In the debate over growth management, it’s easy for the parties to forget that it’s never us against them, it’s us against us. For just one example, planners must strike a balance between our needs for food (in the form of nearby farmland) and shelter (in the form of decent housing for a growing population). And promoting density, while important in many respects, is not the whole answer to problems of growth.
Oregon’s land-use task force is beginning to study what the state’s citizens want, and The Oregonian is running a goodseries on planning that addresses the balance between desirable housing and fertile farmland. The articles offer some goods insights and they got me thinking.
Density done wrong does no one any good. Urban village development (and their traditional counterparts) must attract buyers, not be foisted on them. A subdivision crammed with more houses is not a real solution. It’s still auto-dependent and segregates homes from shops and services. It adheres to the letter of planning for density, but ignores the spirit—density ought to empower residents with choices, not just wedge people together. Intelligent planning is required to build attractive homes that also offer privacy and a sense of space, as well as easy access to amenities. The point of smart planning should not to force people into the city, but to create more good places there for those who want it.
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Even with good density alternatives, some people may still want a house with a big yard. I think that it’s important to offer a mix of housing types, but these larger more distant lots come with all sorts of hidden costs to society: higher costs to supply public services like water, sewer, and emergency response farther out—not to mention negative externalities like air pollution, road-building, and possible watershed deterioration from the added impervious surface. And it’s also important, as The Oregonian article notes, that we preserve farmland and other green places.
And space is not the only reason people may want to move into rural areas: they also may want to be closer to nature. I think it’s important to ask how best to connect people to the natural world without sacrificing the very nature they crave. I worry about getting caught in a vicious cycle as people move farther and farther out until there’s scant rural land left and our cities are so sprawling that most people must rely exclusively on cars for transportation.
I favor setting aside space within cities for neighborhood parks, community gardens, and large semi-wild areas like Forest Park in Portland, Discovery Park in Seattle, and Stanley Park in Vancouver. Unlike fenced-off backyards, these areas let people connect both to nature and to their community.
But really, I see growth planning and development disputes as a symptom of a larger issue: population growth. Our grandparents could reasonably expect to build a house on a half acre lot outside the city because land was plentiful, but people weren’t. Sprawl and population growth have reversed that equation to the point where we need to change our housing expectations if we want our grandchildren to have access to nearby farms and local produce.