Thursday, May 17, 2012

An Era Of Sprawl Mitigation

North Carolina prides itself on a diverse sense of place, but newcomers and visitors nearly always sum it up in one word – trees.

But trees and forestland aren’t a given in a state that is already 125% more densely populated then the national average.  Thanks to a study of urban trees in nearby Tennessee, we know that the replacement value of North Carolina’s 1.4 million acres of urban forest would be more than $86 billion.

More than $13 million of that is the replacement value for just those urban trees along transportation corridors through North Carolina’s cities and towns.

So why in this time of fiscal crisis were outdoor billboard allies permitted to sneak a bill through the last legislative session that sacrifices huge swaths of these publicly-owned roadside trees with no requirement for payment or replanting or respect for local values?

Why is it that the legislature is willing to sacrifice hundreds of urban roadside trees, each valued at $76.26 annually according to economists, just to increase already-adequate visibility for outdoor billboards which are valued at only $57 in annual property taxes, both in 2008 dollars?

Where is the fiscal sense in that?  Why aren’t outdoor billboard companies being required to not only pay for and replace these trees but the scenic easements they take without compensating the public?

In fact, why aren’t outdoor billboards assessed the cost of the roadways upon which they prey and the costs of sprawl for which they have gleefully taken credit since the 1920s?

The good news is that although North Carolina is 28% more densely populated than neighboring Tennessee, it has managed to retain or reforest 8% more urban forest.

The last few years during the economic slowdown represented a huge missed opportunity for urban forests and developers alike when during the economic slowdown, cities, towns, counties and states elected to slash planning budgets instead.households

This would have been a perfect opportunity to take a breather to make or update “detailed, long-term projections of all development needs” and to conduct in-depth “inventories and assessments of current land-use patterns and development potential” as recommended by a 2004 study by the Brookings Institution.

It is good news that the authors projected that only 1/3rd to 1/2 as much of the new/replacement development taking place between 2000 and 2030 will be sprawl.  More interest in new urbanism and better infill or replacement development, as well as adaptive reuse of historic structures, is all positive but these trends require more planning, not less.

Cities like Durham, NC, where I live, have been asked to sacrifice developable land so down stream communities like Raleigh could grow; but now our community is also being asked to shoulder more than its share of improvements to that water quality without access to the assessed value it made possible there.

The good news is that it means a good proportion of Durham is set aside in natural area-watershed.  More good news is that one of the mitigation strategies will be to convert developed parcels into park-like and reforested pocket wetlands in neighborhoods.

More good sprawl-mitigating news is that much of the new growth/replacement development being forecast for the future can take place in parking lots.  The Urban Land Institute projects that America is one-third over-parked.  This means that not only can parking areas be reduced but there is an opportunity to greatly improve the parking that remains by requiring far better tree planting.

Judging from the lots around the places I shop in Durham, this community is one-half or more over-parked to use the Institute’s term.

But developers don’t like surprises.  A compact community like Durham (fourth or fifth largest city shoehorned into the 17th smallest county in terms of land area) City-County Planning must be more adequately funded and updating ordinances must be done with far more intensity.

The Brookings Institution report projects that by 2030, half of all existing development will have been built since 2000.  The proportion is even higher in the South.  Two-thirds of all of that development will be driven by growth and replacement – valued at $23 trillion – more than any other generation.

For example, 38.8 million units of residential will be needed to address new population growth but 20.1 million units will represent replacement of units lost for various reasons resulting in the need for 58.9 million new units of residential in America between 2000 and 2030.

Dr. Laura L Carstensen, the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in a recent TED talk said that “culture is that crucible that holds science and technology and wide-scale changes in behavior that improve health and well being.”

One of her Center’s reports continued:

“The US Census Bureau projects that the over-sixty-five population in the United States will grow from thirty-five million in 2000 to seventy-two million in 2030 to eighty-nine million in 2050.

The number of people eighty-five and over will grow from 4.2 million in 2000 to 9 million in 2030 to 19 million in 2050.

Dr. Sherwin Nuland tells us in his book, The Art of Aging, that today 64 percent of Americans can expect to live to seventy-five and 35 percent should plan to reach eighty-five.”

So obviously older Americans will have a lot to say about our ability to grow while minimizing if not reversing sprawl and protecting our nation’s life support system:

“… an interconnected network  of waterways, wetlands, woodlands, wildlife  habitats, and other natural  areas; greenways, parks and other conservation lands; working farms, ranches and forests; and wilderness and other open spaces that support  native species, maintain natural ecological  processes, sustain air and water resources and contribute  to the health and quality of life for America’s communities and people.”

New Realities of an Older America, a Stanford longevity center report published in 2010 notes that the “number of households in America grew from 63 million to 111 million since 1970 – of the 48 million increase, 30 million settled in the suburbs.”

Now the number of older suburban households has tripled, as have the number of single person households.  The nursing home population has hovered around 1.3 million since 1985.

But as the report notes, this will change.  “The number of 85+ Americans in nursing homes will double between 2030 and 2050.  The choices older Americans make about housing have the potential to re-shape our communities just as dramatically as their suburban choices and dramatically larger home sizes did since 1970.

We’ve come a long way since it emerged a hundred years ago but today there is no more critical investment we can make than in robust and reinvigorated urban planning.

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