'Back to the Future' for Better Communities

NEAL R. PEIRCE

September 20, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

SACRAMENTO. — Sacramento -- Could we ''go back to the future'' to build an America we like better than the sterile single-class suburbs, auto-dependent and far from town centers, that commercial builders have been pushing on us for the last generation?

Yes, says Grantland Johnson, supervisor of Sacramento County, California. The model is right in front of us, he observes, in those pre-World War II communities where housing types and costs vary block by block, upper- and lower-income people live in closer proximity, much less space was wasted, and housing densities make mass transit practicable.

Mr. Johnson, a keen African-American intellectual reportedly in line to be regional director for the Department of Health and Human Services, failed, in narrow Sacramento Board of Supervisor votes, to get a majority for the new transit-accessible county development plan designed by famed San Francisco architect Peter Calthorpe. But by forging an alliance among racial minorities and the environmentalists, he has pointed the way to a new land-use politics for the '90s.

When development flows to the metropolitan fringes, Mr. Johnson notes, we not only devour farmlands and open spaces and generate auto dependency and air-quality crises. We divert money needed for infrastructure in older neighborhoods. We divert jobs to fringe locations, accessible only by car. And most critical, we destroy the potential for coherent community.

Take a look at any region, and you see proof of Mr. Johnson's point. Suburbanites tend to live in enervating social isolation, driving their protected kids everywhere, denying them the pleasures of informal town life. Even while in inner-city neighborhoods, areas drained of employed role-model adults, kids see little reason to take education seriously and rarely make the normal contacts of a socially integrated society, contacts that could lead them into productive lives of work.

We are engaged, in short, in a form of development that, at its heart, is profoundly anti-community at the grassroots, anti-community for a nation of shared purpose.

Under the Calthorpe plan, new developments would have to be built on light-rail lines or bus-feeder routes. Each would include a mix of single-family homes, apartments and townhouses, a town center, mixed-use commercial facilities and employment centers, all within a quarter-mile walk from the transit stop.

The ''back to the future'' feel would be achieved through narrow street widths, shorter lot setbacks, and garages behind houses in alleys instead of in front. Single-family homes could have a ''granny flat'' above the garage, looking out on the alley, for extra rental income or to house an elderly relative or older children.

The goal, in Mr. Johnson's view: ''a neighborhood in which people actually see one another outside their cars!''

Inclusionary zoning would assure that people of all income groups mix in the new developments. Middle-class families could shed second and third autos (at an annual saving of at least $5,000 per vehicle). School integration would be easier to achieve. Poor families' devastating isolation from the mainstream our society would be ameliorated. And we would, Mr. Johnson says, have returned to the future, to ''the mixed-use environment we had for decades, before we pandered totally to the auto.''

Building this kind of environment is far more complex, of course, than throwing up another cookie-cutter, cul-de-sacked suburb. Not surprisingly, the building industry teamed up to defeat the Calthorpe plan Mr. Johnson was backing -- even though Portland and San Diego have adopted some parts of the guidelines, and the ideas are now starting to be discussed widely across the country.

What's really required is a revolution in American zoning patterns. In his new book, ''The Geography of Nowhere'' (Simon & Schuster), James Howard Kunstler suggests that we may enjoy the intimacy of streets, the mix of shops and homes and nearness of the countryside in small Vermont towns or a Charleston, South Carolina. But ''these places could never be built today under our present zoning laws. They would violate setback codes, street-width specifications, separation of uses and all the other rules that add up to a blueprint for sprawl. All you can build today in upstate New York is another version of Los Angeles.''

At least we're starting to comprehend what our true problem is -- the first step on any road to progress. The message is that wrong-headed zoning is Villain No. 1, followed by builder resistance.

The hidden problems, many people say, are racism and economic exclusivity.

But need they be fatal to any discussion of new community land use? We won't know until we do the obvious -- change the zoning rules, and then use carrots and sticks to get the builders to go along. Then we should find out: Can compact and user-friendly communities, as varied as America in their composition, be built in our time?

If so, the environmental and social benefits could well be profound.

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

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