Archive for the ‘Smart Growth’ Category

WSJ: High Gas Prices Spur New Interest in Smart Growth

July 7, 2008

The Wall Street Journal today provided more evidence that escalating gasoline prices are prompting more and more local governments to embrace smart-growth approaches to urban development. The focus of the Journal’s front-page story is Sacramento, California, where officials began looking for alternatives to sprawl as early as 2001 but met with resistance from developers stuck in the single-family subdivision mindset.

Eventually, developers saw the light, and now builders are putting up apartments, condos and townhouses at a rapid pace while the portion of the market represented by single-family homes on large lots has been plunging. The change was fostered by the adoption of a growth-management plan covering six counties that emphasized keeping homes and jobs closer together.

That plan, known as the Blueprint, is not mandatory for local governments in the region, but it has been widely embraced, according to the Journal, by “a strange-bedfellows coalition of ordinary citizens, politicians, developers and environmentalists.” As energy costs continue to rise, that support is growing. One developer told the Journal: “I see gas prices making people take the Blueprint seriously.” The accompany image shows how planners want more of the region’s streets to look.

Smart-growth advocates have to walk a fine line. Just because high gas prices are prompting more people to become smitten with smart growth, that does not mean that expensive energy is a good thing. Time magazine makes this error in a feature entitled “10 Things You Can Like About $4 Gas” (No. 2 is “Sprawl Stalls”). Transforming the economy to become less dependent on fossil fuels is great thing—doing it in a way that enriches oil companies and speculators while driving down living standards for just about everyone else is not something to celebrate.

“Eco-towns” Ignite UK Debate

July 2, 2008

Plans by Britain’s Labour Government to build new “ecotowns” are sparking demonstrations outside Parliament and elsewhere in Britain.

The government wants to build a total of 10 “zero carbon-emission communities,” containing 5-15,000 housing units each, with five completed by 2016. Announcing the project last year, then Labour Housing Minister Yvette Cooper said the new towns would address the country’s urgent need for more affordable housing while cutting carbon emissions.

The developments were to be built on brownfields or surplus public land linked to public transportation, and would serve as a testbed of new environmental technologies for Britain’s emerging green industrial sector.

However, the list of 15 possible ecotown sites recently put forward by Cooper’s successor Caroline Flint has raised questions about the viability of the basic concept and the government’s credibility. Opponents believe the proposed towns represent unaccountable, developer-driven planning that replicates some of the worst features of suburban sprawl.

For example, critics say some ecotowns would be built not on brownfields but on greenfield sites chosen by developers, including some linked to Tesco, a major UK supermarket chain. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the proposed “Pennbury” ecotown would even use up valuable farm land near an historic market town.

Although the proposed eco-developments are in theory subject to local review, some local officials are complaining about the increased demand for costly infrastructure they would create, and about the central government’s failure to take existing local development plans into account. One official attributes the selection of a site near Stratford-on-Avon—an area that already has adequate housing and employment— to the potentially lucrative sale of government land.

In response, ecotown supporters accuse opponents of “NIMBYism.” Prospective developers are also promising various inducements like free public transit, computer terminals with constantly updated transit information, and extensive bicycle paths.

But some people just think ecotowns are a bad idea. A Times of London editorialist recently wrote that “Zero-carbon house-building is about as likely as the odourless fart,” adding “The unremarkable truth is that car use is at its lowest where people live closest to city centres and are linked to them by public transport.”

The Labour government should perhaps consider the proposal by Sian Berry of Britain’s Green Party, who last year wrote that “green” industrial development should be based not on ecotowns but on hundreds of small locally-based eco-projects to retrofit and rehabilitate older housing stock in areas rich in public transit. Working with local officials and groups to “green” such areas would likely produce more, and more immediate, benefits than urbanizing additional greenfields in the name of ecology.

Transit Ridership Grows, But Agencies Can’t Keep Up

June 5, 2008

As gas prices soar, American workers are increasingly choosing to commute via public transit – good news for environmentalists and smart growth wonks everywhere! But high fuel costs are also crippling the budgets of many transit agencies that paid 44 percent more for fuel this year than last.

According to a new report from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), public transit ridership was 3 percent higher in the first quarter of 2008 than it was last year (a difference of 85 million transit trips). Also, Americans took the more trips on transit last year than that have in 50 years (10.3 billion trips).

However, public transit budgets are often funded through sales tax revenues that have been shrinking as Americans spend less during tough economic times. Combined with high fuel costs, this means that transit agencies are increasingly cutting services.

Moreover, America’s sprawling land use patterns means that the vast majority of workers still can’t access transit. According to APTA president, William Millar, fewer than 20 percent of households have easy access to buses or trains. However, it’s not practical to assume that transit authorities, constrained by tight budgets, will be able to expand services to sprawling communities. Also, as we blogged about on Monday, the compact form of urban areas plays a key role in limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

As gas prices push more Americans out of their cars, it grows increasingly obvious that we have to more adequately fund public transit but also plan for dense cities where effective public transit is feasible.

And the really good news is that it’s not just environmentalists and smart growth wonks who think that way! In an October 2007 poll, sponsored by the National Realtors Association and Smart Growth America, nearly 90 percent of respondents believed that our communities should be designed so that we can walk more and drive less and that public transportation should be improved and accessible.

Sorry, Suburbs—Cities Are Cooler

June 3, 2008

Most discussions on how to reduce your carbon footprint focus on what you drive and how well your house is insulated. Those issues are certainly vital, but the bigger issue may really be how much  you drive and how big  your residence is.  And those, in turn, get you into the wonky subject of land use.

There is a growing sense among experts on of climate change that development patterns of communities are a key determinant of greenhouse gas emissions: People who live in more sparsely populated suburbs will inevitably drive more miles and will tend to live in larger homes that use lots of energy, no matter how well they are insulated.

The latest example of this new consensus is a report issued last week by the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution. News coverage of Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of Metropolitan American in outlets such as the New York Times focused on differences in per capita carbon emissions among metropolitan areas, which Brookings attributes primarily to factors such as differences in climate and power-plant fuel mix.

Yet the main message of the report is that urban areas overall play a key role in limiting greenhouse gas emissions thanks to the more compact structure of communities and the availability of public transit as an alternative to CO2-spewing automobiles. More densely populated areas, the authors note, also make more efficient use of electric, water, sewage and communications infrastructure.

This is true, they find, not only when comparing metro areas to non-metro areas but also to a certain extent among urban areas. Older cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco that have denser population distribution and more extensive transit systems are all low per-capita emitters, while sprawling, car-dependent metro areas such as Nashville and Oklahoma City rank high.

The authors admit there are exceptions to the rule. Washington, DC, for instance, has a relatively high level of transit use but also has an elevated level of per-capita CO2 emissions, largely because of the large amount of coal used by electric utilities in the region.

The Brookings report builds on prior research such as the path-breaking Growing Cooler report—written by a team led by Reid Ewing of the National Center for Smart Growth—which summarizes scholarship on the links between land use and climate change. A recent working paper by Evans Paull of the Northeast-Midwest Institute takes the discussion a step further and argues that brownfield and in-fill development projects within cities create the potential for even more dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Smart growth turns out to be smart not only for quality of life but also for quality of the climate.

Oregon’s Limits on Growth Reduce Impact of Housing Price Decline

May 29, 2008

Even as other states struggle with housing price declines that have cut homeowner borrowing and spending power, Oregon’s land use controls are being credited with bolstering its housing market and economy.

Housing sales in the state have slowed and home prices in several Oregon cities have been described as “overvalued.” But compared to Midwest and Sun Belt states, where home prices have typically declined 20 percent, Oregon’s housing market remains strong.

For example, a recent Chicago Tribune article cited the 4.5 percent rise in 2007 housing prices in North Plains, a small town near Portland located in Oregon’s thriving high-tech “Silicon Forest.”

Unlike Phoenix and the San Francisco Bay Area, where similar high tech booms have sparked speculative housing construction and sprawl, North Plains and other Oregon communities have higher-density housing, the result of urban growth boundaries that protect farm, forest and coastal areas and that keep housing supply better aligned with actual demand. As a result, according to the Tribune, Portland area housing prices so far have only fallen slightly.

In the 1970s, growth management policies were adopted to protect Oregon from what then Governor Tom McCall, a Republican, called the “grasping wastrels of the land.” McCall noted that “unlimited and unregulated growth leads inexorably to a lowered quality of life.”

While free market proponents continue to decry Oregon’s growth management policies as a potential drag on the state’s economy, current evidence strongly suggests that (in addition to other benefits) such “sensible growth” policies are instead stabilizing the state’s economy in a period of economic turbulence.

The Man Without a Plan, Uncle Sam

May 22, 2008

The man without a plan? That would be Uncle Sam!


It has been 20 years since cities started adopting clawbacks, often in the wake of plant closings, and they are everywhere today.


It has been 14 years since the living wage movement took off and today Job Quality Standards are found in most states’ development code and many cities’ and counties= contracts.


It has been 13 years since Minnesota enacted what was then a terrific disclosure law and half the states now disclose to varying degrees.


It has been 10 years since the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy won its first Community Benefits Agreements, that model has spread across the nation.


We are way past any dogma that these reforms are going to somehow “poison the business climate.”


Yet look at the pathetic state of the federal government=s main economic development agencies and programs:

HUD is in shambles, not just because of Secretary Jackson’s departure under an ethics cloud, but because its funding has been repeatedly cut and its staff demoralized so that it has grown irrelevant on the big issues of the day.


Did HUD avert the subprime scandal? Is HUD weatherizing millions of homes to curb global warming and help people deal with soaring energy prices?


Community Development Block Grants C HUD’s biggest urban aid program C lack basic safeguards, and they don’t require Community Benefits.


It is because of cutbacks in programs like Block Grants that city officials claim they must mortgage our future C that they must create TIF districts that impoverish our tax base and our schools for 15, 23, even 35 years.


The Department of Labor’s Workforce Investment Act also spreads money everywhere, but it lacks a firm Job Quality Standards requirement (although some local WIBs have attached them).


The same structural accountability problems exist with major Department of Commerce programs.


And as one newspaper exposé revealed, even the Agriculture Department spends billions for economic development, much of it fueling sprawl or favoring big businesses over small ones or subsidizing projects in wealthy areas that don=t need help.


There is one tiny office of the Environmental Protection Agency doing some terrific work on smart growth, but it is just one tiny office.


It is a big issue that Uncle Sam Has No Plan. According to estimates made in the mid-1990s, the federal government spends two and a half times more on “corporate welfare” than do all 50 states combined — about $125 billion per year C versus $50 billion for all the states.


As in the states, most of those federal dollars are uncollected taxes: tax credits, tax exemptions, bonus depreciation, and so forth. But we still don’t have specific details about who got what.

In my next blog: how Uncle Sam’s incomplete disclosure systems reveals only the tip of the iceberg.





From Sprawl to “Social Disorder”: The Collapse of the Suburbs?

February 25, 2008

America’s sprawling suburbs are starting to show signs of “physical and social disorder” analogous to those that plagued many of the country’s large cities in the 1960s and 1970s, according to a provocative article in the March issue of The Atlantic by Christopher Leinberger.

The immediate cause, Leinberger notes, is the mortgage crisis and the ensuing wave of foreclosures. A growing number of homes in once tidy suburban communities have become blighted as angry residents trash houses they are being forced to leave, and vandals subsequently strip them of copper pipes and other salable materials. Leinberger cites reports of increased gang activity in the land of the cul de sac.

The deterioration of the suburbs, Leinberger argues, goes deeper than the credit crunch. He says that large-lot, automobile-dependent developments on the fringes of metropolitan areas are falling out of favor in an era of high gasoline prices. Instead, more people are flocking to densely populated gentrified city centers in which they can walk or use public transit to get to shops, restaurants and workplaces.

That’s fine for affluent urban newcomers, but lower-income families displaced by condo development are fleeing to the declining suburbs, where, according to Leinberger, they will increasingly clash with the remaining homeowners desperately trying to preserve their version of the American Dream.

Leinberger’s article represents a caution for those smart-growth advocates who think that upscale central-city revitalization is by itself the answer to America’s problems. We also need to figure out a solution for those priced out of the expensive new urban paradises.