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Monday, March 27, 2006


Governmental flaw cuts both ways

I've suggested in class that I believe the fundamental problem regarding sprawl relates not to transportation times or excessive land use, as these are all natural outcomes of consumption, but rather inefficient local government. I believe this to be so, largely because local government must provide infrastructure to the vast tracts of low density space, but its unimaginable that government could keep up with the pace of the free market driven real estate market.
However, in researching for the paper, I came upon the above article. Basically, a group of new urbanism developers bought an isolated piece of property, intending to develop it into a successful and self contained New Urbanist community. They sited many potential advantages, many of which we've discussed in class, however, much more interesting are the reasons for its failure. The first major disadvantage was that they choose a tract of land that was simply too far away to justify the convenience of high density containment. I found this amusing, as a fundamental argument against the evils of sprawl involves long commuter times. Naturally, they tried to establish an employment center within the community, but then a series of large scale corruption scandals related to the construction and development were revealed, and the community has totally stagnated. I believe that this highlights the main reason why New Urbanism is destined for (at best) mediocrity. Though we talk about the 'all knowing planer' in the context of a perfect city, perhaps we must also call this person, the incorruptible planner. An additional irony is found in a fact I read related to the topic. According to the Congress for New Urbanism, about half of the NU projects are geared towards 'suburban fill', while the other half is called 'green land-fill', meaning the establishment of a community on previously undeveloped space. As I consider these two topics, it seems that the command economy element of this movement are already rearing its inefficient head. Instead of more densely packed, efficient cities, we may soon see America's heart land (the breeding ground for sprawl) dotted with failed NU communities, established too far way to be of any use and sunk by corruption, actively and wastefully consuming land, which the movement supposedly desires to protect.

Perhaps one aspect of NU as we see it in this news story as well as around the country that is neglected by the story is that it seems likely that in many places zoning restrictions bar what would be NU development. The developers of a NU project might prefer to not place their development so far from employment and city centers, but to do so may require winning the political fight to change zoning to allow their plans.

There may well be a landscape in the future with failed NU developments. Even so, it may also be a bit difficult to figure out why. Perhaps the NU idea is not going to be liked by uncoerced choices, or perhaps NU is really an idea best suited to political choices and subsidies by governments, or perhaps NU will find that the politicians can't be persuaded to change zoning rules.
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