California Moving to Block Sprawl

August 28, 2008

Image of sprawlSprawl is a constant issue at the outside periphery of every city in the country. Although matters have abated temporarily in the midst of the housing and mortgage crunch, new construction continues to decimate the countryside at further distances away from the city centers. However, the state of California is weighing a measure in the state legislature that might help curtail the growth of exurban sprawl developments.

The extension of suburbs further and further out from the core of businesses and services not only consumes acres of land, with its attendant loss of woods, fields, wetlands, farmland, and animal habitat, but it also requires miles of pavement, and the attendant infrastructure (sewers, phone and power lines, etc.) to support the new development. Residents of these displaced communities are forced to rely on cars for more and more of their access to various services and amenities, and very often travel greater distances to work as well as other destinations. This increases both the consumption of fuel resources and the pollution caused from the extra travel.

The California proposal seeks to limit sprawl not by enacting some manner of harsh prohibition, but instead by limiting state participation in providing easy highway access for new communities in the outlying exurbs. If the state is unwilling to build new highway interchanges, access to the new areas will be more curtailed, and there will be less incentive to turn these areas into new tracts of carpet-bombing houses. Without ready freeway access, new developments in more outlying regions will be less attractive to commuting families, and the growth of these developments will be less rapid.

“The legislation, SB 375, would offer incentives to steer public funds away from sprawled development. The state spends about $20 billion a year on transportation, and under the new law, projects that meet climate goals would get priority.”

“The legislation would lead to better-designed communities and save consumers on gas bills, advocates said. Thomas Adams, board president of the California League of Conservation Voters, called it the most important land-use bill in California since the Coastal Act in the 1970s. “It is also the first legislation to link transportation funding with climate policy,” he said.” (LA Times)

One problem with sprawl is that is suffers from the last-building syndrome. Everyone who wants to build a new house sees their home as an innocuous addition to the landscape, but then everything else that comes afterward is an unwelcome blight upon the landscape, conveniently forgetting that their house was just as much of an unwelcome intrusion to all those who had come before them.

Growth and sprawl are interconnected, but they don’t need to be. Growth is inevitable, at least for the present time. (Stemming growth is a topic for another time.) As far as solutions to growth as an issue, sprawl is certainly one of the weakest of the choices. Increasing the density and building closer to the urban core is one alternative. City dwellers living in mid-rise and high-rise buildings have a smaller resource consumption footprint than those living in outlying regions. And even low-rise communities can be built with features and locations that make them more sustainable than those that pave over greenfields with cheaply constructed tracts of unsustainable houses.

Previously on Green Building Elements:
Green Communities, Part 1: New Urbanism
Green Communities, Part 2: Cottage Communities
Traditional Neighborhood Development and LEED Go Hand in Hand

via: The Daily Green and LA Times

image source: Penn State/USDA-NRCS