"Smart Growth" and "New Urbanism" Compared with "Large Lot Zoning" (Tom Lane) [ Home Page – Click Here]

(October 12, 2016) – Traditional "Large Lot Zoning" is "Greener" than "Smart Growth" within Urban Growth Boundaries . . . Copyright 2009 – 2016 . . . Tom Lane . . . Photographing California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington.

What is Missing from the Smart Growth Debate

(Under Construction):  In any scientific endeavor including the land use planning process, one must provide quantifiable (numerical) arguments supporting proposed policy changes.  When you read about “smart growth,” you read about terms such as “sprwal,” “density,” “growth”,”livability,” “walkability,” “open space,” “infilling,” “walkability,” and so forth. Proponents and opponents of these terms often fail to provide economic or other data necessary to form a winning debate.  Therefore, in the absence of economic statistics, City Council meetings degenerate into nonconstructive debates.

o “Smart” – Growth  It seems that applying the term “smart” to a proposal immediately designates it as a “fad.”  Perhaps the proponents could have been more modest when they developed it in 1986, and said “smarter growth.” (!) Other terms for smart growth are “New Urbanism” and “Livability.” (These terms are not used on this web site; only smart growth is.)

o  “Sprawl” is defined as low density retail or residential development, large lots in the case of residential development.  Smart growth advocates claim that this is “bad” since it implies destruction of native plants, increased traffic, and increased consumption of gas.

However, this is not necessarily the case.  As explained below, larger lot sizes (as opposed to condos in downtown areas), support native trees and wildlife (PHOTO Flagstaff AZ).  And, traffic and air pollution are worse in congested urban areas, compared to low density residential areas.

o “Density” Smart growth proponents imply that “density” is good because people will walk and bike to work, since they only have to walk or bike a few blocks.  However, most people commute for miles to work, often on freeways.  People generally do not choose where they are living based on walkability as the first criteria.  And, of course, higher density means higher air pollution, higher noise pollution, increased air conditioning costs (due to the urban heat island effect), etc.

In addition, children perform poorly in academia in homes that their parents actually own, versus rent (ref. is in an article by Cox or O’Toole).

Density is neither good nor bad, it’s in the eyes of the beholder.  That’s the way it should be, in a capitalistic society where consumers have choices.

o  “Growth”  Smart growth proponents claim that “growth” is “bad,” and therefore must be made “smart.”   Therefore, they wish to contain growth within urban growth boundaries, increasing density.  This involves destroying native vegetation, to accommodate homes and buildings so close together.

However, about 99% of the land area of the United States is not developed into urban areas (need a reference).  Furthermore, some of the remaining 1% is certainly made of lakes, streams, urban parks, and backyards with large shade trees.

Essentially, what smart growth proponents are telling us is that they would rather see no population growth at all.  This is impossible, since it’s the way that things worse.  You will find many anti-population growth advocates who not only dislike smart growth, but also dislike population growth in general, such as Dr. Daniel Warner of Western Washington University: (Ref.)

o “Livability”     Smart growth proponents believe that “livability” is increased when you can walk and bike everywhere.  However, again, this is subjective and in the eyes of the beholder.  Personally, I hate traffic with a passion and prefer to bike or walk.  However, I can’t legislate policies telling you to live in high density condos downtown.

On the other hand, I don’t like living in apartments or crowded urban areas.  So, that means that I would live in the suburbs, and ride my bike or drive into town.

o “Open Space”  Smart growth proponents believe in preserving open space. However, open space is often relegated to the periphery of town, in order to facilitate the highest possible density within the City limits.  Activities such as mountain biking and disc golf are often prohibited in the open space.  Furthermore, to build high density areas with condos, native vegetation is frequently destroyed.  In desert areas, precious desert plants are removed by developers (PHOTOS).  They are replaced with “gravelscaping” (PHOTO) and nursery grown cacti.  Gravelspacing serves no useful function since children and pets cannot play on it.

In Boulder, there is very little natural vegetation in the city.  Instead, the City established a greenbelt around the edge of the city in the early 1970’s.  This scenario is not uncommon, and it limits your interaction with nature.

If lot sizes were larger, along with tree ordinances, then natural vegetation would still be present.  I am for preserving the tree canopy, since it maintains property values.

Also, preserving urban open space as “greenbelts, ” “wilderness areas,” or “wetlands” prohibits its use to the general public.  With so little open space left in our cities, and the value of nature to children, then why not develop wetlands, fields, and into parks with mountain bike trails, disc golf courses, and other low impact forms of recreation.

o “Urban Trail Systems” and “Multimodal Corridors”  These are terms for multi-use trails, paved or unpaved.  As I mentioned above, smart growth proponents often forget that people don’t like walking or riding bikes on busy streets in high density areas.  An alternative is building trails away from traffic within natural areas, especially through  “greenbelts” and under power lines.

0 “Wildlife and The Birds”  Wildlife cannot exist without natural vegetation.  Therefore, when downtown areas are “densified” with smart growth condos and concomitant parking garages, wildlife cannot co-exist.  Compare cities such as  Flagstaff or Lake Tahoe where natural vegetation has been left in place, perhaps by ordinance.  Flagstaff boasts eagles flying overhead, and Lake Tahoe has bears. (Yes, Boulder has mountain lions, but not on Pearl Street!)

Despite the general public’s interest in large trees, birds, and wildlife, the smart growth proponents prefer synthetic neighborhoods with high density condos.

o “Walkability” People claim that “walkability” means that you’ll walk to the store for your groceries.  Smart growth cities are known for sidewalks and bike lanes.  However, with increasing density and high traffic, people prefer to drive to the store, especially if its dark and raining.  And, for half of the year, most areas of the country are dark before 8am (when work begins), and after 5pm (when work ends).  People are unlikely to walk or bike to work in the dark alongside heavy traffic.

Acheiving “walkability” in its purest sense is an impossible quest.  I come from a landscape architecture / psychological perspective.  I agree with  Charlie Siegel in his new book.  Siegel proposes car-free cities with streetcars,  as the neighborhoods are safe for children to play in the streets, and people can safely walk to the corner grocery store, without having to deal with traffic and air pollution.

In his scenario, there are no cars. None. Period. No exceptions. How else could pure walkability be achieved? After all, for all practical purposes, it’s a quantifiably undefinable term. So at least in this one case, I do agree (on principle only) with Siegel.

Of course, whether something is walkable or not is subject to the eyes of the beholder. Most would find the 40 foot wide sidewalks of the Strip in Vegas more walkable than many arterial leading through the Smart Growth Pearl district in Boulder.

Since Siegel shows how walkability iinvolves no cars in a streetcar scenario, then I propose building trails through smart growth wilderness areas and urban growth boundaries.  Why not add more trails and bike lanes through greenbelts, wetlands, and state owned lands?  Of course, environmentalists will object, however, a gravel or paved trail has virtually no impact.

Flagstaff, Arizona (map: http://www.flagstaff.az.gov/index.aspx?NID=1521)(PHOTO) provides on the of the best examples of a town with much of its urban trail system unpaved in forests.

Henderson, NV  has just completed a trail system that includes a30 mile loop outside of town (http://www.rivermountainstrail.com/trail%20map/rmtpmaps.htm).  Here’s their urban trail system: http://www.cityofhenderson.com/parks/pdf/parks/full_henderson_trail_map.pdf

Albuquerque, NM (map: http://www.cabq.gov/bike) has a network of trails along the Bosque (the Rio Grande Valley) and along dry washes in the northeast part of town.

For whatever reason, the Smart Growth Proponents emphasize trails adjacent to traffic corridors, such as bike lanes, and bike boulevards (i.e. Silver Street in Albuquerque, where the speed limit is 18mph: http://bikeabq.org/blog/?p=182).

Some cities block selected portions of streets to bikes only, such as Olympia, Wa.  (PHOTO OLYMPIA).

Maybe it’s an economic thing? Do they want walkers and bikers to ride by those coffee shops on the 1st floor under those smart growth apartments? If that’s it, I guess Flagstaff doesn’t care about this, routing its main trails (map) from NAU to the east into a canyon, to the west to a hill with a view of the city, to the southwest into the fairgrounds, and to the north into yet another canyon and eventually another hill with a view of the city. Future trails (Master Plan: http://www.flagstaff.az.gov/index.aspx?NID=1599)  will progress in these directions, and even parallel distal stretches of Route 66, where there are currently no businesses.

To be continued . . .

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This entry was posted on 2010 by in Philosophy.

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