Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Kunstler v. Kotkin

One believes the suburbs will be rendered useless by the disappearance of cheap oil. The other says the suburbs are the future and need only be fine-tuned. Both have new books out. James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Long Emergency" (Atlantic Monthly Press), explains how the auto-dependent, spread-out development pattern is the most ill-suited system imagineable for the coming fossil-fuel crunch, which he argues will be the death of suburbia (Interview in Grist magazine: http://www.grist.org/news/maindish/2005/05/25/little-kunstler/). Joel Kotkin, author of "The City: A Global History" (Modern Library / Random House), says, quite correctly, that the suburbs rule and are America's choice, for convenience, jobs and affordability; America's cities, Kotkin says, are enjoying very narrowly defined comebacks and aren't properly planning for the future (essay in The New Republic online: http://tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=w050523&s=kotkin052305). Town and country has never been so polarized.

Monday, May 30, 2005

A new take

What if homeowners in the inner city claimed that government policies encouraging sprawl had decreased the value of their property so much, it was the equivalent of a "taking" and they were entitled to just compensation under the Fifth Amendment? That was one of the more intriguing ideas to emerge from the 2nd National Summit on Equitable Development, Social Justice and Smart Growth in Philadelphia earlier this month, put on by Policy Link and the Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities. Former Albuquerque mayor David Rusk and Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota, said legal specialists were reviewing the possibility of such a landmark lawsuit. The idea is to flip around the accepted notion that government action can result in a de facto taking, the standard approach of property rights lawsuits coast to coast. In this lawsuit, property owners in a hollowed out city -- and one or two distressed first-ring suburbs -- would make the argument that government action to promote growth at the periphery sucked all the economic vitality out of their neighborhoods, leading to sharply decreased property values. It's too early to say whether this would go forward, but the legal papers in such a suit would have to include an exhaustive and detailed account of how state and local governments actively supported sprawl. It would be interesting reading.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Ways the wind blows

Wind is all the rage in the renewable-energy crowd, though the harnessing turbines pit environmentalists against each other, what with the disruption to the natural environment that wind farms can have (messing with migratory birds, for example). Nantucket Sound has been the latest scene of this battle, with a proposal by Cape Wind for a "wind park" at Horseshoe Shoal (www.capewind.org) But a whole new set of issues for planners is on the horizon with the growing popularity of personal windmills or “residential wind turbines” for single-family homes – blades about two feet long, on a two-inch diameter galvanized pole about 10 feet tall. Depending on the location of the home, the devices can cut electricity bills in half; they provide the energy as the wind blows and reduce the draw from the local utility accordingly. They can also produce electricity during power outages. Town planners are thumbing through the zoning laws in Massachusetts and can’t find any references to this latest breakthrough in green technology. Solar panels, yes, and ham radio antennae, but nothing on wind energy for individual property owners. The wind turbines appear to be by right under many zoning bylaws, which allow projections of up to 75 feet on a single-family house, although that seems a tad high. This will be just one feature of green building and sustainable living that gradually transfers from big commercial buildings to individual homeowners. Pretty clever. Links are http://www.wind-works.org/articles/RoofTopMounting.html and http://www.awea.org/faq/tutorial/wwt_smallwind.html#How%20do%20residential%20wind%20turbines%20work for more information.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The interchange index

Smart growth states are pulling back, being a bit more obsequious and targeted as more comprehensive initiatives struggle in a tough political climate. Current regimes prefer to suggest voluntary compliance and provide technical assistance and promote things that are selling in the marketplace anyway, like transit-oriented development. More conventional development keeps coming, however, and states have to deal with it. In Massachusetts, state transportation planners agreed to study a new interchange for Interstate 93 in Tewskbury, which would serve a planned 750,000 square-foot retail and entertainment center proposed by the Virginia-based Mills Corp., the shopping-center giant trying to establish a foothold in New England. The local political establishment badly wants the commercial development for its revenues, and the administration is respectful of local control, but Romney's Office of Commonwealth Development has also made it plain that access roads to industrial parks and other state-sponsored roadway improvements serving conventional suburban development are largely a thing of the past: state aid is being channeled to places that embrace smart growth principles. Cities and towns can't get housing funding unless they prove their smart-growth mettle.