In a March 18 posting on a blog run by the magazine Mother Jones, Kevin Drum discusses an often heard canard in the planning world, that the planners themselves are responsible for suburban sprawl. This popularly held belief being that "zoning and land use laws encourage sprawl, and if we did away with them we'd have a greater number of dense, walkable neighborhoods." That said, he then makes the following ridiculously reality-based observation:
There is a lot I could say about this, but that's a mistake in a blog post. So I'll stick to one main point: these regulations aren't something that's been imposed by "government." They exist because people really, really, REALLY want them.
I need to be clear here: I'm neither praising nor condemning this, just describing how things are. To get an idea of how strongly people feel about this, you really need to come live in a suburb for a while. But failing that, consider the balance of power here. Corporations would like to be able to build wherever and whatever they want. Wealthy land developers would like to be able to build wherever and whatever they want. And local governments hate single-family neighborhoods because they are a net tax loss: they cost more in services than they return in property tax remittances. And yet, even with corporations, wealthy developers, and local governments all on one side, suburban zoning is ubiquitous. This is a triumvirate that, under normal circumstances, could get practically anything they wanted, but in this case its not even a close fight. Suburban residents have them completely overwhelmed.
Kind of flies in the face of much of what we hear these days. The notion that people will somehow flock to new transit oriented development projects, in the process abandoning their single family homes and greenhouse gas producing automobiles for daily thrill rides on the various Metro transportation venues, is a near religious creed for many. After all, doesn't SB 375 preach that high density development and light rail will help save the world from global warming? We now have a new City Council in Sierra Madre where that facile ideology will be preached to us often, and whether or not there is much truth to it, there is still that little problem with what consumers actually want. After all, if people did want the swinging Metro lifestyle there wouldn't be quite the condo glut we can find in places like Pasadena, correct? Those unwanted units would have been sold years ago.
That's how strong the desire is for suburban sprawl. Again: I'm not taking a position on whether this is good or bad. And I'm not saying that everyone needs to understand what they're up against here. It's not zoning per se that causes sprawl, it's the fact that lots of registered voters actively want sprawl and have successfully demanded rules that keep density at bay. These kinds of land use regulations aren't going away without the mother of all knock-down-drag-out fights first.
Drum ends with this rarely asked but essential question:
... outside of a big city core, has anyone ever successfully built a walkable, high-density suburb? Not a village or a small town. I mean something dense and walkable: a place where sidewalks are busy, mass transit is good, and there are plenty of high-rise apartment buildings. I know the New Urbanist folks talk about this a lot, but do any actually exist?
Tunnels: A word you hear a lot of these days is "process." The concept of "process" is usually trotted out when something particularly unpopular is being marketed to a hostile public. The development of Sierra Madre's "Downtown Specific Plan" was a good example of "process." What this is really all about is holding off a skeptical public long enough to get the planning and set-up in place, then allowing the citizens to have their say, but only after everything is pretty much shovel ready. The ensuing pitch being that since everything is ready to go, and it really is such a wonderful plan that involved vast sums of money and a whole lot of time to create, why would you ever want to stop it now? Killing off an unpopular planning initiative is always easier in the early stages then it is after there is something tangible and complete to market to the citizens.
And nowhere is the "process" more evident than in that slowly creeping inevitability known as the 710 Freeway Tunnel. This boondoggle (present cost estimate $3.73 billion), would close the gap between the Foothill (210) and Long Beach (710) freeways. The years of successful opposition in South Pasadena to the completion of this project having literally driven it underground.
Here from a blog called The Source ("Transportation News & Views"), is a description of the next step in the 710 Freeway Tunnel process:
Looking to solve one of the region's most vexing freeway problems, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors will consider next week launching a new round of environmental studies on how best to improve traffic caused by the 4.5-mile gap in the 710 freeway between Alhambra and Pasadena.
One of the organizations that has attempted to put itself at the forefront of sustainable (or "Green") development here in the Los Angeles region is the Southern California Association of Governments (or SCAG). So what are they doing getting into the freeway tunnel business?
The Southern California Assn. of Governments, which advises on regional planning issues, has long supported a tunnel. A recent draft study contracted by SCAG and using SCAG modeling data examined how a tunnel would impact traffic patterns in the area...
Isn't this the same organization that is pressuring so many towns in our area to accommodate high density development in order to create a transportation dynamic that will cause people to give up their cars and take things like Metro buses and the Gold Line? So why would they also be working to make possible a freeway tunnel, something ostensibly being designed to make motoring more merry and convenient? For an organization that claims to be able to peer into the future and deduce our planning needs for the next 30 or so years, this seems like quite a paradox, especially given the article's conclusion:
Generally speaking, many surface streets and freeway segments saw improvements in traffic flow, but it wasn't universal. A tunnel, the study found, may also increase traffic volume on the 210 north of the 134, the 10 east of the 710 and the 5 north of the 2. The study has not yet been published online.
Since one of the Sacramento mandated goals of SCAG is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the San Gabriel Valley through the building of high-density housing, which will supposedly cut down on automobile traffic, it seems odd that they would also be advocating the creation of a tunnel that would undo any of the purported good effects of all that development. A bit of a contradiction, as it were.
One more thing: We changed the title of this blog a little bit. Since Sierra Madre, the original home of The Tattler, has now elected a city council that will work to diminish the role of our city hall in favor of a more consultant driven regional government approach, we have decided to go regional as well. Many of the issues we face here are common to our neighboring cities, and we will be reaching out to concerned people there as well. Look for contributions from some of the area news sites, plus reprints and other features. There will, of course, still be a lot about Sierra Madre. But again, with our city soon to be folded deeply into the "collaborative" regional government system, that coverage will need to be expanded.