Opinion and Viewpoint

HENDERSON: Urban planning is local oxymoron

June 15, 2009

There's a modern recipe for new neighborhoods: Take one cornfield, sprinkle with 1/3-acre plots, and take it to a zoning board with the drainage, utility, public-service and road-impact statements. Stir in residences with targeted price ranges. Bake in the oven of lawyering, and add area lobbying to taste. Build a bunch of houses. (The term "home" is often incorrectly applied here. Homes are made by the people who live in them.) Please point out that a strip mall with six of 200 different franchises will be built nearby. Test to see if a toothpick will come out clean. If it does, it's a new neighborhood.

We have plenty of them. They're placed willy-nilly across Indy and surrounding counties, and there's little rhyme or reason to how they're placed and the resources that must be provided for them--not to mention quality-of-life issues for their potential buyers and public resources that are drained. It's, "Oh, by the way, we'll have 400 new students in a corner of our school district over the next two years. Have a nice day."

Only rarely are these projects turned down. If there's a master plan, it's pretty obscure, given the proliferation of projects.

We've been gosh-darn grateful to have new neighborhoods. Farmers (and their descendants) get to cash out. Schools get new kids. Roads get more traffic. Utility poles mushroom. New geography occupied means new customers for hungry businesses. Construction companies build the largely pre-fabricated homes on lots that have been plowed asunder.

And it's a disaster.

Take Pike Township in Marion County. Please. New schools and fire stations abound, along with other taxpayer-supported services. New "communities of homes" are often built without regard to adjacent resources. History plays a part. Sidewalks weren't required in parts of the county outside the pre-Unigov Indianapolis boundaries. Try to walk almost anywhere in Pike (or any other township in the county besides Center), and the lack of sidewalks--or bizarre termination of sidewalks--can get you killed, or gestured at in ways that are unprintable.

Riding a bike is a similar exercise in rewriting life insurance actuarial tables. Some unpaved paths are dangerous, littered with trash, and plainly unnavigable by a wheelchair. Still, some streets, like portions of 86th Street, have sidewalks installed. People with handicaps are almost chained to such navigable areas, whereas they should exist throughout the area.

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization tries to deal with transportation issues. But the core values of the area were built on the fallacy that we'd have cheap fuel and lots of cars to travel here and there. We'd go to work, shop, pick up children, and do our other daily tasks by car--not by foot or bike. Lots of people want to hang onto that idea. Mass transportation is an oxymoron when we permit designs for parking lots rather than bus or even light rail.

A radical idea is needed to stanch the problem. May I suggest we tax purchases of new (but not existing) homes 12 percent? Invest those funds in rebuilding and/or reinforcing existing infrastructure and adapting it to both mass transportation, but also current livability standards. That would do something unthinkable: slow growth. It's time to rethink how we build communities to allow them to be less dependent on cars and trucks, and more cost-effective with mass transportation and local shopping.

The American Dream seems to include buying a fat slab of land, which is somehow a manifestation of personal wealth. Often, it's actually a manifestation of debt. The debt goes deeper when the needs can be satisfied only by burning lots of fuel. We need a regional planning commission to help decide land use before we face problems that are already happening in other major cities, and in countries across the world.

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Henderson is managing director of ExtremeLabs Inc., a local computer analysis firm.

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