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VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Coming to the defense of 'sprawl' in the suburbs

February 19, 2007

Since World War II, strong public policies and economic conditions have led to booming homeownership in America, and rapid expansion of a great highway transportation system has accelerated our country's suburbanization. We all know the story; we are participants.

In the 1960s, it was often referred to as the American Dream. Although never specifically defined, the American Dream always included having a family, a reliable (maybe even cool) car, a nice home of one's own, and the freedom to work, live and worship where we wanted.

The suburbs around America's leading cities offered the middle class the opportunity to live that dream. To many Americans born in the last 50 years, Traditional Neighborhood Design is the suburbs.

I don't think the dream is dead, but it has become more complicated. We have moved beyond the suburbs to the "exurbs," and the cores of our central cities have declined and then been revitalized and reinvented. In those same decades, the intelligentsia came up with a new name for the decentralization of our population. That name has become part of the American lexicon: Sprawl.

Despite not being able to precisely describe what it is, I sense there's a lot of it out there, because I hear a lot about it.

Which brings me to a question: Why can't America (or Indianapolis) just say no to sprawl? I think the answer to that question is, "Because we like it." Let me repeat: We like sprawl, or more accurately, suburban development often labeled as sprawl.

If we really disliked sprawl, we wouldn't insist upon creating it through our consumer spending, with our planning and zoning regulations, and with our public policy.

I try to avoid using the term sprawl, since it seems more of a squishy catch-all label for development we dislike than a term whose definition we all understand. Just as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart struggled with a definition of pornography in his now famous quote, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material ... but I know it when I see it," I shall seek the same refuge when it comes to describing the dread sprawl.

Defining 'smart growth'

The ever-expanding suburbs continue to attract young families. We build homes there because of the schools. And once we get there we want grocery stores, dry cleaners, restaurants-perhaps even an office-close by. So growth goes on. As developers, as planners, and as citizens committed to a better future for all of central Indiana, how do we do it right?

The chattering classes now disdain sprawl and embrace "smart growth" (another somewhat squishy term). What is smart growth for Indianapolis? Put simply, it can be building denser, pedestrianfriendly suburban developments that leave a smaller footprint on the rural landscape. It can also be creating higher-density developments and redevelopments within the city itself, allowing residents to live closer to where they work and play.

This concept may sound a bit soft and fuzzy, but there are hard facts to back it up. In our community, as in many others around the country, the housing market has changed. Over the past couple of decades, the American family shrank in size, while the square footage of the average home increased. But while the houses are bigger, lots tend to be smaller.

Housing statistics point to the fact that although homeowners covet luxurious master suites, home theaters and gourmet kitchens, they're less keen on spending Sunday afternoons mowing a huge lawn.

Facing opposition

One alternative to simply building farther out into rural areas is to create a higher-density environment closer to the metro area's core. But this approach, too, frequently faces vehement opposition. Efforts to develop various higher-density projects in Broad Ripple and other established neighborhoods have been bitterly opposed by a vocal section of the local population.

During such confrontations, words such as "sprawl" and "density" are wielded as weapons by people who seem to oppose change of any sort.

If a project is slated for some outlying section of the metro area, its detractors say it will create sprawl. In other words, if we don't want it near us, it's almost certainly sprawl. Surely our lifestyles don't contribute to any land-use problems. It's all those people who came here after we did. Likewise, opponents of an urban-redevelopment project may say that it is "too dense," or that it consumes valuable urban open space.

The NIMBY phenomenon

The NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) phenomenon can be seen again and again, even among advocates of so-called smart growth. In an attempt to stop change in their immediate neighborhoods, the naysayers are, in most cases, perpetuating the very problems they purport to dislike. This can make things very tough for developers.

Change is at the core of the development business, and people inherently don't like change. They would like the streets they drive down to remain the same. No additional people. No more cars. No more homes. No more nothing. New people and new neighborhoods have to go someplace, but most want that someplace to be "someplace else."

There's a problem with that mindset. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that Indiana will acquire roughly 600,000 new citizens between 2000 and 2020. Company's coming. The only real question is how we accommodate it.

There seems to be a lot of handwringing over the notion that America is running out of land on which to build new development. I just don't buy it.

According to the Natural Resources Inventory conducted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 6 percent of the nation's land was classified "developed" in 2003.

Also, according to the NRI, "The percentage of total cropland that is non-cultivated has continued to increase since 1982. Non-cultivated cropland accounted for almost 16 percent (58 million acres) of cropland acreage in 2003, up from 11 percent (44 million acres) in 1982."

Wise stewardship requires the efficient use of resources, but America is emphatically not running out of land to accommodate and feed its growing population.

Growth and development certainly bring with them benefits, but also significant challenges and problems. Of course, things could be worse. As any city planner will tell you, the problems of growth and development pale in comparison to the far worse problems of stagnation and decline.

No politician in the world (and, truth be told, very few average citizens) wants his or her little burg to remain a little burg. For instance, the Indianapolis of 40 years ago was the very model of modest growth. Back then, it was often sarcastically called Naptown, or India-no-place. The growth and development of the past couple of decades made possible the attraction of numerous amenities, which include the NCAA's headquarters, world-class museums and the NFL's world champion Colts.

What Indianapolis needs is a mix-the sort of mix that creates vibrant, but not allconsuming, growth. Development at the fringes of the metro area will continue, just as it has for decades. But it can be done in a way that respects the land. And projects in more mature neighborhoods can create a new option for those who want to live in a more urban setting.

One need look no further than Fall Creek Place, a formerly blighted 26-block stretch of downtown that's been redeveloped into an exciting middle-income neighborhood. Such new projects can show the way to a better future.

But for this to happen, the average citizen might have to renovate his thinking. People may say they fear sprawl or too much development, but in many cases what they really fear is change.

Change is the only constant in this equation. It's coming. It can be dealt with well, or badly. If it is handled well, we can create a better city-and environment.
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