Thursday, August 21, 2008
Will high gas prices and tight credit stifle the exurbs? Many stories so assert, of course. But this may not be the complete picture. NPR today ran a nice segment (including some quotes from Penn’s urban commentator Witold Rybczynski) about Chester County, Pa., with anecdotes about how a seemingly exurban county may continue to grow. There’s the two-income couple that commutes in different directions –- one to Philadelphia and the other to Baltimore –- for whom Chester County makes economic sense. There are businesses for which settling in Chester County is a good “regional” choice. And there’s a plan for a putatively new-urbanist-tinged “town center” in Malvern that is designed to draw businesses, retail, and residences, all in proximity to each other. For some, life in a planned new exurban town may –- like a 19th century small town –- make more sense than life in an old-fashioned big city.
Why might a corporate-planned town sometimes be attractive than a “real” one? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post.
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Wednesday, August 20, 2008
A California vacation last week got me thinking about … well, land use law, of course. Urbanists argue that legal restrictions on sprawl would foster development in the central city and encourage a high-density, walkable sense of community, in contrast to America’s longstanding desire for an auto-based culture. A problem with this argument is that it’s difficult to test.
But California, which has for long imposed some of the toughest land use laws in the nation, offers a proving ground. In much of California, especially in the hills and mountains that cover half the state, development is severely restricted by topography, a lack of water, and stringent land use laws, including those imposed for the purpose of conserving environmental resources. Northwest California offers a striking example. I noticed that even small cities that are not classic tourist towns –- places such as Sonoma’s Sebastopol and Mendocino’s Fort Bragg –- retain a good amount of their pre-sprawl-era commercial buildings (often attractive wooden commercial blocks) and a sense of walkable density. I could not help but conclude that the inability to sprawl has preserved and cultivated these downtowns.
By contrast, California’s wide-open Central Valley offers far fewer restrictions, as it is offers flat terrain, irrigated water systems, and traditional land use (agriculture and industry) that triggers less desire for environmental protection. And, in contrast to the distinct and fairly compact towns of the north, the Central Valley population along Route 99 spreads out in a largely undifferentiated and auto-dominated sprawl from Sacramento to Merced. Now, it must be conceded true that hard-working Modesto may never attract redwood-peeping tourists, as Fort Bragg (pictured above) is starting to do (although Modesto, like many of its nearby valley cities, touts itself as a “gateway to Yosemite”). But the California contrast does help prove that land use restrictions can get Americans out of their cars and can and do foster high-density downtowns.