Sprawl is an expensive and unsustainable habit, and cities and towns should work on recovering from sprawl through incremental urbanism, said Steve Mouzon, architect, urbanist, photographer, and author of The Original Green, at a lunchtime talk, “The Urbanism Dividend: Placemaking as a Great Investment,” held April 9th at the Tattered Cover in LODO. He told CNU members and friends that recovering from suburban sprawl is a challenging but critical goal, given the escalating cost of fuel and the need for municipalities to use public dollars in the most efficient way possible.
“Every city investment in infrastructure needs to be tested now for return on investment,” said Mouzon. He cited ways cities and towns overspend on suburban sprawl: Compared to denser urban development, subdivisions require more miles of road, street lighting, irrigation, stormwater infrastructure, open space maintenance, public vehicles, and other expenses. “The freeways are the cheapways,” he said, because highway arterials decrease attractive street frontage and thus land value, which represents sales tax lost to the city, county, and state. He advised that cities should set up a mechanism for determining their return on investment from urban versus suburban development.
Individuals also suffer from “automobile poverty” when they live far from transit and urban services and need multiple cars for the household. In the U.S., said Mouzon, it costs between $7,000 and $10,000 a year to own a car, including car payments, insurance, oil, gas, and other expenses. A household with five cars spends at least $35,000 a year; that could provide a down payment for a house in a more urban and transit-connected area.
He advised individuals to consider how many of the trips of their “web of daily life”—work, school, shopping, recreation, and so on—would be clipped if gas reaches $10 or $20 a gallon. Municipal officials also should consider how much of their community is inhabitable, if fuel were to cost that much, so they can assess the value of urban development that provides grocery stores, pharmacies, and other services to which people can walk or take transit.
Mouzon outlined his “12-step program for sprawl recovery” to suggest ways towns and cities could upgrade or fill in suburban infrastructure:
1) Create civic space. The space could be a relatively small 70-foot-wide plaza. He advised asking the local bank with the largest number of foreclosures to give up a house and donate the land to redevelop as civic space. This civic space would attract buyers and sustain the value of the surrounding land.
2) Reclaim thoroughfares. Insert alleys and rear lanes. Block by block, ask homeowners to give up 15 feet of their property for a 30-foot alley right of way. Alleys and rear lanes benefit the neighborhood by making sidewalks safer and taking trash off the street. They also provide more street frontage; snout houses could use the garage space for offices or shops extended to the sidewalk.
3) Provide on-street parking. On-street parking provides livelier and safer streets. Sidewalk cafes don’t work next to moving traffic; they need the protection of parked cars, as do people walking on the sidewalks. And every on-street parking spot reduces the need for one in a parking lot.
4) Make every building a gift to the street. Design buildings within neighborhoods to “shelter, refresh, delight, and entertain.”
5) Plant edible gardens. Work gardens and farms into the urban fabric. Establish a farmers’ market for every neighborhood so people can walk to get fresh healthy food.
6) Provide places to eat. Neighborhoods that have “built up enough coolness” from the previous efforts should add a ‘third place’ where people can go to eat and socialize. Consider small-scale eateries, such as a café with a couple employees.
7) Expand the housing types. In suburban neighborhoods, add in back-yard cottages, muse houses like those found in London’s lanes, and accessory-unit apartments. Allow homeowners on alleys and rear lanes to build carriage houses and accessory units to provide housing on a smaller and more affordable scale.
8) Locate a bed and breakfast in every neighborhood. Large suburban homes often have rarely-used guest rooms. When the neighborhood is filled in with smaller homes, local guest houses or bed and breakfast establishments can offer space for guests.
9) Build live–work units. Aim for an incremental and organic transition from single-use residential districts to mixed uses by building live-work units, such as apartments above shops or offices, so people can live and work in the same place. This also can create a livelier commercial area.
10) Install a neighborhood market. Even a small market offers daily convenience and prevents driving to buy food and supplies.
11) Introduce dedicated office and retail spaces. Businesses and shops will survive if enough people are using them. Consider including flexible/incubator space for office sharing and multiple uses like a yoga studio. Tiny shops can be inserted easily into residential neighborhoods, as was common a generation or two ago. These commercials spaces can provide jobs for neighbors.
12) Add a civic building. Activate a neighborhood with a community center, library, or other civic building.
Responding to questions, Mouzon said that he is not aware of a community with a sprawl recovery program in place. “It’s not legal to do sprawl repair, and won’t be until the [cost of oil] compels us.” When sprawl becomes too expensive, he added, “people will flee inward” or will create more urban places in the suburbs.
Kathleen McCormick, a CNU Board Member, is principal of Fountainhead Communications, LLC in Boulder, which focuses on design and the environment.