Suburban Multifamily: Smart Growth or Smart Sprawl?

In a recent article in the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, law student Paige Pavone criticizes suburban apartments and condominiums as “green sprawl” because they “merely add density to suburban sprawl and exacerbate the very problems smart growth seeks to correct.” She explains that without public infrastructure to support walking and biking, these developments merely entice more people into car-dependent suburbia, and therefore should not be entitled to density bonuses and other incentives that a state might use to encourage smart growth. In particular, she claims that such “High-Density Islands” are cut off from “communities, local governments, nature, public transportation, and sidewalks.”

Is this critique fair? Somewhat.

Pavone examined a variety of suburban multifamily developments, but focuses on Reading Woods, in Reading, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. She claims that Reading Woods residents “cannot walk to the public library, a bank, or a grocery store” and would have to cross I-95 to reach a chain restaurant. So I decided to look at Reading Woods on Google Street View and see how horrible it is.

First of all, I looked for sidewalks. The main street serving Reading Woods is Jacob Way. Jacob Way generally has sidewalks, as does Augustus Court (the main street serving the part of Reading Woods further away from South). So it seems to me that a resident of Reading Woods can use sidewalks for most visits to South Street and other neighborhood streets. To reach Main Street (the neighborhood’s main commercial street) you must walk briefly on South Street, which also has a sidewalk (though it only serves one side of the street, and looks pretty narrow). Continue reading

Land, Density and Resilience

Flood-prone areas of south Hampton Roads. Source: Virginiaplaces.org.

Flood-prone areas of south Hampton Roads. Source: Virginiaplaces.org. (Click for detail.)

One more takeaway from the Resilient Virginia launch conference yesterday: All other things being equal, more compact communities are more resilient communities.

Like Bacon’s Rebellion, Cooper Martin, program director of the Sustainable Cities Institute, is a big fan of Joe Minicozzi and his maps and graphics showing how dramatically land value-per-acre varies between core urban areas, suburbs and the countryside. Densely settled urban cores have land values that are literally a hundred times higher per acre than low-density shopping centers and large-lot subdivisions.

In my commentary, I have focused mainly upon the fiscal folly of building disconnected, low-density development. The infrastructure — the roads, utilities, sidewalks and other amenities — are more expensive per household to maintain. But Martin added a new dimension when addressing the Resilient Virginia conference yesterday. Low-density development makes it more expensive to harden homes and businesses against disruption and catastrophe. When the taxable value of land is high, it’s easier to support expensive investments to protect that land than when the value of the land is low. Continue reading

Resilience and Competitive Economic Advantage

Flooded Honda factory in Bangkok, 2011 -- what you might call a serious business continuity issue.

Flooded Honda factory in Bangkok, 2011 — what you might call a serious business continuity issue.

by James A. Bacon

If you were a manufacturing company contemplating an expansion to Hampton Roads, you would take into account traditional criteria such as proximity to customers and suppliers, access to a skilled workforce, transportation connections, prevailing wage levels, taxes and so on. But as corporations become increasingly sensitive to the issue of business continuity in the face of disruption or disaster, you also might consider the region’s vulnerability to flooding.

Outside of New Orleans, Hampton Roads is the lowest-lying metropolitan area in the country. It is notoriously prone to flooding now, and the region’s vulnerability will only get worse as the sea level rises. You may or may not believe the McAuliffe administration’s predictions that the sea level will be 1 1/2 feet higher by 2050, but the risk that the forecast might prove accurate would have to factor into your calculations. Logical questions would arise: Would flooding disrupt rail and highway access to your facility? Would it hamper the ability of employees to get to work?

Perhaps the most important question is this: Do state and local governments have a plan to cope with recurrent flooding that will likely only get worse in time? How resilient is the region — not just one particular jurisdiction but, given the connectedness of transportation arteries and commuter flows — the entire region? Continue reading

The Non Global-Warmist’s Case for Resilience Planning

hampton_roads_flooding2 by James A. Bacon The key to building a strong resiliency movement – making communities more adaptable in the face of natural and man-made disasters — is finding common ground. So argued Steven McNulty, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southeast Regional Climate Hub, in addressing the launch event of Resilient Virginia this morning. Fear of rising temperatures, droughts and sea-level rise is a major impetus behind the increasing emphasis that all levels of government are placing on resiliency. But political views about climate change are highly polarized, McNulty said. “Are you a fear monger, or are you a denier? We need to get beyond that.” Most climate scientists believe that man-made climate change is a cause for concern. But the forestry land managers McNulty deals with do not. In a recent survey, he said, “only 10% of Southeast foresters thought that climate change is man-made and real. The agricultural community is almost as disbelieving.” As it happens, their perceptions are not without basis, he added. Rising temperatures in the Southeastern U.S. have been far less pronounced than anywhere else in the country. Continue reading

Yes, Virginia, the Millennials’ Shift from Burbs to Downtowns is Real

washington

by James A. Bacon

The debate still rages over the extent to which young Americans, especially members of the Millennial generation, are moving back to the urban core. Data published by Luke Juday on the StatChat blog should settle that question once and for all. The only questions worth pondering is why they are moving, and how many will move back to the burbs.

The chart above shows the proportion of Millennials living at varying distances from downtown Washington, D.C. In 1990, there was a weak tendency for young adults (defined as 22- to 34-year-olds) to live in the urban core but it was not pronounced. By 2012, however, the next generation of post-college young people had shifted markedly to the urban core.

The chart below shows Richmond. Continue reading

Measuring Automobile Dependency

auto_dependency2

Rank is among 794 locations for which there is data.

Fascinating data from Governing magazine comparing auto dependency of various municipalities around the United States: Arlington, Alexandria and the City of Richmond led the pack in Virginia as the least auto-dependent, with Norfolk, Lynchburg and Roanoke close behind.

There are two main variables affecting automobile dependency: income and availability of transportation alternatives. Continue reading

The Self-Inflicted Infrastructure “Crisis”

Gravel roads look a whole lot better if you're paying for them yourself.

Gravel roads look a whole lot better if you’re paying for them yourself.

by James A. Bacon

We continually hear about an “infrastructure crisis” in the United States, a malady from which Virginia has not been spared. Talk of pot-holed streets, tottering bridges and crumbling highways invariably moves to talk about the need to spend more on infrastructure, which morphs into raising taxes — never by talk about paring back infrastructure that has outlived its economic usefulness.

However, there is a growing body of commentary suggesting that the problem may not be too little infrastructure but too much — too much of the wrong kind of infrastructure in the wrong place. The drum-bangers for more infrastructure spending ignore a fundamental reality: The more infrastructure you build, the more you have to maintain. The more maintain, the more you spend on maintenance. The more you spend on maintenance, the less there is to spend on new stuff.

Writing in New Geography, John Sanphillippo focuses on the disproportionate resources devoted to paving and maintaining subdivision roads in New Jersey. Based on his description, New Jersey should rename itself from “the Garden State” to “the Asphalt State.” The New Jersey Highway Trust Fund is near bankrupt, he writes. Unless the gas tax is raised, all revenue will go exclusively to debt service. And we thought we had problems in Virginia! Continue reading