Susan Brooks

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How do we fix the sprawl?

I'm from Houston. Actually, just outside Houston, but near enough to it to make my point. I live in the suburbs. My city is very spawled. Once a city has already been built around the need of a car, how would/could that town "fix" the infrastructure to allow it to be more walkable? What's the first step? Who do I need to talk to in my local government to try to get these changes made?

  • Nov 10 2013: There's hope! Check out my TEDx talk on Retrofitting Suburbia. It's based on the book of the same name that June Williamson and I wrote and continue to research. My database now has over 800 examples of dead malls, vacant big boxes, aging commercial strip corridors etc that have been reinhabited with more community-serving uses; redeveloped into more walkable, compact urban places; or regreened into parks, reconstructed wetlands, or community gardens. There are different strategies for introducing walkable infrastructure into existing sprawl (it's not easy - it tends to happen in chunks) and even more importantly, changing the public works standards so that new development is in a walkable street network in the first place.
    http://www.ted.com/talks/ellen_dunham_jones_retrofitting_suburbia.html

    Ellen Dunham-Jones
    Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology
    • Nov 11 2013: Wonderful stuff. It will be despised on TED because it is practical, non-extremist, doesn't steal even more money as "taxes" and does not exponentially increase government power. How dare you be useful and present ideas that might actually work?
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      Nov 21 2013: Great talk Ellen, with good examples that what we are addressing in this discussion is happening NOW!
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    Nov 21 2013: Do you mean there are incentives for building within already developed boundaries rather than developing new tracts of land, or increased density and multi use new developments? I am not a planner and don't have much personal experience; I am speaking more from the perspective of having lived most of my life in Europe with old established cities, good public transportation to get around the city and of course some suburbs connected to the city trough the public transportation. Here where I live subdivisions and houses are built all over and deep into the woods.
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      Nov 21 2013: Anairda,
      I am the one who mentioned incentives, so I assume this question is for me?

      Yes, our local zoning regulations, which are consistent with state and regional regs allow more unit development (planned unit development) on smaller parcels of land. With this plan and zoning regulations, a developer can put 3 buildings on an acre of land in the village designation, rather than one building on 2 acres outside the designated growth center. Even better, is building one large complex with multi use possibilities. So, ultimately, the developer is getting more money for one acre, because there are multiple units, with multiple uses.

      We also have a state economic development board which approves growth districts which are designated by the towns. When people develop or redevelop within the designated growth districts, there are tax credits available, and various grants that are not available to development outside the growth district. There are also tax credits and various grants available to encourage and support reuse/repurposing of old buildings.

      When we are planning high density, designated growth centers, transportation is an important consideration, including public transportation, as well as safe bike/pedestrian corridors.
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    Nov 21 2013: Hi Coleen, Vincent sorry for the delay getting back here. I will have to watch Ellen Dunham's presentation ; thank you for sharing Colleen. I watched Jeff Speck's talk which is followed by some very good comments. Seems like there are two positions regarding this issue: the urban planners and the people concerned about environment and 'green living' that promote implementing an urban growth boundary and those that think they should have the right to live as they please with little regard to future generations.( dis considering the developers and large tract landowners that want to maximize the value of the land) For those accepting urban sprawl I only have a question: how far can you go with this? obviously there is a limit to the land. I personally oppose the view that we OWN the land; Our life is a fraction of the life of the land.... I think we should think more in terms that we are using it during our life time and then leave it to future generations to use.
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      Nov 21 2013: In my experience with planning and development Anairda, I do not perceive two different positions with planners and people concerned about the environment. In fact, as a member of the regional project review committee, I am observing more and more people coming together in favor of planned development in densely populated village areas.

      You mention "those that think they should have the right to live as they please with little regard to future generations". People can still live that way if they choose. Since there are incentives for multi use/multi-unit complexes in our state, regional and local plans, landowners are not really maximizing the value of the land by choosing sprawl rather than well planned and developed densely populated community-type projects.
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    Nov 21 2013: Hi Coleen,
    Two things, The Chinese proverb doesn't apply to lemmings....
    And then, why is urbanization a good thing?
    I have been in areas that are urbanized.... and yes with all the "benefits" of close in living.
    No thanks... I am not a sardine, I like open spaces.
    But as a former Engineer and Community Planer....Your referenced TED talker said things I agree with
    and have championed even in these conversations. For over 75 years it has been noted and known that
    Urban/Suburban centers have a finite practical limit of 100K population. More then that and there are exponential
    increases in infrastructure. Further to environmentally support our little town, it would need a 30 mile belt around it...farms, fields and forest. She did say one thing, I had not previously heard in that she proposed a green space on streams and rivers... that's good.
    About those malls et. el. she talked about converting into urban centers.... I say.... tear down the buildings, rip up the parking lots and plant trees, flowers and shrubs. Abandoned buildings and homes in urban areas? Same treatment.

    There are 20 million people living in the LA basin, at onetime one of the most pristine places in the world... look at urbanization there. Look at the tens of millions living between Boston and Northern Virginia... that's living? Even if they can all live highrise units and walk to work.... I have no love for urbanization. or ant hills.

    You ask where I would live in my town of 100K? On the edge of the city where I could see 30 miles of green out my back door.
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      Nov 21 2013: Mike,
      This concept is not necessarily good for everyone. In Vermont, we encourage densely populated village areas, and there are still lots of people who live outside these areas, and live the lifestyle they choose. I have several friends who built homes on large parcels of land, off the grid, and they are doing their own thing. Those who like open spaces can still pursue their personal preferences:>)
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    Nov 20 2013: Your local government could limit sprawl through policy; in theory they could establish a boundary of urban growth. In reality is hard to accomplish because of politics and the democratic system where they have to listen to property owners and their rights to live as they please. In my opinion what was done it cannot be 'undone', at least not in our life time...the mentality has to change. Not sure if it happens the same in other places (maybe in Australia?)
    • Nov 20 2013: Who's mentality needs to change.

      I did a stint in politics and quickly realized that it was my mentality that was changed. There are no easy answers and no clear cut boundaries marking the right way to live. Those people thatcare clear on the right way to do things are the most troubling.
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      Nov 20 2013: Anairda and Vincent,
      I suggest that for a plan to work well, everyone needs to be working cooperatively toward the same goal. Which means that if some people are politically or financially motivated for their own personal gain, it doesn't work.

      We had this situation in the village where I live years ago.....the local government was driven by a handful of people who were concerned ONLY with their personal gain. Therefor, the rules and regulations were molded around what those people wanted for themselves.

      Unfortunately, there were a lot of things done that adversely impacted the community, and only served to fill certain people's pockets. I don't agree Anairda, that what was done cannot be undone. Although there are some things that cannot be changed, there are certainly some things that can be changed.

      I observe Vincent, that people who profess to be clear on the "right way to do things", are probably telling everyone that their idea is "right" because that is what they want for themselves. A sustainable community, that benefits individuals AND the whole, is a cooperative effort, with everyone in the community involved.
      • Nov 21 2013: Everyone working cooperatively towards the same goal is an interesting but unrealistic idea in my community, i guess our diversity is what makes us interesting. My thought is that when the powerful or the majority have a wonderful goal they should at least accept that there people who think differently.

        Since i am almost always the one thinking differently I know what it is like to be marginalized by someone elses goal.

        Fortunately in America there are many ways to travel the road less traveled.
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          Nov 21 2013: Vincent,
          We can be diverse AND working toward the same goal. We can think and feel differently in some respects, and still working toward the same goal(s). This is not an unrealistic idea at all........to some of us:>)
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      Nov 21 2013: Anairda,
      You say..." ...what was done it cannot be 'undone', at least not in our life time".

      It is being done NOW my friend. Have you watched this TED video?
      http://www.ted.com/talks/ellen_dunham_jones_retrofitting_suburbia.html
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    Nov 18 2013: If cities were to accept higher density, and if people living in or near cities were willing to accept higher density living rather than holding out for suburban-type homes with big lawns, sprawl wouldn't be as necessary.

    Meanwhile many suburbs have become walkable cities in their own right with neighborhood centers, employment, and the amenities of the city.

    Improving urban public schools and reducing urban crime would also reduce the demand in some places for ever-expanding suburbs.

    That said, when I think of the suburbs, I think of office parks. When a place is desirable to live, an employer may want to locate there to attract the best talent it can find. Big high tech businesses like those in the Silicon Valley or outside of Boston or outside of Seattle can be hard pressed to find in-city space that works for businesses of that size. Once businesses like this locate in suburbs, many people may choose to reduce their commutes by living in the suburbs as well, within easy commute distance of those big employers.

    I don't know Houston, but I expect those kind of employers are locating outside the city and drawing their workforce to them.
    • Nov 19 2013: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Any "solution" that starts with "If people would" solves nothing. There has been a great deal of research that demonstrates high-density living is bad for mammals. Even if one takes care of all material needs and ensures physical comfort, high-density living still produces severely aberrant behavior.
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        Nov 20 2013: Bryan,
        Could you please provide information which supports your statements...."There has been a great deal of research that demonstrates high-density living is bad for mammals" and "...high density living still produces severely aberrant behavior".

        The information I am aware of, indicates that for humans, living in sustainable, high density communities is more beneficial. I suggest that with your information regarding "high-density living is bad for mammals", you may be referring to wild animal's hunting/feeding habits?

        If you cannot provide substantiating information for your comments, I remind you of your comment to another person in this discussion....

        "Bryan Maloney
        Nov 11 2013: Define, with examples. Otherwise, it is nothing but empty platitude."
        • Nov 20 2013: It's based on John Calhoun's work, although Freeman has shown that there might be individuals who could deal with the situation, nobody has refuted Calhoun's basic discovery that, even if all material needs are met, there is a level of population density that is pathological. We don't know what that threshold is for humans--do you want to volunteer to find the breaking point? How is it that per-capita crime is higher in dense areas than non-dense areas, if density is always better? Or are you relying on your little weasel word of "sustainable". What you call "sustainable high density" might not even qualify as "high density" on the level of the human experience in general.

          For example, someone could say "X is bad for the environment." Someone else could come along and say "You are wrong, because sustainable X isn't." They don't bother to say that there is no actual valid comparison between "X" as practiced by the vast majority of the world and this "sustainable X". How does Calcutta get to "sustainable? How does New York get to "sustainable"? It's all well and good to live in a pretty little greenhouse let-them-eat-cake world, but it's an utterly useless experience unless there is a concrete way to get from the world as reality to the world as garden.
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        Nov 20 2013: Can you provide links to the information Bryan? it looks like you are depending on, and referring to one person's research.

        No Bryan, I do not want to "volunteer to find the breaking point", nor am I using "weasel" words Bryan. That kind of comment does not seem helpful to the conversation.

        Crime is not the only issue Bryan, there are other factors to consider and I am looking at the topic question...."How do we fix the sprawl?" It seems that you are arguing that it is not a good idea to "fix sprawl". Of course, as always, you are welcome to your own personal perceptions.
  • Nov 17 2013: HI Susan, Im from the UK so can only comment from the way we do things here but we call this Green Infrastructure and Sustainable Development Urban Design. Its sort of a multi pronged approach you will need to influence your local planning authority, development board and get green issues into local planning, through planning documents which are written to show what local governments plan to do over the next period whether that be 10 years or more. You can talk to your local politican and get them on this agenda. Read up on your Laws and what international commitments the USA has signed up to as by reducing the need for cars you are addressing climate change.

    Talk to transport department and ask to see plans of what they already want to do as they are public record in the UK so hopefully are in US. Hope that helps its a gradual change through plans and policies.
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    Nov 17 2013: Hi Susan. This is a great question and one that Houston has been studying for some time. I too live in Houston. I moved inner loop after my daughter left for college. I literally moved close to my office in Williams Tower. I walk to work, dining, shopping and more. I have coworkers that do the same. In Chicago, residential supports the city which drives retail, services and more dining options. It would have been great if the Metro rail would have replaced the HOV lane on 45 S to 45 N connecting the suburbs to the city. You can reach out to Houston's city planner if you have suggestions. I do know that there are several developers trying to create connectivity between areas around City Centre and Memorial Hermann, Fluor's new land in Sugar Land, and the Medical Center.
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    Nov 16 2013: I think this could be solved, at least partially, with the adoption of a couple of strategies.

    Firstly, I think that fostering neighborhood pride and individuality would make people more likely to invest in creating microcosms and supporting the local businesses that spring up as a result of it. This would create less of a need for travel for recreation and also help to foster mom and pop style businesses.

    Secondly, I think that with our increased use of things like "telepresence", service jobs will be increasingly able to be done from home or neighborhood shared "workspaces". This limits the need for travel beyond biking and walking.
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    Nov 13 2013: Live where you work.
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      Nov 17 2013: I totally agree Don. That is exactly what I had to do... Move .08 miles from my office...
      • Nov 19 2013: Must be nice to be able to afford that. Only the very rich can afford to live where I have usually worked. The rest of us have to commute or live in cardboard boxes. "The poor have no bread? Let them eat cake."
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      Nov 20 2013: Don and Karen,
      This is one good idea that helps contribute to sustainable communities. It is more helpful when we consider developing/redeveloping communities with available jobs, which means along with residential development, it is good to consider economic development as well:>)
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    Nov 11 2013: There is quite a lot of commentary that suggests that our urban sprawl and infrastructure is unsustainable at high oil prices. The current infrastructure was created on the assumption that cheap oil would be with us forever. We have plenty of oil, but will be 3-4 times the price. At that price, the current infrastructure and sprawl is unsustainable. We can't fix the sprawl, we need to change the paradigm that created it, to something that is more sustainable.

    The solution is to make the sprawl redundant. Society is structured to bring people to the "things" within hierarchies and telecommunications (information transmitted between hierarchies). The result is a lot of physical movement and the need for individuals to go to places of employment (typically aggregated within cities). The solution is to restructure human time and attention. We need to move all communities onto the internet which bring all wisdom (data, information, community, collaboration, knowledge and wisdom) to the individual and their mobile device. This includes the organisation (ie work), education, health, equity market, regional and global wisdom. There is a 15 minute video crash course at www.wisdomnetworks.im which explains global wisdom (with 30 networks in 2-5 years), the SHIFT and a video introduction to what a Network Society could look like. The result means society can become virtual and more sustainable with less pressure on physical infrastructure and resources because society becomes more virtual.
    • Nov 11 2013: Oil prices will keep going higher, no matter what we do. Thus, the free market will sort this out. Local and state officials can encourage this by extending property tax credits to prudent land use/re-use and doing what is necessary for good sidewalks and comfortable, usable, "non-ghetto-y" mass transit.
  • Nov 1 2013: why assume that sprawl is a bad thing? i live in japan where there is minimal sprawl. trains everywhere that are cheap, frequent, and run on time. everywhere is nearby, and when i go back to my native australia no and then i'm always struck by how inconvenient it is with supermarkets being a minimum 10 minutes drive away, friends' houses 20 minutes, the city centre 30 mins. but what we don't get here in japan is the space. a 50 m sq square of land is standard (actually i'm seeing more and more of 48 or 49 m sq advertised), so you can barely have a garden, definitely can't have a lawn, and have to choose between a 3rd car park for visitors or a small patio. i wouldn't call any of this bad though either. what we do is goto parks that are maintained by the city, and meet friends in restaurants and bars which are always nearby rather gathering at someone's house. it's just about which you prefer.
    • Nov 11 2013: Sprawl isn't necessarily bad, it's badly-done sprawl. Texas is infamous for its complete non-management of urban growth. But even there, San Antonio hasn't done too badly. They planned ahead. They were mocked when they started. Now San Antonio is doing the laughing.
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    Oct 28 2013: Hi Susan!
    To change sprawl into something more beneficial, we take one step at a time:>)

    Houston has a planning/development board and already has a couple elements which support your goal...."Complete Streets Policy" & "How to preserve a neighborhood's character"

    http://www.houstontx.gov/planning/

    Get involved to whatever extent you are able....get on the planning/development boards...attend the public meetings as an interested resident....make suggestions....make sure to vote for any initiatives that support your goal....etc....

    Here are some ideas from a program of the Northwest Regional Planning Commission of Vermont:
    Economic Development
    Community Health
    Disaster Resilience
    Complete Streets and Transportation

    More information available on this site with more detailed description of our goals...
    "Healthy People, Strong Communities...live, work and play here - today and tomorrow!"

    http://www.nrpcvt.com/Reports/HealthyPeopleStrongCommunities/GrantApplication.pdf
  • Oct 26 2013: My first step would be to gather a group of registered voters who want the same because when you go to the city council their ears perk up when you have a list of thousands of registered voters who want "this". Or you could do it the old fashion way and meet them in a dark backroom some where with a bag full of cash with their name on it, that seems to work all the way to the supreme court.
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    Oct 26 2013: I live in Avignon, France and the city is designed for walking. I think the reason for this is that the city (most european cities, even the big ones, i.e. Paris) were build well before the advent of the automobile. While people have cars or similar devices I doubt the one can have a city designed for walking. Our bodies want to minimize the expenditure of energy. One structures the economy by the distance a person has the ability to move. American cities, for the most part were built around the automobile. It is now to the point where one MUST have a car to function in the society. To change that one must invest in mass transportation systems and then wait for the businesses to develop at all the stopping points. This will happen in America when the cost of operating personal transportation systems becomes impossible. American's seem to be obsessed with 'freedom' and unconstrained behavior. While people have cars, the cities will not be walking cities.

    This is not true where I live. I use my car once a week or so. Everything that I need is within walking distance. I think the difference here is that the cites are already build and they are build with solid rock. The streets are too narrow to support much automobile traffic. The size of the cars in Europe have nothing to do with the price of gas; the roads are too narrow for even an American medium sized car and that is not going to change. All the surrounding buildings are made of solid rock. ;-)
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    Nov 21 2013: For those who say it cannot be done....check out this TED talk. It IS being done NOW.
    http://www.ted.com/talks/ellen_dunham_jones_retrofitting_suburbia.html


    "The person who says it cannot be done, should not interrupt the person doing it"
    (Chinese Proverb)
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    Nov 20 2013: Sorry Susan, you can't fix sprawl.... it's akin to unscrambling eggs. By time, someone looks up and sees roof tops for 30 miles in every direction as in Houston, it is too late.

    Even if some catastrophic event was to happen, like a meteor strike, destroys the city, people will go back and rebuild.
    And .they will be honored for showing their determination to come back from tragedy.
    Look at New Orleans, 300 years ago, a small group of islands at the outlet of a major river system harboring pirate ships preying on the Spanish going between Mexico and Spain. Who could not see all sorts of natural disasters coming... floods coming down the river, hurricanes going up the river... oh, and the river is a major fault line waiting for the next big earthquake. Katrina came 5 years ago, wiped out the city, death and destruction beyond imagination and what happens? "Look at all those brave NOLAs rebuilding their city" Into another great urban sprawl just waiting for the next catastrophe.

    Sprawl ... You can't fix it or stop it or prevent it from happening again and your city leaders want to keep it going... more tax revenues.

    What you can do is move from Houston to...
    Kerrville Tx,. Open spaces, fresh air... except from where the cattle are grazing.... 20 miles to the next town, a long walk to your neighbors and sprawl is along time coming.
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    Nov 20 2013: Bryan and Colleen;
    Like Karen, my wife and I are fortune to live in an older area of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, a 5 minute walk to the subway line and a 20 minute ride to the centre of the city. Now both retired, we live in a small home for which we paid just under $200,000 11 years age. It's an 1,100 square foot 2 bedroom, was originally built as one of many worker's houses for the then Massey Dairy Farm (of Massey-Ferguson Tractors). The home, with two parking spaces on a paved alley-way, is now valued at $300,000+.

    NB this is not a listing
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      Nov 20 2013: Hi Don,
      Your comment may be a follow-up to the section of discussion with you, me, Karen and Bryan, starting with your comment..." Live where you work"?

      Living close to where we work, and being able to get around by walking or public transportation is one of the core ideas of densely populated sustainable communities. There are several advantages to walking/biking and doing business in the community....exercise, saves fuel, time, and also provides the opportunity to really know our community and the people in it.

      I LOVE Toronto.....have friends there and have visited a few times:>)
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        Nov 21 2013: Hi Colleen;
        Yes, Toronto is an interesting city made up of many diverse communities and cultures, and the downtown core has been a residential neighbourhood and business centre for decades. The streets are alive with walkers and various activities into the late evening.

        I was born and raised for the first 9 years of my life in a small town in New Brunswick on the northern border of Maine, but quickly adapted to the size and diversity of the big city. I am an avid people-watcher and love the diversity here; even in my immediate neighbourhood I am travelling the world. Where I was born, almost everyone still looks the same, talks the same and, horror of horrors, thinks the same. Yikes!
  • Nov 20 2013: Certainly the easiest way to fight sprawl is reduce or limit the population. The easiest way to limit the population is to limit immigration. If the U.S. eliminated immigration that would mean one million less people per year which would cause our population to level or decline. Of course there would be other problems but in my mind the large size of the human population on Earth is the driver behind many of the problems of our world.

    I personally do not think small living spaces increase quality of life.
    Of course their is nothing to stop us from creating large high quality living spaces in high density cities (at affordable prices).
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    • Nov 19 2013: What Is A Sustainable Local Job, And Why Are We Capitalizing Every Word?
  • Nov 17 2013: To expand on previous remarks, A great way to bring about change is to bring market forces to bear. Currently in the United States, gasoline taxes only pay about 60% of the cost of maintaining our road infrastructure. This means the government is effectively subsidizing the price of gas, and of driving cars, thus making it less expensive for people to drive out to, and live in, the suburbs.

    So increasing gas taxes to fully pay for the price of maintaining roads, and requiring developers not just to build the roads, water systems, sewer treatment plants, libraries, and schools, etc., but to provide for operation and maintenance of all that infrastructure, would increase the cost of building and living in suburbs. Put another way, it would reduce urban dwellers' subsidies of suburbs, and thus slow suburban sprawl.

    With less profit incentive to develop outside the city, developers would be more likely to build up density, and thus walkability, in what are now suburbs. Q
  • Nov 17 2013: Look at models around the world that are all ready in place. There are benefits and detriments to sprawl as well as building a compact city.

    If you truly want to fix sprawl, get someone behind it that sees a financial game of epic proportions. If someone sees massive value of building tightly together, you will see it happen quickly. If you don't see value, then it won't happen. Money talks in this case. Everything else is just window dressing.
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    Nov 16 2013: Sprawl is invariably tied to the needs of developers trumping the needs of the community they are expanding upon. Developers want the best return on their investment and developing so called "marsh" or "barren" or "wild" land is far cheaper and far easier to find on the outskirts.

    Developers invest heavily in getting the 'right' people into local administrations who will, once elected or hired, dedicate their time to serving that developers needs over any local concerns that might arise.

    Therefore, the very first place to start is with your local politics and who gets elected and what their agenda is. Or, even better, because local politics generally involves only a small number of issues each year, why not fist demand a binding referendum system with which the citizens themselves will decide yes or no on every major expenditure, bylaw change and re-zoning application? In this way the mandate always comes from those most affected - the citizens - and the backroom deal makers lose that access to the process.
  • Nov 14 2013: Build up. Build down. We are really just ants and the water is rising on our colonies.
    • Nov 19 2013: Yes, we are just ants. We are not human beings. We do not have any dignity or rights. We are just ants. We are disposable as individuals. Only the colony matters. Individual human beings do not matter. We are just ants.
      • Nov 19 2013: :-) look around at the condition of the Earth and what we've done. Where's the dignity and honor?
  • Nov 13 2013: Public transportation that leads to a downtown area featuring at least a handful of unique, independently owned and operated shops and restaurants might help a suburb feel less like Sprawl and Mall and more like a community. Bike lanes are helpful too ... at least a bike trail that is actually useful and again leads to downtown ... throw in a Farmer's Market and a community garden and you are off to a good start. Be creative ... you may offer spoken word events, drawing workshops or music by local bands in this area as well.
  • Nov 13 2013: Land is only effectively redistributed through war or natural disaster. The Consumerist 'instant' lifestyle and persuit of the 'America Dream' drowns everything else.
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    Nov 13 2013: If the population density of Texas equaled that in the Netherlands all 7 billion humans could exist there. Although there is not enough water and you would need to have a few people running the rest of the productive farms. Paolo Soleri's designs for Arcologies ie cities in one building could also work but probably you would need a coherent society and a much better functioning educational system.
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    Nov 11 2013: We have a huge suburban sprawl problem here in Upstate New York. Unfortunately, most of the sprawl problem appears to be related to the population boom of the 1950's and 1960's and upward socioeconomic mobility. Essentially, (by the 1980s) a wide majority of the population wanted to live the McMansion lifestyle, and the cities could not keep up with the population growth.

    As for "fixing" the infrastructure, try supporting local stores that are within walking distance, as opposed to driving to the giant shopping centers and big-box stores. Use public transportation, car pool, walk, or ride a bike wherever you can. Encourage friends and family to do the same.

    If you want to get more actively involved, try to find other like-minded individuals who are just as fed up about the sprawl problem in your local area. Meetup.com might be a good start, or a local cafe, or other social gathering. From there, get your group together to petition local officials to improve the infrastructure (better public transportation, placing restrictions on big-box stores, more effective zoning laws, etc.), and try to get other people actively involved.
    • Nov 13 2013: You are spot on there, Michael. Being forced to drive anywhere is not good for our health or for our air. There are places in North America that start with the premise of a "Hub". From the hub your transit system fans out to take you to high speed transport connecting to large metropolises and your jobs. More locally, every so many homes/miles the hub is created with schools, medical and other professionals, food stores, leisure/exercise places, mail drops/collection and especially outdoor spaces for people to run, play walk. We should never have to walk more than the majority of our neighbours can manage. That's how we create neighbourhoods. That's how we bond and make support systems.
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        Nov 14 2013: Interestingly enough, most old towns, villages, and cities were built around the premise of a "hub," where most businesses were centrally located and within walking distance. However, as the population boomed, we expanded our neighborhoods via McMansion communities that typically have no central "hub." Consequently, the small businesses located at these old "hubs" have started to close up due in part to the majority of the population migrating to the McMansion communities. This, in conjunction with the hostile takeover by mega shopping centers and big-box stores.
        • Nov 20 2013: I did not realize that all of urban history started only in the 1980s. McMansions did not exist until the 1980s. The suburbs and levittowns of the 1950s had ZERO McMansions in them. What are you basing your claims on? Mega shopping centers and big-box stores are also very late players to urban sprawl. They are products of urban sprawl, not causes. History did not begin in 1979.
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        Nov 20 2013: Bryan, while I definitely agree that the suburbs expanded, and were popularized, during the 1950s, according to the Census Bureau's "Demographic Trends in the 20th Century" (http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/censr-4.pdf), homeownership "increased in the 1990s, reaching the highest level in the century (66 percent) in 2000" (page 1). The major difference between this form of suburban expansion ("McMansion neighborhoods"), and the older neighborhoods of the 1950s, is that the older neighborhoods had a centralized hub, while the McMansion expansion in the 1980s popularized mega shopping centers and big-box stores as a way to accommodate for the increased population growth.

        What I mean by a "centralized hub" is that most of the suburban neighborhoods of the 1950s had a "Main Street," which had grocery stores and various other specialty shops. These shops were centrally located within the town or village itself, and within walking distance. As the population growth in the 1980s pushed suburbia to the extreme, what we have seen is that much of the arable land along the outskirts of these suburban neighborhoods has been reallocated to make room for McMansion neighborhoods. Given that these new suburban communities are built along the outskirts of the town/village, there typically is no longer a centralized hub which is within walking distance.

        On a personal note, I grew up in what was once a thriving 1950s suburban neighborhood. However, being a child of the 1980s, I saw firsthand how this new form of suburban expansion started to impact the small businesses on "Main Street." In fact, by the late 1990s, most of the small businesses on "Main Street" had closed up. By 1999 my family had moved to the McMansion neighborhood on the outskirts of a nearby city. Although this community was nice from an aesthetic standpoint, there was no "Main Street," only a Walmart and Mega Mall (both of which were 5+ miles away).
  • Nov 11 2013: We are talking about land tax not property tax. Much as it is hard to appreciate, the effect of each being taxed is different.
    A land tax discourages it being held out of use and for its potential opportunity to be wasted. If indeed vacant lots are being taxed in the US, then that tax must be very small or the owners on whom the tax falls would either use the land properly or lease or sell it to somebody who will. Clearly with so much unused city land there is no serious attempt to solve this problem.

    Poor people who occupy land for residence use the least good sites, which are all they can afford. When there is more opportunity for them to work on better land, they will be able to move closer to their place of work instead of having to inexpensively travel there, which is nevertheless a big drain on their small earnings.
  • Nov 11 2013: Restore/create comprehensive intra-city rail service. Then restore/create a strong inter-urban rail service. Good luck funding that. Actually make the system significantly cheaper to use than a car, meet the work AND domestic AND leisure needs of most people. Extend lines into poor neighborhoods where the workers live. Next-hahahahahahaha! I'm sorry, I just can't keep a straight face. That would actually happen here in Texas shortly after armadillos learn to fly.
  • Nov 11 2013: City sprawl can be reduced by the proper use of land and its various available sites. Speculators in developing regions, purchase the land at low prices and hold it unused whilst its price soars. This is wasteful of land and its opportunities and it means that cities are improperly used whilst they grow.

    Also city developers, using taxpayers money, must enlarge the city limits and arrange an unnecessary number of roads, sewers, electrical supplies and all the rest of the infrastructure, with the resulting sprawl and traffic jams with which we all suffer.

    Should such city councills decide to tax unused land sites, speculation in them would no longer be worthwhile and the income could replace other kinds of taxation, which are limiting the demand for goods, jobs and creating greater degrees of poverty.

    TAX LAND NOT PEOPLE; TAX TAKINGS NOT MAKINGS!
    • Nov 11 2013: Land does not pay tax. People pay tax. That being said, in most US cities, vacant lots are taxed. The "speculators" merely consider that to be a business expense. Forcibly stealing-by-law "unused" or "badly used" land in US cities has led to all kinds of abuses, wherein the poor are dispossessed of homes they own so the city can be more "efficiently" developed. The vast majority of US cities only assess property tax and no other tax.
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    Nov 11 2013:

    By quitting invalid (harmful) happiness.
    • Nov 11 2013: Define, with examples. Otherwise, it is nothing but empty platitude.
  • Nov 10 2013: There's hope! Check out my AtlantaTEDx talk on Retrofitting Suburbia. It draws on the work June Williamson documented in our book of the same name. I now have over 800 case studies in my database of dead malls, vacant big boxes, aging office parks, dying commercial strip corridors and many other prototypical suburban property types that have been reinhabited with more community-serving uses; redeveloped into compact, walkable places; or regreened into parks, reconstructed wetlands, or community gardens.
    http://www.ted.com/talks/ellen_dunham_jones_retrofitting_suburbia.html
    Ellen Dunham-Jones, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Nov 7 2013: In Pittsburgh Pa. the Roberto Clemente Bridge is closed to vehicular traffic on Pirates' and Steelers' game days, providing a pedestrian route to Point State Park,PNC Park and Heinz Field. This is a great feature as it eases some of the traffic congestion. Architectural lighting was added in 2002 and it's also the location for fireworks on Light Up Night.
  • Nov 1 2013: incentivize an urban lifestyle, increase property taxes to drive more people into urban living (decentivize suburban living), increase taxes on owing a car, increase gas taxes. create multiple downtowns through zoning. give developers breaks for building high-rises. use all the tax increases mentioned previously to build out bike lanes and public transit. Studies have shown that people living in a more urban environment are happier because they spend less time being bored and more time socializing. humans need 6hrs per day of socializing to be truely happy according to a ted talk i saw but can't remember the presenter.
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      Nov 2 2013: Hi Scott,
      You make some interesting points, which might work. The idea which seems to work well, is offer incentives to developers who build multi-use complexes within designated growth centers/densely populated areas. People sometimes act/react more positively to "incentivize an urban lifestyle", as you insightfully say, rather than feeling like they are "driven" or herded into a certain living situation.
    • Nov 11 2013: The non-monetary marginal and opportunity costs are so different between "urban" and "suburban" that this won't work. Instead, the individual metropolitan area will die, urban and suburban, as anyone who can afford to leave will leave for places that do not adopt such self-destructive policies.
      • Nov 11 2013: yes and no. most of manhattan's elite do not live in the less urban areas but rather congregate. They can well afford to live where ever they choose however they choose to remain in manhattan, arguably one of the most urban cities in the us. Seattle also, although to a lesser extent is fast becoming a millionaire's oassis since those who live within seatte proper must be millionaires in order to afford to live there.
        • Nov 11 2013: That doesn't fix the problem of sprawl, since that means the non-elites have to live in "exurbs", which are the even sprawlier offspring of suburbs...
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    Oct 31 2013: Doing nothing is not how we got to this point, and so far, the zoning laws haven't really elicited any personal freedom protests. Design, be it central overall design, or incremental additions and evolution of laws and permits design is what got it to this point.

    Walkable cities is an excellent idea, not only for oil dependency reasons, it's also great because of habitat destruction and to alleviate the problem of disconnected habitat islands. From the human perspective, it's great for children to grow up being able to independently meet with other children, adults to run into adults without planning and making appointments, and for seniors to be able to meet other seniors without being isolated from everyone else in specialty facilities. Walkable cities are excellent for humans to integrate with the whole spectrum of other humans and be our natural social animal selves.

    We don't have to wait for transportation to become unaffordable as Michael suggests, although it is already happening. Some excellent suggestions for action have been suggested by Kieth, Lee, Robin and Colleen. As Christopher states, it can be done by local politics. I'd add a suggestion to keep an eye out for permit applications and tenders to find specific instances to either protest or support. Also, if you live within the area that could feasibly become more developed, then I suggest neighborhood meetings with the idea of investing in apartment or condo development.
    • Oct 31 2013: We have no zoning here in Houston and every time it is put on the ballot it is voted down. That can be considered a protest against zoning laws. Houston isn't without its problems, but what problems we do have are generally no worse than other large towns. Therefore, it can be argued that a lack of central planning is not a hindrance to the success of a city. If central planning is unnecessary then it is a waste of resources at a minimum.

      If people wanted to live in walkable cities as a general rule then walkable cities is what we'd have as a general rule. As it is, I suggest you leave people to live their lives the way they see fit.
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        Nov 2 2013: Robert,
        When I first read your comment..."no zoning here in Houston", I thought.....that can't be true!!! So I checked it out, and learned that Houston is the only major U.S. city with no formal zoning codes....amazing!!!

        Houston does, however, have development regulations, and in reading them, it appears that they are similar to zoning in many respects. Houston also has a planning and development board, so there is some oversight. So, it appears that Houston is not totally without "central planning" of some kind.

        Even with zoning regulations and/or some kind of central planning, it is possible for people to live their lives the way they see fit...there are still individual choices. For example, we have zoning and planning regulations in Vt., and there are still lots of people living in the way they choose....building their own preferred type of home outside designated growth centers, off the grid, etc.
  • Oct 31 2013: "We" shouln't do anything. Let's let people make their own decisions about where to live. If you don't like "sprawl" that is your business. I don't care one way or the other about sprawl, but I do care about people meddling in my life.
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    Oct 28 2013: Susan,
    You are in luck!!! On that houstontx.gov/planning site I gave you the link for, it appears that they just added this....I'm pretty sure it was not there when I checked that site a few minutes ago!!! They must be hearing us with ESP! LOL:>)

    So, you can review the draft plan online, attend the informational meeting, and this says public input is a very important part of the process, which I wholeheartedly agree with! You go girl!

    "Comments Requested on draft 2040 Houston-Galveston Regional Plan
    Our Great Region 2040 is a high-level plan for the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s 13-county service area whose aim is for Our Region to be one of the world’s greatest places to live, work and succeed, as defined by measurable goals, by the year 2040. Plan to attend the Open House scheduled for November 9th as public input is a very important part of the process. For more information on the open house or how to review the draft plan online and submit comments, please go to www.ourregion.org. Public comment period ends November 15."
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      Oct 28 2013: Brilliant! On this site, see Transportation, strategies: Develop and implement policies to improve transit, pedestrian, and bicycle access between and within activity centers, connecting residents to job centers.

      A step in the right direction. Thanks Colleen!
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        Nov 2 2013: Hi Robin:>)
        Transportation is one element in the process of planned development, and our awareness of the needs of the people helps with good planning. People need to be able to travel within the communities, and interconnecting the communities efficiently and effectively.

        Our transportation advisory committee (TAC) here in the northwest region of Vt. has representatives from each municipality, staff from the regional planning commission, representatives of the railroad, the bus company, airport manager, representative from the bike/ped committee, and a representative of VAOT (Vermont agency of transportation).

        We are often evaluating the needs of the people in the region and trying to interconnect all the transportation possibilities. One goal of the VAOT, is to increase or improve the bike/ped lanes whenever there are improvements done to a section of roadway. Another, is to build park and rides, which interconnect with bus routes, bike/ped corridors, etc.

        Lots of steps in the right direction.....thanks for your feedback Robin.
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      Oct 29 2013: Really, thank you. I'll plan on attending.
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    Oct 28 2013: Once a new paradigm in transportation arrives, a new way of reconstituting cities may be created. Some way of reclaiming and recycling materials in a way that is efficient. Until then, it would seem to come down to Urban Planning and Civil Engineering, which is a municipal enterprise. All politics is local.
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    Oct 28 2013: Susan, it will be a monumental challenge. As M. Gerety stated, American cities were built for the automobile--every American (especially every Texan) has the right to own his pick-up. I suspect that to see results within your lifetime you will need to go to a walkable city. Jeff Speck talks about Portland, and there are others. To convert Sugarland, a walkable sleepy town just 30 years ago, into a walkable city today--not gonna happen. Not enough like-minded people. The price of gas will be the ultimate driver.

    This is not only a problem in and around Houston, even Avignon has spread across the river. The Parisians with vacation houses in the hills of Villeneuve can't say they reside in a walkable city. Urban sprawl happens unless it is controlled early, as Mr. Speck points out. Drive 10 miles from Dusseldorf city center in any direction and you are in farmlands.

    Houston grew from the Bayou with no controls. No planners during the early 1900's thought about true mass transit. The multiple centers in town that Mr. Uejio wrote of, like Sugarland, were once small towns. The growing beast eats every small town in its path. Until the price of gas gets us (Americans) out of our cars, change cannot happen.
  • Oct 27 2013: Here are some ideas:

    - ADU's (accessory dwelling units) http://www.finehomebuilding.com/design/articles/the-rise-of-the-accessory-dwelling-unit-adu.aspx?ac=ts&ra=fp ADU's can be built in existing neighborhoods without any need to tear down existing houses.

    - Cottage Communities: http://www.cottagecompany.com This is a great way to provide people with some green space without taking up a lot of land. They encourage walking because the cottages don't have individual driveways.

    Both ADU's and cottage communities are still illegal in most cities. So what we need most is for people to push for changes to zoning laws.

    Another idea is stacked bungalows: http://www2.canada.com/calgaryherald/news/newcondos/story.html?id=df47e630-f3db-4754-a7ea-e888b33b3b63 Stairs take up unnecessary space; for dwellings below 1500 ft.², a single floor is almost always more efficient.
  • Oct 22 2013: The way I see it, cities are little dots on maps with large amounts of space around them. People like to congregate.

    Cities are one of the oldest forms of civilization. I would guess there is a natural evolutionary impulse creating the congestion. Couple this with the reality of great distances and the desire to minimize downtime... I think walking will always be reserved for specific areas within a city.

    Lets face it. Homo sapiens may have given up walking even before they invented the wheel (But that said I do strongly believe in walkable spaces).
  • Oct 22 2013: When I visited Houston, I noticed it seem there were groups of tall buildings spread around in the suburbs and it almost felt as if there were no centers. I do not think you can create one center but multiple centers. LA has done this, they have Santa Monica, Culver City, etc. a lot of small centers which have entertainment, restaurants, shops, etc. Unfortunately, you have to drive to the mini centers but they are increasing the public transportation. SF is probably the best example of that.
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    Tao P

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    Oct 21 2013: I think the first step is rezoning unfortunately. Suburbs are all residential. Every once in a while there is a commercial center with big box stores. The first step would be adding a neighborhood convenience store.