Friday, July 27, 2012

When it comes to sprawl, it's meet the new boss

I'm at the Starbucks in Acton while my son plays in a tennis tournament here. The last time I was out this way was 10 years ago, when I wrote a story for The Boston Globe datelined Groton about a pilot transfer-of-development-rights program. A little environmental militia at the time was trying to scale back at least some of the subdivision sprawl overtaking the area framed by the Route 128, the Mass Pike, and I-495, northwest of Boston. The piece is kindly being re-broadcast, without the Globe's knowledge I suspect, at a site here. So what's changed in 10 years? From a brief look around, very little. The air is filled with the sounds of leafblowers and carpenter's hammers, and the same old subdivisions are sprouting up once again. The 2008 financial and housing crisis surely slowed things down, but instead of a major redirection and moment of soul-searching, around here it was just a pause. This is a key question I raise in the revised introduction to the softcover edition of This Land, being published this fall by Johns Hopkins University Press. Surely with all those zombie subdivisions dotting the country, the reasoning goes, towns and builders and planning boards might rethink the 3,000-square-foot single-family-home, solo-driver-commute, must-drive-to-everything layout. Not around here. The homes may be crowded in together with a little more net density, with a little more "conservation land," typically in the form of a retention pond surrounded by chemically treated lawn, reserved for nature. Out from the cul-de-sacs and down the secondary roads, there are more freshly minted could-be-anywhere strip malls, where I currently reside. Foreclosures, energy costs, climate change -- whatever. The last time state government did anything to guide towns like Acton towards smarter, more sustainable growth, a guy named Mitt Romney was governor. Acton, rock on.