Thursday, September 9, 2010

Alabama and Smart Growth...

Over the years, Alabama has become quite the hotbed for smart growth and new urban efforts.  Birmingham, Montgomery, and Huntsville all have experienced this approach to sustainable development (and re-development) to different degrees.

Now, South LA (Lower Alabama, that is) is getting into the mix as Alabama's growing port city of Mobile is considering several smart growth options.

The Mobile Press-Register is doing a two part series that includes a discussion of how smart growth regulations could work in Alabama's city by the bay:

The city has instituted some "piecemeal" zoning changes in an effort to facilitate New Urbanism-style growth, Clarke said, but there has been little to no building under those zoning options. "What development that is going on right now, continues to be the suburban-sprawl type development," she said.

Howard Blackson, a San Diego-based urban planner with PlaceMakers, a consulting consortium, said he's not surprised that the new zoning options haven't taken off. PlaceMakers is well-known for its work in helping U.S. cities overhaul their land-use rules.

Sprawl stems from the zoning system itself, not from the type of zoning options available under the system, Blackson said.

Mobile, like most American cities, has a use-based zoning system, which means that land is mostly divided into residential, commercial and industrial uses. The city also has a mixed-use option, but it hasn't attracted significant development interest thus far.

New Urbanism planners like Blackson advocate a different approach -- creating "form-based codes" for development. Form-based codes establish what a neighborhood will look like, but leave the actual use of each parcel up to the owner.

Despite having a well-designed city center (especially along Dauphin Street), in the last five or six decades, the city has yet to move far beyond the type of Euclidean zoning and planning that has induced the type of unlasting and unflattering development that doesn't do this otherwise grand city justice. 

That's a shame because there really should not be much difference between a place like Charleston and Mobile--both are filled with interesting history, nice architecture, and an extensive waterfront.  The big difference though is that one has realized its potential while another lags on.

That's what a poorly-conceived approach to land development--especially in a dense urban area--can result in.

--Chad Emerson, Faulkner U.

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