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Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Strategy to Roll Back Sprawl and Rebuild Civilization

by Richard Register

Culture Change (Issue 16)


Everyone reading this magazine knows the automobile / sprawl / highways / oil infrastructure is dragging us way, way down. And it's somewhat fashionable now to skewer sprawl on its zillion disasters, which is fine, but let's try to do it right. Let's don't just slow it down a bit. Let's roll it back. Let's get some of those bulldozers working for us because we need big time depaving, whole suburbs at a time, the whole "civilization". To be realistic, it would be a few generations of time. To those advocating more efficient cars, improved suburbs, and slow painful progress toward greenbelt acquisition, a little here, a little there, let it be said that you can't cross the chasm in baby steps. The gradualists and baby steppers are helpful in some ways, but when we have to completely rebuild the infrastructure on ecological principles, it pays to know what we are up to, to spend the time getting ready for a different approach - then make the big effort and jump that chasm.

I maintain that the particular jump we need to make is from the haphazardly built community oblivious to ecology. It amounts to reshaping the city, town and village for pedestrians, not cars, not even transit. San Francisco has a transportation policy called "transit first". We need a whole new (and ancient at the same time) approach that could be called "pedestrian first". To get that, we need to design for it in the first place. We've been building essentially the wrong thing for the last 150 years. We've been building the civilization for machines (and those who profit by them) rather than the civilization for people and all other living things.

The built community, our home, is overlooked in the debacle of our biosphere. Our physical creations fail to help make us creative and wise after all we have learned. Our home is in a shambles, dis-integrated, blown out over the landscape to vast distances, stitched back together grotesquely by smoldering, ravenous varicose veins of asphalt and concrete called freeways. Our home is suffocating the surface of the earth with paving, lawns and endless rooftops, displacing more natural habitats and agricultural lands by millions of acres every year. To live in this land-use/infrastructure, this physical anatomy of the built community, is to constantly be taught to keep on making profoundly destructive mistakes. The way out is, very largely, the vision of the ecologically healthy city, town and village and the strategy to get there - the jump across the chasm.

The sprawl-eating dragon

Imagine for a moment there could be a beautiful dragon sitting in our midst, harmless to us, in fact quite friendly, but horrifying to asphalt parking lots, gas stations and ticky-tacky sprawl. Our ravenous reptilian friend gobbles up little pieces of sprawl one or a few at a time, leaving behind ever growing patches of nature and agriculture, which over time multiply, consolidate and turn into natural landscapes with spectacular biodiversity and rich soils for farming. Where vast sprawling cities had parks under whiskey colored skies, now cities, towns and villages are islands of much smaller size surrounded by a richness of species and agriculture known only to a deep past and the best of organic farming, all under the bright blue with clean white clouds that used to be normal in most parts of the world.

The dragon is the city, town and village center of the future, a kind of compact cluster of buildings linked by pedestrian streets and bridges between buildings, permeated by mid-block pedestrian passage ways, arranged around public plazas, sun angles and natural features like creeks, dramatic rock outcroppings, monumental trees and celebrated local views. The dragon gets somewhat bigger (taller buildings, relatively speaking) while sprawl gets radically smaller. The dragon is interesting because it grows by nibbling away at the once-spreading rot, not by sitting in a natural field and eating that up.

If the friendly big dragon is the town center sucking up the suburbs steadily over decades, how does it do it? What's the trick? It turns out there are many tricks and these are the tools of rolling back sprawl. Here are some of those tools, just for you, because if you are reading this publication you are already among the few with the curiosity and probably the commitment to apply them.

The "Double Transfer of Development Rights" or "Double TDR"

Transfer of development rights (or TDR) is a legal/financial arrangement in which the rights to build on a piece of land are sold to a developer. These rights are then transferred to another place where building makes more sense. For example, a farmer might sell the rights to build on the farm to a developer who then builds housing in a neighboring town rather than build suburban sprawl on the farm. The farmer and those who might buy or inherit the farm in the future will never have the right to build more than exists there already. Thus the preserving of open space is assured. The developer is allowed to build more than he or she would otherwise be permitted to build, and if the ordinances by which this arrangement was established were informed by ecological awareness, then that location would be part of a highly mixed use part of town and close to efficient transit.

The "Double" TDR does one more thing: it restores. It does this by removing buildings and re-creating the open space of nature or agriculture. It does this by "de-developing" at the same time it transfers development elsewhere. It "unfills" at the same time it "infills". Ordinances encouraging this kind of real estate transaction must be written so that the developer has a strong incentive and the citizens have better access to housing, jobs, shops, transit, cultural life and nature and agriculture. If Double TDR programs become popular, a very powerful tool for reversing sprawl and building a healthy community will have been created.

The Ecocity Zoning Map

This is a map that identifies the centers of town that should be increased in density and diversity of "land uses" and identifies the areas farthest from those centers that should be a high priority for withdrawing from automobile dependent development. Special features of high ecological importance are also located on these maps, such as buried or degraded creeks, shorelines and marshes, ridgelines, natural rock outcroppings, historic trees and so on.

The ecocity zoning map directs the shaping of the city and the restoring of nature - with special benefit to educating children about nature and healthy communities. It is a new game board that is fair to all players. Environmentalists and business people can both study the map and see that it is supportive of both nature and development - so long as the right development is placed in the right location.

The Double TDR Bank

Any non-profit or any municipality can create a fund to buy land and sell development rights so that they can be shifted to other parts of town. City ordinance must define the process and identify where the rights can be sent from ("sending sites") and where they can be exercised ("receiving sites'), that is, where more can be built. Double TDR Banks can do this after the municipality has passed such ordinances or even before, to demonstrate that there is resolve and support for the reshaping of the city in this way among the citizens. If funds are gathered from donations from individuals, foundations, businesses, governments or any combination of those, the original nest egg turns into land and buildings at the time of purchase. The building or buildings are then removed and nature, agriculture or other open space restored. Then at the time the developer buys the development rights for use elsewhere, the fund is recapitalized and the land maintained or deeded over to the City, a land trust, community group or other steward. The Double TDR Bank is thus again in the position of buying more real estate for further transformation of the urban structure and further restoration.

Should-be Open Space Acquisition Fund

City, state and federal governments can set up funds to purchase open space for parks, gardens, sports fields, creek and shoreline restoration and so on. They should also help buy real estate where buildings are in the wrong place in regard to automobile dependence, floods, agriculture, efficient urban structure and so on. These funds could be called "Should-be Open Space Acquisition Funds" since the land is not open at the time the fund is exercised to purchase the land with its existing development, which could include buildings, driveways, walls and culverts and other "improvements".

Since replacing economically productive real estate with open space provides no new means to raise rent or sell new development, considerable money has to be provided up front. It's expensive. Thus if the costs of acquiring the development rights are unrealistically high for the developer, they do not have to be if a partnership between governments and developer is created, that is, if they all contribute to the purchase of the property. Later on the federal government will save money by not having to build as much highway development, city government will make more money in taxes from the increased development built by the developer who buys the transferable development rights, and the developer makes more money by being able to build more.

The car-free condominium or apartment

City ordinances almost always demand that developers provide parking whenever they construct buildings. This is expensive and stuffs the streets with cars, their hazard, pollution, and other tragedies. Yet there are millions of people who are happy to save money and who even relish living in an exciting and pleasant city without owning a car. Buildings should be built for them; they stress the society and the planet far less than car owners. We should help them live the beneficial way they desire to live.

Ecological Building Features

These features could be demanded of developers who are allowed to build to higher densities in city and town centers. They include terracing, rooftop gardens, solar greenhouses, simple windscreens to make rooftop uses pleasant, rooftop restaurants and promenades, bridges between buildings, mid-block street-level pedestrian passageways, design that relates to adjacent public plazas, creek restoration, pedestrian streets, street orchards and more.

Heart of the City Projects

These are projects that create buildings and open spaces that embody the inter relation of all the essential components of an ecologically healthy built and natural environment in one location. For example, a Heart of the City Project could create a public plaza, pedestrian street, housing with ecological features, new shops and office space and transit all together in one location with nature welcomed into the environment in the form of a restored creek or special view to nature from the town center. A proper Heart of the City Project would have to be in the center of the city, but there could be smaller Heart of the Neighborhood Projects incorporating an element of nature too.

A Roll Back Sprawl Campaign

These projects are all new tools for ecological city-building. Their recent appearance is good timing because at this very moment, as Vice President Al Gore declares sprawl a disaster and offers funding for open space land acquisition and other steps to fight sprawl, society seems to be catching on at long last, after so much of the damage has been done. But maybe not catching on enough to make that leap over the chasm.

Taken collectively, the tools described above almost constitute the beginning of a strategy to roll back sprawl. I say almost because we may find that to activate the tools faster than society is building cars, low density housing, highways and oil we may need a concerted strategy. Presently the many environmental and preservation organizations with anti-sprawl programs are not employing the sprawl-removing tools. They don't have the vision of the friendly big dragon that is the ecological city, town and village center, that's gobbling up the suburbs while building an architecture and arrangement of buildings and open spaces that celebrate life systems. They are cautiously avoiding the frontal attack on cars and highways, weaving an inconsistent and confusing if hopefully "politic" picture that demonizes sprawl yet says we can make better cars.

But if we finally say the whole car / sprawl / highway / cheap energy infrastructure needs to be replaced with the person / compact and diverse land use / foot, bike and rail system for access / with natural energy systems, and if we apply tools like the above to the problem, we can finally bring humanity's home into balance with the home nature has provided for all us living creatures. We can roll back sprawl and begin to build right in the first place.

For more information contact Richard Register at Ecocity Builders:

Culture Change mailing address: Post Office Box 4347 , Arcata , California 95518 USA
Telephone (and fax) 1-215-243-3144

Culture Change was founded by Sustainable Energy Institute (formerly Fossil Fuels Policy Action), a nonprofit organization.

Bill Totten


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