opinion, freedom means building areas where people have the freedom to use any transportation option they want.

Federal and local governments MUST revise zoning policies that encourage single use car dependent developments. Continuing to build these spaces will just lead to more pollution and congestion on local roads, and the eventual collapse of local transportation systems. Only so many lanes can be added to a road; eventually, the right of way ends.

Let's Review:

We must fight to end tax subsidies for sprawl.

We must subsidize infill development instead.

Car dependent development weakens our country.

Freedom means transportation options, not automobile dependency.

Revising zoning policy is crucial to the future of this country.

In my next post, I will address a balanced solution for future suburban growth that embraces the tenets of progressive urban policy.