Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Planning for Future Growth

Ugly, unmanageable sprawl is not necessary!
by Charlie Leck

One of the most important community, social and political issues to me, personally, is the matter of urban/suburban sprawl. I’ve been involved in this question for the last 30 years. I’ve worked hard here in my own community to prevent it from becoming just another ordinary, common, poorly planned suburb. After retirement, I volunteered for a couple of years with 1000 Friends of Minnesota when it was an organization that advocated with high energy to contain sprawl.

There are few things uglier than poorly planned, sprawling suburbs covering vast metropolitan areas. They are nightmares in so many ways. They place extraordinary demands on services and on transportation infrastructure. Environmentally, they promote over-usage of energy and the waste of resources.

Like most such issues, however, there are huge political differences in the discussions surrounding alternatives to such sprawl. Higher density – living closer to each other, living in more highly populated communities and living in more high-rise communities – is often offered as the only alternative to sprawl. I don’t think it really is the only alternative, however.

The solution to most of the problems sprawl creates is to better plan for the growth in the physical size of a city or metropolitan area and to build the needed infrastructure first. Mass transit systems, for example, are far too expensive to build within a region once the sprawl has already taken place. Starting about 30 years ago, many communities created agencies, regional governments or branches of state government to try to do this advance planning.

For years we, up here in this metropolitan area of Minnesota, have boasted about the regional government system we created to deal with these questions of growth and sprawl in our cities. We call it the Metropolitan Council of the Twin Cities (Met Council). Its mission calls for “orderly and efficient growth.” This organization has a fine national reputation for basically succeeding in this mission. In fact, we haven’t succeeded any better than most major metropolitan areas.

Such a point is made in an article this morning in MinnPost, raising serious questions about the efficacy of the Met Council. This piece centers around the observations and criticisms of Myron Orfield, the Director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School. Orfield is a good man. I’ve followed his career for a long time – starting with his time as a law-maker here in Minnesota – and I’ve read a number of his papers and books. His concentration has been on class and economic inequities – the poverty that permeates the central city and certain blue-collar suburbs and the vast wealth in certain suburbs and sections of the core city. These are hard issues to get people to face. When we start talking about the causes of such divisions, many people instinctively believe we’re laying a plan for the redistribution of wealth.

Now, however, Orfield raises the possibility that the one organization we had hoped would prevent such divisiveness and inequities in our community (the Met Council), may actually be unconsciously promoting such disparity. Even more strongly, he suggests that the Met Council may be “complicit” in the development of such trends. Orfield raises challenging questions about race, class and economic inequality.

Mind you, Orfield is not laying blame at the feet of the Met Council; he’s just saying that the Council hasn’t done much to prevent these inequities. He and a colleague, Thomas Luce, have written a new book: Planning the Future of the Twin Cities (published by the University of Minnesota Press). I’ve ordered a copy of the book and I’ll be reviewing it for you in the next couple of weeks.

Imagine how a metropolis grows!
Wherever you are reading this, you probably know about unplanned (or foolishly planned) urban growth. The Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, down in Texas, is probably the best example of what happens to a community when growth is unchecked and unplanned. That metropolitan region, covering more than 9,000 square miles, encompasses all or parts of 12 counties and has a population of 6.5 million and continues to grow rapidly. It is, in fact, the fastest growing metropolitan area in the nation. Now, try to imagine this: The Metroplex is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined; and, as a matter of fact, it is about the same size as New Hampshire. In addition to Dallas and Fort Worth, it is made up of cities like Plano, Richardson, Arlington, Irving and Denton. Within it live many of the wealthiest people in America and many of the poorest.

I don’t like the Metroplex very much. My sister, Jean of Blessed Memory, use to live out on the northeast side of the vast area. I’d go down to visit her once in a while and I found the region too vast and overwhelming. People, with so many miles to cover, drive too fast. I seemed to spend most of my time in a car, going somewhere and not spending much time in any actual place. Everything in the Dallas region is too fast, including its growth. Planners can’t keep up. New infrastructure is constantly needed. Generally that means more roads. Mass transit systems (buses and light rail) are woefully inadequate. Most transportation money is spent building high-speed roads. Those who can’t afford adequate automobiles, and the expensive fuel they use, are left behind. The job opportunities for such people are limited to the small spheres in which they live – so too their choices of schools and health-care providers.

Dallas is not alone in this. It’s no different here in the Twin Cities, or in Denver, or in Chicago. It’s just that it’s so much geographically bigger in the Metroplex.

It would have been just so much better if we could have seen it all coming and developing as we really should have been able to. We could have and should have included in such growth the plans for future transportations systems, non-invasive roads, parkways, recreational trails, parks, play-grounds, industrial centers, schools and medical treatment facilities. Once a community has already spread out over thousands of miles, it is then far too expensive to inject these meaningful institutions into them.

Here is the Twin Cities, we recently spent billions of dollars to build a light rail system from downtown Minneapolis out to the International Airport and on to the close-in suburb of Bloomington. The system is heavily used and it’s a major success, but a half dozen other lines like it are needed. To reclaim the required land is both economically and socially too disruptive. What if, we had thought of such things ahead of time – years and years ago? There were such seers who advocated that kind of planning 30 years ago. Legislators and citizens just didn’t listen. They couldn’t imagine such growth.

Guys like Orfield have been calling for such planning since I moved into this region in 1963. Had we listened to some of these guys we could have planned our community in such a way that pockets of poverty, crime and deterioration would not exist today. The libertarians of those days, however, were shouting loudly back then that we were crazy, wild-eyed liberals.

I’ll tell you more about Myron Orfield and his work and thinking in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you’re interested in this subject, how better planning could have reduced isolated pockets of poverty, unemployment and crime, be sure to read the MinnPost article.


Refinishing hardwood floors… we’re having our kitchen floor – hard maple – sanded and refinished. It’s an awful project. There’s no escaping the dust that such work creates even though we tried diligently to seal off the kitchen from the rest of the house. What a mess?

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