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Sprawl-Style Development Has Hurt Cities, Too

Christopher T. Mccahill and Norman Garrick

June 18, 2010

Although sprawl is most often associated with the far reaches of suburbia, many older American city centers have been affected by it progressively reshaped and transformed in an effort to make them more competitive with their burgeoning suburbs. At the University of Connecticut, we are part of a research team looking at what happens when automobile-oriented suburban policies and standards are applied on a consistent basis to once-dense mixed-use downtowns.

We looked at Hartford. What we found was a fundamental change not just in the look and configuration of the city, but also in how its transportation functions. After a gradual process of reconfiguration, the city is far from the mixed-use urban place it was 60 years ago. What has been created in places like downtown Hartford is a hybrid urban form that functions more like suburban sprawl than a traditional urban place.

To understand this transformation from traditional urban downtown to an urban-sprawl hybrid, we compiled historical data from Hartford going back to 1960, looking at municipal records, maps of land use and travel data. The results reveal a city in which policy-makers struggled to develop a clear vision of the city's role within an increasingly suburban region.

For much of its existence until the 1950s, downtown Hartford consisted of a dense network of medium-rise, mixed-use buildings, which supported a vibrant economy built on insurance and precision manufacturing. Beginning in the mid-1950s, flush with federal money, the city and state razed a large portion of the downtown, replacing the lost streets and buildings with high-rise modernist buildings in superblocks.

Concurrently, two major interstate highways were constructed through the heart of downtown. These highways required the razing of even more city blocks and the destruction of notable architectural landmarks, including the Victorian masterpiece that was Hartford Public High School a loss that the city has never quite forgotten. The highways not only replaced buildings, they also created a divide that is still as harmful today as it was when it was built.

These dramatic steps were only the beginning. In 1960, the fabric of the downtown core was still largely intact, with only 15,000 parking spaces. By 2000, that number had grown to 46,000 spaces, resulting in a downtown that is now a hollow shell of what it once was.

As the construction of parking and the widening of roads continued, policy-makers came to mixed conclusions on how they affected the city. As early as 1962, the City Plan Commission acknowledged that, given the city's limited land, "careful, intensive study of the impact of highway takings and parking facilities was needed if these takings are not to result in strangulation of the City."

From the vantage point of hindsight, this language now seems remarkably prescient in understanding the danger to the urban form that lay in allocating more and more land to the movement and storage of automobiles. Over the following decades, similar concerns continued to resurface. However, the municipal record shows that the perceived need for parking won out. Buildings were removed for surface parking and multistory garages were built throughout the downtown.

The roughly 46,000 parking spaces in the city today include 21,000 spaces in surface parking lots and 21,000 in parking garages in total, 22 percent of the land area downtown is devoted to parking. It is also worth emphasizing that during the period that the amount of parking was increased threefold, the city lost 25 percent of its residents, employment plummeted and the retail trade downtown was all but wiped out.

As the numbers indicate, automobiles became the keystone of the city's transportation system. In fact, the share of commuters living in Hartford who traveled by automobile increased from 53 percent in 1960 to 74 percent in 2000. The parking numbers also show a transformation of the city's built environment from one that had a dense mix of uses to one with more sparsely arranged high-rise buildings complemented and surrounded by parking facilities. This new urban form one that has strong overtones of the automobile-oriented office parks found throughout the suburbs seems to have discouraged walking or an active public life on the streets of the city. This is illustrated by the fact that between 1960 and 2000, the share of commuters in Hartford who walk or use a bicycle dropped from 16 to 6 percent.

Conversely, Cambridge, Mass., where parking has been heavily regulated and the dense, mixed-use urban form has largely survived in the past five decades, the number of commuters walking or bicycling to work has actually increased since the 1960s, and is now at more than 25 percent.

The lesson emerging from this study suggests that when suburban policies are adopted in an urban environment, the resulting urban-sprawl hybrid may fail to reap the benefits of either a city or a suburb. By trying to accommodate as many automobiles in Hartford as there were residents, commuters and visitors, the city has been left with a disconnected urban space where land for non-transportation use continues to shrink, as more land must be used each year for storing vehicles.

This is not to say, however, that the city of Hartford has damaged its urban character to a point that is beyond repair. Many of the city's historical buildings and much of its original street network are still intact. There is also evidence that the city's transportation system has remained more diverse and adaptable than in the suburbs.

An example of this adaptability is that employers in Hartford who charge for parking have witnessed a significant shift to other modes of travel. At the Travelers, where employees are charged between $70 and $125 per month for parking, 71 percent of employees drive alone to work. In contrast, at enterprises where employee parking is free and ample (including city and the state government offices), between 83 and 95 percent of workers drive alone to work.

If the rest of the city were to emulate even the modest strategies of the Travelers, officials could start to reverse the cycle of decay that has so damaged the urban fabric of the city. They must realize that a city's greatest advantage lies in embracing rather that negating its urbanity.

Christopher T. McCahill is currently a Ph.D. student in transportation and urban engineering at the University of Connecticut. Norman Garrick is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at UConn and a board member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. This first appeared at planetizen.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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