Suburbs in need of smart planning

July 13, 2004

Researchers seek more efficient land use at the urban edge

Inman News

Many outlying rings of urban areas—where most development activity will continue to occur—are headed down a land-consumptive, sprawling course that must be changed to preserve the economic, social and environmental well-being of these communities, according to industry experts assembled by the Urban Land Institute.

ULI recently held a series of events, including a forum for public officials and a separate workshop, both in Washington, D.C., and a conference in La Jolla, Calif., to examine development in the greenfields and solutions for better growth in the suburbs. The topic of suburban smart growth, a priority for ULI Chairman Harry H. Frampton III, is part of the Institute's ongoing search for more efficient land development patterns throughout urban regions.

While several downtowns experienced population increases over the past decade, U.S. Census Bureau data indicates that more than 60 percent of urban population growth occurred in the outer-ring neighborhoods, compared to just 11 percent in the inner-core neighborhoods. At each of the events exploring ways to accommodate this outer-ring growth, participants discussed the need for a fundamental shift in fringe development, which typically is characterized by low-density, isolated land uses, and auto-dependent design. To combat such problems as traffic gridlock and loss of open space resulting from this design, more choices are needed in live-work-play environments in the outlying areas, participants said. Such alternative development, they said, should result in communities designed to connect land uses, rather than divide; promote inclusivity and socializing, rather than exclusivity and seclusion; and provide more mixed-use, mixed-income designs that reduce auto dependency and less segregated-use, auto-oriented designs.

While "large-home, large-lot" developments still dominate fringe development, there are a growing number of communities, specifically master-planned communities, that provide clusters of mixed-use development, including a variety of housing styles, in a walkable design while preserving substantial open space. Such development—often called smart growth—is in response to market demand for alternatives to traditional designs built for cars rather than people, participants noted. "We don't do things that the market does not ask for," said forum participant Randolph Lyon Jr., of The Ginn Co. in Celebration, Fla. Development that incorporates smart growth concepts is "an articulation of the frustration in the marketplace with what has been developed. The market is looking for better and they are looking for it now," he said.

Public officials forum participant Carol Marinovich, mayor of Kansas City, Kan., pointed out that the needs of urban and suburban communities are seldom planned in tandem. "Too often, planning occurs in isolation," she said. A well-organized, detailed plan to raise awareness among public officials and the public of the consequences of unfettered growth is critical to reshaping growth in a sustainable way, she noted.

The value of using community education to achieve public buy-in was illustrated by Natalie Gochnour, associate administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who described the process of creating Envision Utah, a statewide plan to improve community growth patterns, fund transportation systems and conserve open space. "The core issue (driving the plan's approval) was a sense of loss of open space, or of open space that might be lost," she said. The plan's crafters promoted regional thinking by avoiding references to federal, state and local actions and instead presenting "solutions that transcend boundaries," she said. According to Gochnour, any process that seeks to accomplish positive change must include a major investment in planning; a realization that the process takes substantial time to create and even longer to implement (so it must withstand political upheaval); and provide solid proof that "you are leaving things better."

At the smart growth solutions workshop, participants noted that improving growth in a consistent manner entails cooperation among different jurisdictions that might perceive themselves as competitors for new development. "The edge is a complicated political and demographic terrain. The newly built places that were yesterday's edge now have a ring of just-developing places encircling them, and the newly built worry that the exurbs will offer themselves as a cheaper alternative...If smart growth at the edge is to work, both these places must buy into the process," said workshop participant Robert E. Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Technical Institute in Alexandria, Va.

Workshop participants—including developers, urban designers, market specialists, urban planners, transportation specialists and academics—visited three fringe neighborhoods in the Washington metro area, analyzing various approaches applied to land use, open space, the environment, transportation, housing, development regulation, market factors and design. Workshop chairman Daniel C. Van Epp, president of the Howard Hughes Corporation in Las Vegas, pointed out that the "how" of building better at the edge might be the most important component, taking higher priority than what to build or where to build it.

At "Developing Master-Planned Communities: Smart Growth at the Edge," held recently in La Jolla, Calif., panelists focused on how master-planned communities can play a key role in fostering more efficient growth in outlying areas. Several case studies of "suburban smart growth" were provided, including communities in Bonita Springs, Fla.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Los Angeles; Denver; and San Francisco. Although the communities are different, the common factor behind the success of each was the creation of a sense of place that brings residents together. Another key factor is connecting the community to the greater area through transportation alternatives and services such as shopping and shared recreational amenities so the community appeals to visitors, as well as residents, panelists noted.

"Master-planned communities allow you to see the entire picture…There is a process for creating sustainable growth patterns, beginning with extensive community research, applying smart growth principles, developing a vision, and ultimately, gaining community support through the explanation of that vision and building trust," said conference chairman Donald E. Killoren, principal, Celebration Associates LLC, Fort Mill, S.C. "It's about crafting, not building. These are not production-oriented communities. To do them right, there is a crafting element that begins with understanding local history, identifying landmarks and important environmental features and supporting local architecture…Things that you do on the front end may not pay off in a year or two, but if you have a large community, they will ultimately pay a dividend. In a master-planned community, you're able to think long term, and long term is the smarter move."

The Urban Land Institute is a nonprofit education and research institute supported by its members. Its mission is to provide responsible leadership in the use of land to enhance the total environment. Established in 1936, the Institute has more than 20,000 members representing all aspects of land use and development disciplines.

Copyright: Inman News Features

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