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Ideas for Reducing Urban Sprawl

Ryan Wiseman




In the United States is a phenomenon known as urban sprawl, which has caused for a rapid decrease in the amount of farmland and green space in peripheral lands that surround that urban sprawl. What are some ideas that we can start to practice that would help to slow the rate of growth or urban sprawl, or use smart-growth policies that can better control the growth of the always-expanding metro areas?

Below are several ideas for improving the use of our land, reducing urban sprawl, and so forth:

  • All metropolitan areas need to have a unified municipal government, that includes the central city and all its suburbs, that is used for creating metro-wide policies concerning zoning, development and redevelopment, smart growth, usage of land, transportation issues, housing, taxation, housing of poor, and so forth. This would include metro areas that have areas in more than one state, such as New York City, Chicago, Washington, St. Louis, Louisville, Kansas City, and many others.
  • We need to create a system of national zoning that includes the following:
    a) Boundaries, or outer limits, on the area that a metropolitan area can grow out towards. Once a metro area has reached that outer limit, it cannot develop any farther, but must focus on redevelopment of their already-used land, perhaps becoming a more high-density use area.
    b) Agricultural reserves – areas in parts of the country that are very productive in growing our food supply will be zoned as agricultural reserve land. Perhaps counties that are registered as an agricultural reserve county would have a requirement that 80% of their land be used for agricultural growing purposes, allowing that county to determine what to do with the 20% that they can use for development, including housing, commerce, industry, and parks and recreation. This type of plan would limit development, especially if the county, or reserve area, were adjacent to a metro area. It would also help to protect the land we need for producing our food from being swallowed up by development.
  • Older, less dense, residential areas can be made to become more dense, especially if there is lots of space between houses. The yard that is between two adjacent houses, in those low-density neighborhoods, can be purchased as eminent domain by the city from each homeowner, on either side, and can be combined into a new lot, which can be developed into a new residence. By doing this practice, we can increase the population density of those neighborhoods by almost 100%.
  • High-rise shells, complete with water, sewer, telephone, television, electricity, gas, and other connections, can be constructed in parts of the inner-city that are being regentrified. These high-rise buildings would have empty, unfinished spaces, each of which could be developed into the equivalent of a two-story, maximum 3000 square foot house. Each space would be sold to a potential homeowner, much like an empty lot would be sold to a potential homeowner, who would then be allowed to finish the space how he/she wanted. Think about this - before lots can be sold in a new neighborhood, an infrastructure is required to be built to be able to sell those lots; in this case, it would be a different form of infrastructure being built, which would be required to sell empty spaces for development within. For example, a 600-foot-tall building, the equivalent of 60 stories, would have 120 empty units, each 50 feet wide by 30 feet long by 20 feet tall (50’x30’x20’), with four units on each level, four units above that, four units again above that, and so forth – each space having the ability to have two floors, each 1500 square feet. How would these units be maintained? Since they’re sold in the same way as individual home lots, they would also be taxed with property taxes much like individual homes are. In fact, the whole shell of a building would be considered part of the urban infrastructure, equivalent to streets and water and sewer systems, and the like. Not only that, but if hundreds of these building were erected in many metropolitan areas throughout the country, with the same internal framework, and, maybe, ten different exterior shell styles, they could be produced using a mass-production of sorts, bringing down the initial construction costs of those high-rise shells. The more people reside in these type of buildings, the less they will live in the suburbs, and the less urban sprawl will take place, as well as less energy usage for several reasons. With this approach, the cost of maintaining infrastructure might actually decrease, and the amount of urban sprawl also decrease, all while maintaining or improving our standard of living and quality of life.
  • Prioritize certain lots over others – for example, an empty lot ripe for development within close proximity to the center of the city would be prioritized for development over empty lots in far-out peripheral lands. Old lots with dilapidated buildings on them, or with a building sitting long empty that, because of their shape or nature, make it almost impossible to be used for something else, will be given back over to the city, who will demolish the old or unused structures, and get the lot ready for redevelopment, prioritizing it in the process. This would be similar to the smart growth policies that Portland, Oregon has been experimenting with for many years.
  • Regentrification of older areas will take precedence over developing brand-new areas.
  • Have a tax structure that rewards people for practicing, and going along with, smart growth policies. For example:
    a)The farther out a residence is from the center of town, the higher their property tax rate will be, making it a geographically-based progressive property tax system. For example, a residence that is close to the center of the city worth $200k would pay $1,000/year in property taxes, while a house with the same value ten miles out pays $2,000/year, and a house with the same value twenty miles out pays $3000/year.
    b)People that live in the central city would get a permanent income tax break, motivating people to live in the central city, and motivating suburban cities to allow themselves to be annexed into the central city, thus improving the ability to have a more unified metro-wide municipal government.
  • Create a system where housing for the poor, or lower classes, is evenly distributed across all tax areas, whether they are townships, suburbs and central city in a metro area, school districts, including low-cost rental units, section 8 housing, and so forth, so that every area has an equal burden of helping the poor or lower-class individuals. When this happens, there will be much less motivation for suburbs to remain separate governmental entities as a process of middle-class urban flight and separation from the central city municipal government, and the burden for helping the poor being equal would motivate people in one community to come together with the entire metro area to help those blighted individuals, including developing a system that allows for less urban sprawl. It would also help to bring regentrification into blighted CBD transition zones instead of development of outside peripheral areas, as the poor originally in the transition zone have been redistributed evenly throughout the entire metro area.
  • If metro areas had a metro-wide government organization to guide development, including a planning board, people that want to put commercial buildings, businesses, industries, or even build a house would have to appear before that board, who would help direct the development of that business in a good location, while at the same time directing the energies in the development of that business to locations that are towards the center of the city instead of on the outskirts, and directing those same energies towards regentrification rather than new development. We do have these kind of approval processes in place already, but they tend to be separate for each individual suburb and city; this plan would call for a metro-wide approval process.
  • Develop the technology and engineering to construct high-rise buildings above buildings that are on the historic register and can’t be torn down to make way for a new building. This would help to increase use of that space to a greater degree.
  • Develop space to have multiple functions, based on their level from the ground – for example, develop high-rise buildings where the first fifty feet would be two levels to be used for industrial and warehousing purposes, high enough for tractor-trailers to drive into and dock and so forth; then have fifty feet, or five levels for commercial purposes, the first two being for shopping, entertainment, restaurants, and groceries, and the last three being for office space; then have another 20-40 levels for residential use. This type of multiple use on the same piece of land takes up much less land than spreading it out over several buildings.
  • We could learn a lot from the way things are done to shape the larger cities in our northern neighbor, Canada. For example, the Canadian cities are considered more compact and dense than their American counterpart, use public transportation more than in the U.S., have less central-city decline like they have in American cities, and have more metropolitan government unity rather than the fragmentation of metro area municipal governments between central cities and their many suburbs like they do in the United States. The inner-cities of large Canadian cities are more livable and attractive than their American city counterparts, and are easier to move around in by walking – being more pedestrian-friendly. Portland, Oregon and Alexandria, Virginia might be two other places to look for guidance and ideas.

These are just a few of the ideas that we could use to decrease the progression of urban sprawl, using smart growth philosophies and policies.

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