Experts discuss benefits of Smart Growth
Warning issued against sprawl development
By Jesse Chadderdon
Brandywine Community News - June 2, 2006
National experts speaking at a recent Smart Growth Symposium warned against the dangers of sprawl development and the growing demand for mixeduse, walkable and transit-oriented communities.
The symposium, held May 22 at the New Castle County’s Gilliam Building in New Castle, featured talks by three national leaders of the “Smart Growth” movement, who stressed benefits of higher density, more pedestrian-friendly communities to about 100 public officials, civic leaders and developers.
Mark Kleinschmidt, president of the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce, which organized the event, said the future of the county would, in large part, be defined by future growth patterns.
“There is a lot at stake for both the economy and for quality of life in New
Castle County,” he said. “Our dependence on automobiles has spread people about
this county and we’ve lost a sense of place as a result. We have to go ‘back to the future’ when it comes to thinking about future development.”
Speakers included former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, now president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington and a developer, and Michael Watkins of the firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., a highly respected development firm specializing in traditional planning.
Glendening spoke about how and why he aggressively fought sprawl in Maryland, citing health and environmental concerns, and now economic factors.
He said sprawl eats up open space and contributes to obesity because of the reliance on automobiles, but he said with rising gas prices, sprawl is no longer economically viable.
“We should be creating mixed-use development patterns with transit options and a reduced emphasis on driving, especially as we near the age of the $5.00 gallon
of gas,” Glendening said. “The average American makes seven car trips in a day. Imagine if you could reduce that number by even 2 or 3 trips because you could walk to the corner store or the dry cleaners or to school.”
In 1997, Glendening instituted Smart Growth planning throughout Maryland. Basically he said, the plan was a simple one – provide incentives for developers to build in designated preferred growth areas already equipped with infrastructure such as sewer and roadways.
“It was a change in philosophy that said, yes, we want economic development
in our state, but we’re not going to support any growth anywhere, and at any cost,” he said.
In some of those designated areas the minimum density is 3.5 units per acre.
New Castle County’s Unified Development Code sets a maximum density of 1.3 units per acre.
“In the end, the government has to stop subsidizing sprawl,” he warned.
Leinberger argued the moving towards Smart Growth planning is more than a
smart policy change. “It’s what people want,” he said. “The market is changing. People want to live in environmentally, fiscally, socially and financially sustainable development of walkable spaces."
At least 40 percent of the population would prefer to live in a high-density urban setting or in compact single-family housing, Leinberger said. And that number is expected to continue trending up, he said, as the cost of gasoline continues to rise.
But that demand is going largely unmet, he said, in large part because of
misguided zoning laws and what Leinberger called Nimbyism, referring to people who are weary of higher density mixed-use communities “in their backyard.”
“In many ways, the Nimbyism makes sense,” he said. “The real estate community has been building sprawl communities for decades and are now starting to say ‘trust us, it would be much better if we did it a completely different way and what we’re going to build now will be much better.’ That is why governments have to get involved and change the zoning laws, so people can see that this isn’t so bad.”
Leinberger said one study indicates that in order to make housing affordable
and communities sustainable, 80 percent of the housing stock built over the next 40 years should be set in “walkable urbanity.”
“In 2040, half of the large lot singlefamily homes being built now will not
find a buyer,” he said.
Watkins approached the subject of Smart Growth from an engineering perspective, and discussed how his firm, which has been contracted to rebuild much of hurricane-ravaged Mississippi, designs its communities.
“I wonder if here in Delaware, at the rate you are losing farms, whether the
urgency here shouldn’t be almost that of the Gulf Coast,” he said.
Watkins said community planning wasn’t about telling people where to live,
rather it is a way to give people choices. “Some Americans think it is their Godgiven right to save 17 cents on toilet paper by driving all the way ‘there’ to do it,” he said. “But what we have is an issue of allocation. We’re blurring the distinction of a hamlet and a downtown.”
Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. use what Watkins described as “transect-based zoning,”
which basically offers design guidelines for six different zones within a single
community so that each has its own character and utility.
“All of our communities were illegal at the time of their design,” he said. “We had to get the governments to change their land use laws before we could build.”
County Executive Chris Coons said he was looking forward to working with county council on revamping the Unified Development Code to foster more Smart Growth communities in the county.
“We’re at a point where good planning ideas 75-100 years ago are coming back and we have an important opportunity to re-imagine and revitalize our communities,” he said.
Councilman Robert Weiner (R-Chatham), who helped organize the symposium and is a leading Smart Growth advocate on council, said things have to change.
“It’s all about choices,” he said. “New Castle County government currently
incentivizes only sprawl. Just level the playing field and let the natural market forces allow people to really have a choice as between sprawl and Smart
Growth. It’s not too late to incentivize a re-filing of some sprawl plans by some developers to Smart Growth plans.”
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