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Review of Changing Places 2009/12/08

Posted by allielooft in Land Use.
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The latter half of the twentieth century brought exponentially increasing car dependency to Americans, ultimately resulting in congestion, out-of-control sprawl, and empty inner cities.  Richard Moe and Carter Wilkie explore this trend in their 1997 book,  Changing Places: Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl.  Moe, a historic preservationist, and Wilkie, a speechwriter, look at this planning problem through a preservationist lens.  The authors first examine cities that have lost their once vibrant downtowns to urban renewal, poverty, or sprawl.  Then, they consider places that have been preserved and try to discover what makes these places – and the people who plan them – successful.  Essentially, they suggest that many of our cities have been built by chance, but we need to build them “by choice”: by being conscious, mindful, and forward-thinking.  Moe and Wilkie strongly believe that we can reshape our communities, making them more sustainable and livable, by protecting our pre-automobile past and recreating what makes early cities so wonderful.

One particularly interesting place that the authors examine is Haymarket, Virginia, and the proposed Disney park that almost turned it in to a different place entirely.  Haymarket was a tiny town situated on a former plantation in the Piedmont region of Virginia, thirty-five miles west of Washington, D.C.  In 1993, the Walt Disney Company announced plans to build a new theme park, and when the company executives considered where to locate, they chose Haymarket, population 483, as the lucky winner.  Ironically, the theme park, to be called “America,” would recreate historic events and places from America’s past.  The company’s initial development projections, which included estimates for the number of visitors to the region, hotel rooms needed to house them, and increased traffic to and from the park, were well received by many local businesses and politicians.  Store owners liked the potential business growth, and the government anticipated a huge increase in tax receipts.  However, other groups, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, feared that these predictions were grossly understated.  The resulting development required by the park would be so large, they warned, it would grow endlessly, connect to the D.C. suburbs, and create a massive, characterless sprawl.  Haymarket would disappear into an entirely new city, built out of nothing.  Eventually, resistance from interest groups and the media grew so heated that Disney withdrew the proposal.  This story represents an example of a place that could have been “built by chance” thwarted by efforts to protect the region’s character.

Moe and Wilkie also write about an incredibly unique place that has controlled its development and made a conscious effort to “build by choice.”  Portland, Oregon, sets the standard for a sustainably developed city.  In the 1980s, the city government implemented a number of measures to enhance its downtown and limit sprawl; these include revitalizing the central business district, installing a growth boundary, limiting parking spaces, and providing a pedestrian-friendly downtown core.  When presented with a challenge to their motives, enterprising Portland citizens and politicians fought to protect what they had worked hard to create.  Oregon was considering building a new bypass highway in the later part of the ‘80s.  Sensible Transportation Options for People, a local interest group, was worried the highway would create sprawl.  Another concerned organization, 1,000 Friends of Oregon, and a local attorney, Keith Bartholomew, got involved and wrote an alternative proposal in an attempt to persuade the state to halt the construction.  This innovative plan, Land Use, Transportation and Air Quality (“LUTRAQ”), suggested that we could “rearrange suburbia” to reduce car dependency and encourage walkability.  It included proposed changes to traditional single-use zoning codes, replacing them with mixed-use neighborhoods and transit-oriented developments.  The ideas hit home, and the bypass was never built.  The plan was then and continues to be highly influential.  Portland residents still support the growth boundary, pushed for investment in light rail, and refer to LUTRAQ in their planning processes.  Portland provides a perfect example of a place taking hold of its future and building carefully, by choice.

Future land use planners should take heed of Moe and Wilkie’s warnings.  Luckily, sustainability has emerged into the forefront of city planning discussion in the decade since the book was published.  Sustainability, in this sense, promotes long-term, livable communities.  Walkability, transit orientation, and increased density all seem to be valued in new projects more than conventional subdivisions, big-box shopping centers, and highway sprawl.  However, much of the American landscape has already been covered by these “no-places,” so it is ever more important that we protect the old spaces we still have.  To do so, we need to change land use and zoning codes to encourage historic preservation, mixed-use development, density, transit, and downtown infill.  We also need to remove the incentives, like providing infrastructure and tax advantages, that have typically been offered to developments that induce sprawl.  Taking these steps will help improve the connectivity, livability, and sense of place in our surroundings.

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