Land Hogs

NEAL R. PEIRCE

September 14, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Americans say they want diverse, colorful, people-friendly, well-used downtowns and neighborhoods.

A rush of ''Vision 2000'' or ''2020'' plans have been produced by broad-based citizen committees -- some acting independently, some with government support. From Seattle to Orlando, Indianapolis to Louisville, Chattanooga to Tempe, Arizona, these plans place high value on historic preservation, lively streets, public transit accessibility.

Nor do we like the idea of endless suburban sprawl. Our vision statements endorse preservation of open space in and around our regions.

Yet there's a deep chasm between what Americans say we want and what, as consumers choosing places to live and work, we actually do.

We may indeed be the champion land hogs of history. Our urban areas devour land four to eight times faster than their population grows. The New York area's population increase over the past 25 years has been only 5 percent, but the developed land has increased by 61 percent, devouring nearly 25 percent of the region's forests and farmland.

And while we say we like -- even romanticize -- old-style town life, we accept suburban development patterns of rigidly compartmentalized, single-purpose land uses that destroy community by obliging us to drive everywhere.

We say we value public transit, but we stick to our private cars. During the 1980s, while mass-transit systems languished, the number of Americans driving their cars all alone to work soared by 22 million, or 35 percent, several million more than the 18 million workers added to the national work force.

We call for preserving the open countryside, but we rush to the new subdivisions and ''edge cities.'' Virtually all European ''citistates'' have set up and enforce urban growth boundaries. But not us. Only Oregon enforces truly strict growth boundaries around its cities.

Real-estate expert Christopher Leinberger traces multiple stages of U.S. commercial development. From the old downtowns, we began to branch out in the '60s to close-in commercial centers like Bala Cynwyd near Philadelphia and the northern reaches of Phoenix's seemingly interminable Central Avenue. Then, in the mid '70s and '80s, development exploded into such mega-developments as Tysons Corner, in the Washington suburbs, King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, Denver's Tech Center and Bellevue across Lake Washington from Seattle.

Yet another wave began in the late '80s -- to such distant development centers as Houston's 290 corridor, Loudoun County, Virginia, (an hour's congested drive from Washington), and Mesa outside Phoenix.

In the meantime, our inner cities have suffered immense disinvestment and have lost hundreds of thousands of jobs. And what next? When the recession truly ends, will investment in our downtowns and older suburbs pick up again?

Probably not. ''Now that so many jobs have moved to the fringe,'' Mr. Leinberger predicts ''new housing can go another 20 miles out. There will be a leapfrog effect.''

Metropolitan Cleveland provides an example. As long as most jobs were in or near downtown, a 30-minute commute limited people to fairly close-by suburbs in Cuyahoga County. But now, with the interstates complete and so-called ''edge city'' commercial centers sprung up around the regional periphery, the 30-minute commuting range has moved far beyond Cuyahoga County. And potential new suburbs show up as an eerie blob on the planners' maps, spreading far out into still-rural areas of Lorain, Medina, Summit, Portage, Geauga and Lake Counties.

''Edge cities,'' reports EcoCity Cleveland Journal, ''not only make it possible for suburbia to chew up more woods and farmlands. They also promote more commuting across suburbs, more congestion on suburban and rural roads, more energy consumption and pollution, and a more dispersed population that cannot be served by mass transit.''

To that, one must add the gruesome social cost as new job locations proceed farther and farther into the countryside. Some inner-city folks might find a way to get to jobs in a Country Club Plaza beside Kansas City, or Towson near Baltimore, or L.A.'s Century City. But it's virtually impossible for them to get to such distant places as Ontario (34 miles from L.A.), or Hoffman Estates -- the spot 37 miles from Chicago's Loop to which Sears escaped, jettisoning practically all its Chicago work force.

Our land-use practices threaten social conflagration in our cities. But corporate America doesn't seem to care. Not a single major corporate relocation in America in the last four years, notes Mr. Leinberger, ''has gone anywhere except the absolute metropolitan fringe.''

In the boardrooms, the distant ''campus-like'' settings may seem to make sense -- the land, after all, is cheap and easily assembled, and it turns out that the executives, with uncanny regularity, live nearby.

But the public costs -- despair in the inner cities, environmental degradation, undermining of older neighborhoods and suburbs -- are frightening. Romantic visions about our communities need to be transformed into tough political action that sets meaningful growth boundaries around our burgeoning citistates -- and insists that all developers and corporations honor them.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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