Smarter Growth Will Help State Reclaim Town Center Roots
July 9, 2006
Commentary By ANTHONY FLINT
Whenever I come back to Connecticut, I think of Chrissie Hynde's 1982 song "My City Was Gone" - not because I'm driving down from Massachusetts and listening to Rush Limbaugh, who uses the bass riff to open his show, but because I share the same lament the Pretenders lead singer had about sprawl overrunning her native Ohio.
Let me explain. I have roots here. I grew up in Wilton, my father has a house in Stonington, and my grandfather built a home in Salisbury. My first newspaper job was in Torrington. So I've seen a lot of changes since the 1960s, and an awful lot of unplanned growth.
In researching "This Land," my book on sprawl and smart growth, I traveled the country and witnessed the same trend: dispersed, far-flung, separated-use, 100 percent car-dependent suburban development. From West Virginia - now a bedroom community for Washington, D.C. - to Pasco County, Fla., from the ranchlands north of Dallas to the Oklahoma border, and up and down California's Central Valley, I saw America succumbing acre by acre to subdivisions and big-box strips.
A lot of this development is on wide-open spaces. I understand why there's a market for it. An hour north of Dallas, you can buy a single-family home for $100,000. I'm convinced the demand for this kind of landscape is going to dry up as more Americans understand its true costs: $3-a-gallon gasoline and rising, the crushing bills for heating and cooling a 3,000-square-foot house, and never being home in time for a 5:30 Little League game. Even the big corporate homebuilders have anticipated the coming drop-off in demand for the detached single-family product in new subdivisions. But for now the sprawl rolls on.
Sprawl in Connecticut, and in the Northeast generally, is different - at once more subtle, more sinister and more maddening. We don't have vast deserts or ranchlands or scrub pinelands to pave over. We don't have the big population increases of the West and Southwest. But residential and commercial development spreads into every nook and cranny, without regard to town centers or any orientation to transit.
What's maddening about this kind of dispersed, unplanned growth is that it ignores the state's best virtue. Connecticut has good bones. The framework for more convenient, more compact, mixed-use living is already here.
The smart growth revolution is based on something very simple: That there's lots of infrastructure and urban land and even suburban neighborhoods to take advantage of before it's ever necessary to turn the bulldozers loose in another cornfield. This is especially true for the town centers and downtowns and small- and medium-sized cities of New England.
A number of policies are in place in neighboring states that encourage the rediscovery of these places. Rhode Island has historic tax credits; Vermont limits development at offramps. Massachusetts supports transit-oriented development, offers cash incentives to towns that establish dense residential districts and pays the costs of educating any kids who move in.
Towns across Massachusetts are realizing that even small steps - legalizing accessory apartments and allowing apartments over ground-floor retail in town centers - expand housing choices, improve affordability, and create a sense of vibrancy and place.
Smart developers aren't whining about restrictions on growth or social engineering. They're too busy working to meet the shifts in consumer demand - rehabilitating an old shoe factory across from a commuter rail station in Haverhill, reinventing a failed mall in Somerville, building an urban village on a closed naval base in South Weymouth.
A few things need to happen to guide this kind of growth and welcome the many people who will be looking for alternatives to sprawl in the years ahead. First, cities and towns need to change zoning - the outdated codes and provisions that, perversely, make desirable, concentrated places illegal today.
Communities may require incentives and technical assistance for more concentrated development and for innovative planning techniques. Cities need investment for infrastructure and services. Fewer states are talking about urban growth boundaries or big maps that divide up land for development or preservation. Nor is it sufficient to lock up land for conservation or only preserve farmland. That's only half the equation. You have to give the growth someplace to go.
The environmental community, mindful that sprawl is a huge factor in issues such as global warming, is embracing this idea of steering growth to smarter locations. The Sierra Club issued a report last year on the top 12 redevelopment sites in the United States.
The old paradigm for development is fading. There's action all around you - the nuts-and-bolts work of facilitating more sensible growth. The opportunity awaits, and native sons may soon be able to return to revitalized cities and town centers and think: Way to go, Connecticut. And mean it.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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