Thursday, November 21, 2013
I am an avid sports fan. In a world that is often fraught with ugliness, I find that sports provides a nice, safe, uncompromised place for reflection on the better qualities of human behavior and circumstance (though sports can at times have its ugly side too, of course). My Major League Baseball (MLB) team is the Atlanta Braves. I have been a fan since they went from worst to first in 1991, when I held tightly onto my homemade tomahawk and lucky syrup bottle cheered vigorously during each game of the World Series. At that time, the Braves played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. In 1997 they moved to Turner Field, which was built as part of the 1996 Olympic Games. Before Fulton County Stadium was turned into a parking lot, this is what the two stadiums looked like side by side:
Though some have argued that Turner Field is not a “particularly distinctive or noteworthy ballpark,” it makes for a wonderful baseball watching experience in my opinion. It has a new feel combined with the throwback style reminiscent of Camden Yards and other "retro parks" built in the last few decades. For a while Turner Field even sported the largest (or one of the largest) jumbotrons in professional sports. The stadium is not old or run down by any means. As Jerry Crasnick describes:
Turner Field, at 17 years of age, is younger than U.S. Cellular Field, Camden Yards, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Progressive Field and Coors Field -- all stadiums that have been built during the ballpark "renaissance" that's taken place in baseball over the past two decades.
In fact, the only problem I see with Turner Field is its location. Often, stadiums are either far outside of the city and relatively easy to get to and park (Rangers Ballpark in Arlington; Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia), or they are in the city and easy to walk to (Coors Field in Denver; Busch Stadium in St. Louis). Turner Field is neither - it is in no-man's land, too far to walk to (with few public transportation options) and not easy to drive to and park. Other than that, however, it is a perfectly functional and nice ballpark (and I've visited many - I only have 3 more MLB stadiums to visit of the 30 major league teams - part of my bucket list).
So when I heard that the Braves were ditching Turner Field and moving to the suburbs of Atlanta to build a new park I was quite shocked. Look, I get it. Lease terms are not always fair, and it takes two sides to work things out. I also get that buildings, including stadiums, have a lifespan. Once they get into old age both structurally and functionally it may be time for a change (think of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL, and home of the Tampa Rays - probably the worst place to watch a baseball game in the history of the sport, including little league fields across the United States. Of course, with Tropicana it is not structural age that is the problem, but rather the lack of functionality. But see Fenway Park). Finally, I get that sometimes teams leave stadiums that are not suited to their sport. This is what happened recently when the Miami Marlins left the stadium where the Dolphins play professional football - the venue was designed to be a football stadium and is a terrible place to play or watch baseball. So I could hardly fault some professional teams for looking elsewhere to play. But leaving this well-functioning, relatively new stadium? I am sure it seems to make a lot of economic and business sense for the Braves, but from a strictly land use and environmental perspective it symbolizes the problem of poor land use planning and sprawl in the nation.
The new stadium will be located located about 10 miles north of downtown, at the I-75, I-285 intersection, and will cost approximately $672 million to build, according to a website devoted to the project. The development is projected to be "surrounded by entertainment options and green space, with the hopes of making the development a year-round destination." But, as we have seen in the past, the grand premonitions of economic boon do not always come to fruition. As noted by Jeff Schultz:
When the Georgia Dome was built, which necessitated the clearing of land and relocation of several churches, political leaders similarly trumpeted the possibility of tremendous development in the area. We heard similar sound bites when the Olympic stadium (which morphed into Turner Field) was built. But anybody who looks up and down Northside along the Georgia Dome, or Capitol Ave and the streets surrounding Turner Field, knows that revitalization never took place. They remain scarred neighborhoods. Residents did not benefit from the construction of sports facilities. In any city, they almost never do.
Notwithstanding the uncertainty of economic growth, there are environmental impacts to consider. To be clear, it is not as if the new park will be built in pristine wilderness, as you can see from this satellite photo depicting the already sprawling outskirts of Atlanta where it will be located:
Even so, there are invariably going to be environmental impacts resulting from the project: the removal of even more natural capital from the area, the energy intensive removal of prior infrastructure that was itself energy-intensively constructed (what are the carbon costs of all this stadium shifting?), watershed impacts whose contribution to already significant non-point source runoff problems in the area will be indeterminable until long after the project is completed, among a number of other environmental impacts. But here is the real kicker: Turner Field is set to be torn down after the Braves leave in 2017 to make way for, you guessed it, more development (at least we can legitimately call this development "infill"). Right at 20 years after this mammoth structure was built (an exceedingly energy intensive endeavor to be certain), it will be torn down.
This whole situation brings to light the many problems associated with land use planning in an "over-decentralized" system of government, where more than 88,000 disparate subnational governments act as rational herders on the national commons that is the land base and the natural capital present upon it. There is certainly no federal coordination, and states typically allow local governments a great degree of discretion in planning, especially if there are economic gains to be made. With so many jurisdictions implicated, individual projects may not appear to have a great environmental impact on the surface. But it is in the aggregate that so many of the intractable sources of environmental degradation, like nonpoint source water pollution, arise. It is basically as if 88,000 herders were in a nation-sized pasture standing stationary, adding sheep to their herd through new sheep births, until the increasing number of one herder's sheep eating grass resources merge with neighboring herds. Then suddenly, the grass resource is entirely consumed. Metaphorically it is the logic that drives a Radio Shack to move from the indoor mall of the 70's and 80's into the strip mall of the 80's and 90's, into the indoor-outdoor mall combo of the 90's and 2000's. The same activity taking place in three different spaces throughout time, while the prior two spaces remain unfilled on some vacant, blighted development space (for more discussion on the "dead mall" phenomena, see here). This is inefficient usage of land at its finest. Anecdotally, the logic reminds me of the time I was driving through Texas and saw a new Sonic restaurant franchise being constructed right next to a nearly identical Sonic restaurant franchise that was closed and abandoned - on the adjacent lot. Seriously.
The refrain is all too common in the environmental field - the federal government does not regulate nonpoint source pollution from agriculture, stormwater, and other vectors because the regulation of such pollution is a state and local government land use regulatory role. Yet we see eutrophication and toxification of our waterways (resulting in fisheries impacts in both freshwater and ocean systems), loss of biodiversity from habitat fragmentation due to development (which increases federal tax payer expenditures later in efforts to protect species threatened with extinction), continued loss and degradation of wetland functionality, traffic congestion and associated air quality impacts from the suburbanization of our cities, increased economic and environmental costs foisted on society through disaster events like flooding (from building in floodplains), among a number of other environmental ills. Is it really any surprise that these problems are arising? Can we really continue to sit back and act like we don't know what contributes to all of these problems? It seems clear that we know, so maybe we just don't care? Clearly the aggregated effects of individual municipal land use planning decisions play a key role in all of these problems. It seems that we either need to do something about it, and get serious about growth boundary protections and other land use planning options available to cities and counties that encourage (or compel) infill development, or just make a choice that we are going to live in an increasingly degraded environment. This is an ethical choice - we should either make an ethical decision to remedy the poor land use planning that contributes to this multitude of environmental ills, or accept that continuing to allow our environment to degrade is the ethical choice that we have made. We should at least be honest about it. We cannot keep pretending that we do not understand why all of the above environmental problems are proceeding apace - it is clearly because individual decisions like the Braves' decision to leave a perfectly functional stadium and build another one elsewhere do not appear environmentally harmful after an isolated, narrowly focused cost-benefit calculation. But in the aggregate the collective rationality of 88,000 local governments is doing great harm to the national natural capital commons. And it is not about not developing. It is about developing smartly and using land and the natural capital present upon it efficiently the way we should use any scarce and finite resource.
Probably the best way to sum up the logic of inefficiency in the usage of land that drives so many of our land use decisions are the words of one major league general manager, who (as Crasnick describes) stated:
"What are you thinking if you're the Rays? . . . They can't even get one stadium -- and the Braves have two?"
- Blake Hudson