Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Suburban sprawl: a costly, inefficient way to build a community

by Will Gregory
Jan. 23, 2008

"Sprawling suburbs are arguably the most economically, environmentally, and socially costly pattern of residential development humans have ever devised."
From Urban Sprawl to Sustainable Human Communities
Mark Roseland and William Rees

" Walking in Benicia’s downtown helps me keep a promise. I want to see the world in green, or walk more gently in the world and prevent further irreversible damage to the planet.’
Benicia Mayor- Elizabeth Patterson

" They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."
Singer,song-writer, Joni Mitchell

Recently, out of curiosity I was going over the final thoughts and comments on the web site. I read an interesting note from Councilman Tom Butt from Richmond. He mentioned smart growth and something called the Ahwanhee Principles. Being the curious type, I looked it up. I thought it might be interesting to share this data with the community.

But first I wanted to comment on this idea that mayor Patterson brought up on Dec.4th in the council chambers." Patterson addressed‘ fears’ that she was ‘a zealot tree hugging conservationist,’ by saying that she is zealous about the environment and has a vision of Benicia becoming the green gate to Solano County." (Benicia Herald- "New city council takes over" 12/6/07)

One of the biggest myths is that environmental protection hurts the economy. It doesn’t take much research to prove this wrong.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Stephen Meyer posed the question : Does environmental protection and regulation hinder economic growth, job creation, and overall production, as some business groups maintain?

He evaluated and ranked the 50 states based on two sets of criteria: Economic prosperity (gross domestic product, total employment, and productivity); and breadth and depth of environmental programs. Meyers found that:

* States with stronger environmental policies consistently out-perform the weaker environmental states on all economic measures.
* the pursuit of environmental quality does not hinder economic growth and development.
* there appears to be moderate, yet consistent, positive association between environmentalism and economic growth; and
* there is no evidence that relaxing environmental standards will produce economic growth.

Mayor Patterson idea of a green gate to Solano County is buttressed by another study- by the Institute of Southern Studies- Briefly stated: " The states that do the most to protect their natural resources also wind up with the strongest economies and the best jobs for their citizens."
(Source: Better not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community. Eben Fodor. 2001.)

It would seem that Mayor Patterson has her hand firmly on the- environmental stewardship- rudder and is steering the community in the right direction.

With Solano County in the process of updating its General Plan and with counties like Marin and Ventura adopting the Ahwanhee Principles- I thought it might be of interest to community members to know about these innovative ideas. ( Note: there are no members of the Solano County GP Committee from Benicia ?)

The Ahwahnee Principles for Resource-efficient Communities were presented in 1991 at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park and written by members of the Local Government Commission. ( Excellent site: )

These principles provide a blueprint for elected officials to create compact, mixed use, walkable transit oriented development in local communities; cities and counties across the nation have adopted them to break the cycle of sprawl.

Community Principles:
1. All planning should be in the form of complete and integrated communities containing housing, shops, work places, schools, parks and civic facilities essential to the daily life of residents.
2. Community size should be designed so that housing, jobs, daily needs and other activities are within easy walking distance of each other.
3. As many activities as possible should be located within easy walking distance of transit shops.
4. A community should contain a diversity of housing types to enable citizens from a wide range of economic levels and age groups to live within its boundaries.
5. Businesses within the community should provide a range of job types for the communities residents.
6. The location and character of the community should be consistent with a larger transit network.
7. The community should have a center focus that combines commercial, civic, cultural and recreational uses.
8. The community should contain an ample supply of specialized open space in the form of squares, greens, and parks whose frequent use is encouraged through placement and design.
9. Public spaces should be be designed to encourage the attention and presence of people at all hours of the day and night.
10. Each community or cluster of communities should have a well defined edge, such as agricultural greenbelts or wildlife corridors, permanently protected from development.
11. Streets, pedestrian paths and bike paths should contribute to a system of fully-connected and interesting routes to all destinations. Their design should encourage pedestrian and bicycle use by being small and spatially defined by buildings, trees, and lighting; and by discouraging high speed traffic.
12. Wherever possible, the natural terrain, drainage and vegetation of the community should be preserved with superior examples contained within parks or greenbelts.
13. The community design should help conserve resources and minimize waste.
14. Communities should provide for the efficient use of water through the use of natural drainage, drought tolerant landscaping and recycling.
15. The street orientation, the placement of buildings and the use of shading should contribute to energy efficiency of the community.

Finally, the late Jane Jacobs in her book -"The Death and Life of Great American Cities"(1961) sums it up best if we don’t control sprawl and excessive growth.

" Traffic arteries, along with parking lots and filling stations, are powerful and insistent instruments of city destruction. To accommodate them, city streets are broken down into loose sprawls, incoherent and vacuous for anyone afoot. Downtowns and other neighborhoods that were marvels of close grained intricacy and compact mutual support are casually disemboweled. Landmarks are crumbled or are so sundered from their contexts in city life as to become irrelevant trivialities. City character is blurred until every place becomes like every other place, all adding up to Noplace."