Fixing suburbia

I call this sprawl lite.  It contains seemingly good ideas, but it is still predicated on consumption – energy, resources, capital.  I dont think we will have the luxury of consumption in the very near future.  My vision is that we will get a much less grandiose fixing of suburbia – tent markets in former parking lots – parks where strip malls once stood – bikes on freeways – that sort of thing.  We’ll just be about making do.

Anyway, this is an interesting take.  And the one that I think Lexington ought to adopt for its default “growth” strategy.  If we don’t hit limits soon, then this would make us better.  If we do hit limits soon, then it doesnt really matter.

Sprawl Repair: From Sprawl to Complete Communities

by Galina Tachieva
Editor’s Note: This article has been excerpted from the Sprawl Repair Manual, by Galina Tachieva, with permission of the publisher (Island Press) and author. This excerpt is the book’s first chapter and introduction.

Author’s Note: On IMAGE: The Sprawl Repair Manual makes a clear distinction between sprawl and suburb. Sprawl represents auto-dependent, single-use patterns that occur at every level of urban intensity, from the rural edge all the way into the heart of urban cores. On the other hand, not all suburbs are sprawl. There are three distinct generations of suburbs in America, and it is only the developments built after the war that are sprawl. The manual proposes a toolkit for the repair of sprawl. A key technique used throughout the book is to juxtapose images of existing conditions in sprawl and how they would look if they were improved. “Before and after” pairs of plans and three-dimensional illustrations demonstrate the possibilities for better place-making. Most of the watercolor perspectives in the book were done by the talented duo of Chris Ritter and Eusebio Azcue.

Sprawl is a pattern of growth characterized by an abundance of congested highways, strip shopping centers, big boxes, office parks, and gated cul-de-sac subdivisions—all separated from each other in isolated, single-use pods. This land-use pattern is typically found in suburban areas, but also affects our cities, and is central to our wasteful use of water, energy, land, and time spent in traffic. Sprawl has been linked to increased air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of open space and natural habitat, and the exponential increase in new infrastructure costs. Social problems related to the lack of diversity have been attributed to sprawl, and health problems such as obesity to its auto-dependence.

In contrast, complete communities have a mix of uses and are walkable, with many of a person’s daily need—shops, offices, transit, civic and recreational places—within a short distance of home. They are compact, so they consume less open space and enable multiple modes of transportation, including bicycles, cars, and mass transit. A wide variety of building types provides options to residents and businesses, encouraging diversity in population. This mix of uses, public spaces, transportation, and population makes complete communities economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.

The promise of suburbia has been eroding for decades, but reached a critical point with the mortgage meltdown of 2008. A record number of homes went into foreclosure and entire subdivisions and commercial developments began to fail. Yet the expanse of sprawl represents a vast investment, and cannot be simply abandoned or demolished. Pragmatism demands the reclamation of sprawl through redevelopment that introduces mixed uses and transportation options. It must be acknowledged, however, that portions of sprawl may remain in their current state, while others may devolve, reverting to agriculture or nature. The design and regulatory strategies and incentives shown in the Sprawl Repair Manual are intended for the places that are best suited to be urbanized because of location or existing investment.

Left: Sprawl — fragmented, car-dependent single uses. Right: Complete community — balanced, connected, compact.
Left: Sprawl — fragmented, car-dependent single uses.
Right: Complete community — balanced, connected, compact.

Photos courtesy Google, Map Data, and TeleAtlas.

The history and consequences of suburban development, specifically sprawl, are well documented. Numerous books articulate the trajectory of sprawl within its historical context—from the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgages for new construction, the subsidies of the interstate highway system, and the tax laws allowing accelerated depreciation of commercial development, to the evolution of Euclidean zoning’s separation of uses and the cultural mandate for separation by race. Recent publications put forward the need to redevelop sprawl and what specifically should be repaired; among these are Greyfields into Goldfields and Malls into Main Streets, reports by the Congress for the New Urbanism. Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, explains why we need to retrofit sprawl and documents successful examples of retrofits through illuminating and comprehensive analysis.

The Sprawl Repair Manual seeks to expand the literature as a guide that illustrates how to repair the full range of suburban conditions, demonstrating a step-by-step design process for the creation of more sustainable communities. This is a framework for designing the interventions, incorporating them into the regulatory system, and implementing them with permitting strategies and financial incentives.

The proposed approach addresses a range of scales from the region down to the community, street, block, and building. The method identifies deficiencies in typical elements of sprawl, and determines the best remedial techniques for those deficiencies. Also included are recommendations for regulatory and economic incentives.

Lessons learned from history guide this methodology. Rather than the instant and total overhaul of communities, as promoted so destructively in American cities half a century ago, this is a guide for incremental and opportunistic improvement.

Left: Commercial sprawl. Right: Complete community.
Left: Commercial sprawl.
Right: Complete community.

Graphics courtesy Galina Tachieva.

Choices

There are two primary options for growth: conventional sprawl development and complete communities.

Sprawl abandoned the neighborhood structure in favor of car-dependent patterns. When driving is mandatory for almost all daily activities, carbon emissions are higher. With the price of gasoline rising, long commutes to or from exurban locations become economic disadvantages. Because sprawl developments are not compact, they consume excessive amounts of farmland and valuable natural areas.

Studies have shown that sprawl is damaging to both physical and social health, isolating people in car-dominated environments where they are deprived not only of the physiological benefits of walking, but also of the natural human interactions typical of complete communities.1 This is especially relevant to aging residents, who lose their independence when they can no longer drive, and need to leave their suburban houses for retirement communities. Children and younger adults are also vulnerable to the car-dependence of sprawl. In 1969, 90 percent of all children walked to school, as schools were part of complete neighborhoods, but in 2002 only 31 percent walked to school.2

Sprawl developments, particularly in exurban areas, suffered some of the highest foreclosure rates, and many have also seen dramatic increases in crime rates, some greater than 30 percent.3 Many homes, and even entire subdivisions, have been abandoned, creating the effect of sporadic and dispersed occupancy typical of the consequences of natural disasters. Christopher Leinberger, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, predicts that the suburbs on the fringes, poorly served by public transport, will suffer a very visible decline as low-income populations move in and these areas become “magnets for poverty, crime, and social dysfunction.”4

Nonetheless, the development industry continues to produce sprawl, with the support of the financial industry, planning practices, and government policies. Sprawl remains cheaper to plan, easier to finance, faster to permit, and less complicated to build, primarily due to the regulations governing development. It is simpler to attach the freestanding, isolated, single-use components of sprawl to the already subsidized and prolific highway system than to assemble these elements into real neighborhoods and towns. Sprawl is extremely inflexible and will not mature into vibrant urbanism on its own. Without precise design and policy interventions, sprawl might change—a strip shopping center might be scrapped and replaced with a lifestyle center when the next owner comes along—but it is unlikely to produce walkable, sustainable urbanism.

Left: Mashpee Commons, Massachusetts, 1960s shopping center. Right: Transformation into a town center in the 2000s.
Left: Mashpee Commons, Massachusetts, 1960s shopping center.
Right: Transformation into a town center in the 2000s.

Photos courtesy Galina Tachieva.

In contrast to sprawl, complete communities are economically robust because they include a variety of businesses that support daily needs, and nearby residents work at and patronize those businesses. They are socially healthy because many generations with diverse incomes and backgrounds live and interact within them. Complete communities are livable because of their comfortable human scale. They are environmentally superior because they are compact, saving land and natural resources. Vehicle miles traveled are reduced by as much as 30 percent, resulting in less pollution and less energy used.5

Complete communities also support walking and physical activity, which have been proven important to public health and general well-being. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers from the University of Miami has determined that communities with a mix of uses and good connectivity, block structure, public spaces, and transit proximity have residents who are more likely to walk, less likely to be overweight, and have greater social and community interactions.6 The researchers worked with the Florida Department of Health to create evidence-based criteria for the State Surgeon General’s Seal of Walkability so the general public would know what to look for in a community.

The demand for complete communities is greater than the current supply. According to Todd Litman, founder of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, in 2009 North American households were evenly divided in their preferences for sprawl or smart growth in the form of walkable, diverse neighborhoods. He predicts that by 2030, more than two-thirds will prefer smart growth.7 The Sprawl Repair Manual shows one way to meet the growing needs for walkable environments by repairing sprawl into complete communities.
Sprawl Repair Defined
Sprawl repair transforms failing or potentially failing, single-use, and car-dominated developments into complete communities that have better economic, social, and environmental performance.

The objective of the sprawl repair strategy is to build communities based on the neighborhood unit, similar to the traditional fabric that was established in towns and cities prior to World War II. The primary tactic of sprawl repair is to insert needed elements—buildings, density, public space, additional connections—to complete and diversify the mono-cultural agglomerations of sprawl: residential subdivisions, strip shopping centers, office parks, suburban campuses, malls, and edge cities. By systematically modifying the reparable areas (turning subdivisions into walkable neighborhoods, shopping centers and malls into town centers) and leaving to devolution those that are irreparable (abandonment or conversion to park, agricultural, or natural land), sprawl can be reorganized into complete communities.

To identify the proper targets for repair, it is essential to understand the form and structure of sprawl in the American built environment. Sprawl can take place in intensely urban areas, but most is found in suburban areas. There are three generations of suburbia that vary in form as related to urbanity and walkability:

  • Pre-war suburbs
  • Post-war suburbs
  • Late 20th-century exurbs

While the pre-war suburbs are often complete communities, the latter two types abandoned the pedestrian-centered neighborhood structure in favor of auto-centric dispersion.

Left: First-generation suburbs: traditional growth patterns formed streetcar and railroad communities outside the city limits.  Right: Forest Hills, New York.
Left: First-generation suburbs: traditional growth patterns
formed streetcar and railroad communities outside the city limits.
Right: Forest Hills, New York.

Graphic and photo courtesy Galina Tachieva.

The pre-war suburbs include patterns of growth that can be defined as suburban, but are not sprawl per se. In the U.S., the first suburbs sprang up in the 19th century along the newly built railroad lines, as compact, middle-class communities assembled around stations (examples include Lake Forest and Riverside in Illinois and Forest Hills in Queens, New York). These were modeled after the suburbs built in England in the 18th century to serve the London bourgeoisie, and inspired development outside of cities in other parts of the world.8 With the invention of the electric streetcar, another group emerged closer to the city and accessible to a more diverse economic and social population than the railroad suburbs (examples include Cleveland Park in Washington, D.C., the Country Club District in Kansas City, Missouri, and Brookline, outside of Boston, Massachusetts).9 These developments depended on their proximity to rail stops, and maintained an urban structure for pedestrian walkability and a mixture of daily uses. In the beginning of the 20th century, yet another type of development joined the suburban echelons; communities such as Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and Coral Gables, Florida, were designed to accommodate the automobile, but still consisted primarily of mixed-use, compact, and diverse neighborhoods.

In stark contrast to the pre-war suburbs, the second generation of suburbs was single-use, low-density development spurred by new incentives from the federal mortgage system and the increase in automotive infrastructure and use. The second-generation suburbs began to develop in the 1920s, but flourished after the end of World War II, when, under the auspices of national defense, the federal government created the interstate highway system, the largest infrastructure project the country had ever seen. Ironically, the main achievements of this monumental effort were to facilitate personal mobility and undermine the fundamental walkability of American urbanism.

Left: Second-generation suburbs: conventional suburban development created car-dependent sprawl along new highways.  Right: Levittown, New York.
Left: Second-generation suburbs: conventional suburban development
created car-dependent sprawl along new highways.
Right: Levittown, New York.

Graphic courtesy Galina Tachieva. Photo courtesy Google, Map Data, and TeleAtlas.

Levittown, built on Long Island, New York, in 1948, was the preeminent example of a community dependent on the nation’s new commitment to the car. Conceived as an innovative and affordable master-planned community based on the mass production of housing, Levittown was the prototype of the post-war American suburb, and ultimately became the symbol of the ascent and failure of sprawl. Levittown’s thousands of identical houses on identical lots transmogrified the American dream of the earlier suburbs by making everything within them subordinate to the automobile, including the residents.

Though Levittown had schools, shopping centers, and park areas, its master plan ignored the traditional neighborhood structure, and the community was created only for families who owned cars. The use of the automobile eliminated the need for convenient proximity of the elements of everyday life, and the walkable compactness of the pre-war suburb gave way to sprawl. In the wake of its 60th birthday in 2008, Levittown adopted an environmental program, aimed “to persuade residents to upgrade their homes, improving energy efficiency and cutting fuel bills.”10 As logical and noble as such efforts are, especially in this time of climate change and amidst the (first) great recession of the 21st century, Levittown and suburbs of its kind will need more than the “greening” of individual buildings. They will need a major repair of the overall urban structure, because even if buildings are made more efficient, driving is not reduced, and the environmental, societal, and economic burden of sprawl will remain.

The second generation of suburbs has been blighted by traffic, obsolete housing stock, and inadequate amenities, and has been leapfrogged by newer sprawl out in the exurbs. These places are the urgent contenders for repair, as their deficiencies prohibit them from responding to the changing demographics of a fast-aging and more diverse population. Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, one of the first redevelopments of a greyfield (obsolete, underutilized land) in the country, represents the potential to revitalize this generation of suburbs. It is a retrofit in which a dead shopping center built in the 1960s was transformed into a town center in the 1980s.

Left: Third-generation suburbs: the exurbs. Right: Tyson's Corner, Virginia.
Left: Third-generation suburbs: the exurbs.
Right: Tyson’s Corner, Virginia.

Graphic courtesy Galina Tachieva. Photo courtesy Google, Map Data, and TeleAtlas.

The last generation, or third-ring suburbs, flourished from the 1980s through the early 2000s on the exurban edge. Until recently, these suburbs have been highly competitive and in good physical shape, due in part to potent owners’ associations that enforced special standards and bylaws to maintain quality within the developments. The developments are often gated, single-use housing pods or commercial agglomerations such as strip shopping centers, malls, corporate campuses, or entire edge cities, and all are reachable only by automobile.

Repairing these suburbs will require a proactive, visionary approach that anticipates the potential economic decline and devaluation of developments. Urban planners, business owners, developers, and municipal governments must anticipate their failure and intercede. An example of a farsighted repair of a still-successful mall and its surroundings is Downtown Kendall in Miami-Dade, Florida, where the county, chamber of commerce, and landowners worked together to outline a long-term plan for the transformation of this edge city into a transit-oriented, regional center.

Repair of some places will be physically and economically more feasible (e.g., the perfectly located mall waiting to be connected to the surrounding suburban fabric), while others will be more likely to wither than evolve. These are the isolated, disconnected, exurban fringes where the application of the neighborhood structure will be least feasible. And if residents and businesses migrate en masse from these fringes, because of unemployment, foreclosures, or social instability, these places may well be transformed back to agriculture or nature. Nationally and internationally, the “shrinking cities” initiative (started by cities like Youngstown, Ohio) focuses on programs for managing the devolution (reduction of the physical infrastructure) of urban and suburban areas experiencing economic and population decline.11 In comparison to other countries (mainly in Europe), where a negative population change is the predominant reason for “shrinking cities,” the population in the U.S. is expected to continue growing, creating the potential for repair and intensification of some areas.12

Mashpee Commons, 1960s Mashpee Commons, 2000s

Left: Mashpee Commons, 1960: strip shopping center.
Right: Mashpee Commons, 2000s: transformed into a town center.

Photos courtesy Mashpee Commons LP.

The Sprawl Repair Manual concentrates mainly on strategies for densification of sprawl, but acknowledges that some re-greening and de-densification initiatives are valid alternatives to blight and depopulation in the suburbs. Examples are given for contracting cities and suburbs at the regional scale, as well as instructions for re-platting deserted properties to larger lots to be used for gardens or larger family compounds.

Areas where the crisis is most acute—where traffic congestion, falling real estate values, outdated infrastructure, and lack of public amenities become unbearable—as well as the places with regional importance and manageable ownership patterns, should be given priority for sprawl repair. Priorities for sprawl repair or devolution must be set at the regional level. However, the subject of devolution is sensitive and relatively new, and is best addressed at the community scale, where residents, associations, property owners,  and developers can make decisions locally.
Challenges
Experience with retrofit projects shows there are numerous challenges to overcome in the process of sprawl repair. The first challenge is financial, as sprawl repair requires considerable initial investment. It becomes more financially feasible, however, when analyzed from a long-term perspective and when compared to conventional suburban development. The increased density and mixed uses, for example, reduce the cost of infrastructure per capita.

New street in Downtown Kendall.
New street in Downtown Kendall.
Photo courtesy Galina Tachieva.

Land-use segregation and imbalance in the form of single-use concentrations (shopping centers, residential enclaves, and office parks) fragment the built environment. In addition, economic and market differences cause further separation and the existing ownership patterns are often disjointed. These factors create the need for coordinated and expensive land acquisitions, placing pressures on affordability of housing and further complicating the prospects for repairing the existing fabric.

Transportation constraints include the lack of connectivity and permeability in existing suburban thoroughfare patterns. There is rarely a continuous network to allow for multiple choices of movement, only a sparse arrangement of highways, collectors, and cul-de-sacs confining the traffic stream to limited channels of high speed and congestion. Interweaving the thoroughfare network will be challenging, and in some cases impossible. Many properties will need to be acquired, and many rights-of-way will need to be modified before achieving any meaningful connectivity.

Open space management in sprawling areas usually does not amount to continuous and significant environmental preserves. Haphazard sprawl development has disconnected natural areas, with the result that neither the human nor natural habitat has retained its integrity. There is no hierarchy in the treatment of open space; swales, berms, and wild vegetation are permitted in urbanized areas, while massive impervious surfaces encroach on sensitive natural networks.

Excessive requirements for on-site parking reduce the potential for increasing density and varying building types. Most conventional zoning codes require on-site parking and do not allow shared parking ratios, thus limiting development to low structures with parking lots or high-rises with parking decks. There is no incentive for mid-size buildings with lower parking ratios that will more evenly distribute construction through the suburban fabric.

Existing land-development regulations promote the separation of uses. The regulatory emphasis is still on the quantitative criteria, rather than physical design. The result is sprawl that is neither urban nor rural in character, but rather an ambiguous mixture in which roadways and parking lots have priority over the buildings that form the public space. New codes are needed to allow the retrofit of these elements into more sustainable communities.

Top: Greyfield site next to a train station. Bottom: Overscaled parking and dispersed buildings underutilize the site.
Top: Greyfield site next to a train station.
Bottom: Overscaled parking and dispersed buildings
underutilize the site.

Graphics courtesy Galina Tachieva.

In addition to municipal ordinances, many gated communities, as found in the second- and third-ring suburbs, are protected by homeowners’ association covenants, which leave few legal means for retrofit. Together with the overhaul of the regulatory framework that supports sprawl, identifying the legal methods for sprawl repair will be essential to its successful implementation.

However, the most important reason for the inefficiency of suburban sprawl is the absence of neighborhood structure. The diverse and compact neighborhood unit, which is the building block of smart growth, has been abandoned and even outlawed, leading to the fractured and inefficient landscape of suburbia. Establishing neighborhood structure and connecting it to the larger region is the greatest design challenge encountered in sprawl repair.
Opportunities
Energy costs are rising, meaning long commutes are becoming unaffordable. A changing climate compels us to pollute less. We need to increase physical activity to overcome the epidemic of obesity and chronic diseases. Entire residential and commercial developments are failing. The economics of sprawl are not working. These are the obvious justifications for sprawl repair. But there are other reasons that, while less obvious, are equally compelling.

The emergence of a new class of buyers—economically farsighted, environmentally conscious, and socially active—is creating a major shift in the housing market. Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) and their Millennial progeny (born between 1976 and 2000) represent more than 135 million people, many of them with an orientation toward diverse, compact urbanism—Boomers because they’re retiring and want the convenience, sociability, and stimuli of a complete community, and Millennials because they are young and want the excitement and job opportunities of urban environments.13 Trends such as these, along with economic and environmental forces that make exurban development unsustainable, will lead builders, developers, and the private sector at large to pursue sprawl repair aggressively. Combined with public policy, such a shift would be very powerful. This manual addresses these opportunities by showing techniques for the transformation of sprawl into communities that are attractive to these buyers.

As Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson assert in Retrofitting Suburbia, the population of 21st century suburbia is very different from the stereotype of fifty years ago that depicted the suburbs as predominantly white, middle-class families with children. Together with the quantitative and generational shifts, the growing presence of ethnic minorities accustomed to less driving and living and working in less space will contribute to new opportunities for engaging different cultures. The sprawl repair techniques provide a variety of ways to expand the range of public spaces and more affordable building types to accommodate the housing and business needs of a diverse, multiethnic population.

The need to accommodate population growth is another obvious reason for sprawl repair. By 2025, the population of the U.S. is expected to increase by 70 million—equal to the combined current populations of California, New York, and Florida.14 According to Arthur C. Nelson of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah, the U.S. will reach 400 million people in 2037. Of the next 100 million people, only 12 percent will have children, as most of the population will fit into the categories of empty nesters or single-person households. He predicts a dramatic shift in the market toward more urban environments, as the demand for single-family housing will plummet.15 According to Nelson, inner cities and first-generation suburbs will not have sufficient housing supplies to satisfy the need of the market, and “two-thirds or more of the next 100 million people and associated jobs are likely to locate in existing second-tier (1950–2000) suburbs.” The manual demonstrates how growing housing needs can be satisfied by intensification of sprawling developments in the second and third tiers of suburbs, especially near places with potential for transit.

Top: Transit-oriented urban core with a new square framing the train station.  Bottom: Final stage of greyfield repair with parking lot developed and buildings replaced.
Top: Transit-oriented urban core with a new square
framing the train station.
Bottom: Final stage of greyfield repair with parking
lot developed and buildings replaced.

Graphics courtesy Galina Tachieva.

The required infrastructure for conventional development is excessive—in most cases overscaled—and can be utilized in the redevelopment process. As an example, sprawl’s wide thoroughfares can easily accommodate transit infrastructure and bicycle lanes as well as cars. Vast parcels of deteriorating commercial buildings and parking lots are ready to be urbanized and become centers for the adjacent suburban communities. Furthermore, aging residents will prefer to retire in their suburban homes, which are the largest personal investments for most of these residents. If amenities and services are provided through repair strategies, it may become possible for millions of seniors to retire in place and invest in their current communities instead of moving.

Hundreds of new communities that are compact, pedestrian-friendly, and mixed-use have been built in the last three decades and are ready to be used as models for sprawl repair. They differ from sprawl in fundamental ways, among the most significant of which is their capacity for intensification and incorporation of public transit. The experience of building these communities has provided practical tools that are applicable to sprawl repair and are explained in this manual.

Sprawl repair is an economic necessity, but also provides the opportunity for economic growth. As observed in a study by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, the employment decentralization that started in the 1960s became a substantial phenomenon for most metropolitan regions through the 1990s and 2000s, with the result that most businesses were located outside of city limits.16 This manual emphasizes the use of existing employment and commercial hubs as anchors to be redeveloped into complete communities with balanced uses and transportation options. Many existing buildings can also be rehabilitated for new businesses. Existing jobs can be saved, and new green jobs can be created in the process of transforming sprawl.

Beginning in 2008, the retail industry experienced unprecedented upheaval, creating an opportunity to reform the conventions of large-scale commercial overdevelopment. General Growth Properties, the second-largest mall owner in the U.S., filed for bankruptcy in April 2009, but had recently started a program to retrofit many of its megaretail hubs into mixed-use centers. This practice, together with the redevelopment of existing employment hubs, should be supported and incentivized.

Proximity to agricultural land is one of the few advantages exurban developments have over urban centers. Some, therefore, have the potential to be retrofitted for local food production. They have abundant open space, and they are close to the edges where they can easily interface with agriculture. It may be also easier to adapt these areas for irrigation, whether natural or manmade, or introduce grey-water recycling. The next American rural village might not be designed from scratch; it may be a model of repaired suburban sprawl.

The regulatory environment that supports sprawl has already begun to change. Form-based codes have been approved in many municipalities around the U.S. More than 80 cities, such as Petaluma, California, Montgomery, Alabama, and Miami, Florida, have adopted or are currently adopting the SmartCode, a model, form-based comprehensive ordinance that replaces use- and density-based ordinances and enables the development of mixed-use, traditional neighborhoods. This shift in the regulatory framework makes smart growth development legal again and assists sprawl repair initiatives.

Infill as repair of a corporate office park: Legacy Town Center, Plano, Texas.
Infill as repair of a corporate office park: Legacy
Town Center, Plano, Texas.

Photo courtesy Galina Tachieva.

Regional planning allows for the choice of sustainable growth instead of sprawl, as it provides coordination between municipalities and jurisdictions. Counties across the nation are adopting regional smart growth policies. In Sacramento, California, an association of local governments completed a Blueprint of the Future for the six-county metropolitan region. The plan covers growth until 2050, and encourages compact developments near mass transit, thus saving $8 billion in construction costs for freeways, utilities, and other infrastructure.17 In Florida, the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council is a unique four-county collaboration on strategic regional planning that has been effective in providing comprehensive planning assistance, urban design, town planning, and redevelopment initiatives, as well as model regulatory documents.18

Statewide planning practices can provide discipline and coordination on a large scale. If an entire state embraces policies that do not foster sprawl, the repair of suburbia will be more feasible, as state resources will be channeled to incentivize sustainable growth. Projects such as Envision Utah and Louisiana Speaks endeavor to create coordinated solutions for their states’ growth and outline opportunities for infill and repair.

At the federal level, agencies have come together to address growth in a holistic, multi-disciplinary manner that should help with sprawl repair. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced an interagency partnership for sustainable communities. Their goal is to coordinate federal housing, transportation, and other infrastructure investments to protect the environment, promote equitable development, and help address the challenges of climate change. The growing awareness of climate change presents an opportunity to create complete and sustainable communities through redevelopment, as new smart growth policies become the norm.

This is an opportunity for sprawl repair initiatives to be combined with federal funding, and possibly legislation. However, without the clear goals of physical change through sprawl repair, funding and legislation will not be sufficient to achieve the repair of our unsustainable suburbs. Concrete, practical tools are needed, and the Sprawl Repair Manual provides a full range—from the region, where federal and state incentives will be needed, to the single structure, where private investments and individual commitments will be required.

Learn more at www.SprawlRepair.com.

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