CHRIS KATTERJOHN Commentary: Beware the creep of urban sprawl

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I’m happy for the city of Carmel that it wants to be a city in its own right, and not just a bedroom community of Indianapolis.

I’m not so happy about some of its development practices.

Up in my neck of the woods-western Clay Township-new subdivisions have sprung up like weeds, with little or no improvement to roads that support them. The resulting traffic delays have been maddening, to say the least. It’s not uncommon these days for me to sit behind 50 to 75 cars at a four-way stop on my way to and from work.

I have two words for it: poor planning.

As we survey the greater Indianapolis area, we see plans for major developments like Anson to the northwest along Interstate 65 in Boone County and Saxony to the northeast at Exit 10 on I-69. You can bet that all the empty space between them and the city’s current boundaries will be filled in as time passes.

To the south, Greenwood is booming; to the west, Hendricks County is on fire.

All of which leads to the question: Are we-as a region-doing this right?

Of late, I have been thinking a lot about urban sprawl, not a term I would’ve associated with Indianapolis 20 years ago. But as I observe all this growth and watch the wide-open space of my own neighborhood disappear with such an apparent disregard for infrastructure issues, I’m suddenly concerned.

Maybe I’m late to the party.

Heightening my awareness are recent visits to cities that are approaching things a little differently. I wrote in this space last month about the user-friendly, efficient public transportation system in Portland, Ore., a city often recognized as a model for fighting urban sprawl.

In 1973, the state of Oregon enacted a law establishing “urban growth boundaries” that limited the amount of space its cities could occupy and, at the same time, Portland began focusing on public transportation and higherdensity living within the city limits.

Just to the north over the border with Canada is Vancouver, B.C., another city held up as a shining example of smart growth. You won’t find interstate highways crisscrossing or circumnavigating that city. They don’t want them. Instead, you’ll find a focus on promoting urban life with high-rise residential projects; you’ll find few cars and lots of bicycles and pedestrians.

Similar to Oregon, British Columbia created an Agricultural Land Reserve that put farmland around the metropolitan area of Vancouver off limits to residential developments. As a result, when you leave downtown, you’re pretty much into the wide-open spaces of Canada.

These cities are not without their problems, to be sure. And, what works for them, may not work for us. But I commend them for their wisdom in thinking about urban growth and how to manage it.

As populations climb, urban sprawl is a major issue being dealt with all over the world, from Sydney, Australia, to Copenhagen, to Atlanta, Ga. We should be taking a hard look at ourselves as the tentacles of our city creep out farther and farther.

Sprawl eats up large amounts of land; puts great distances between homes, stores and job centers; and makes people more and more dependent on driving. It can also drain resources from existing communities and divert them to developments far from the core.

Ironic, when you consider how much time, energy and resources we’ve invested over the last 30 years in developing our own downtown core.

There are many angles to this debate, and it’s one we need to have. Two critical, but non-sexy, items that must be part of that discussion are infrastructure and public transportation-two things we seem to be afraid to confront.

I am not against growth. I am for development that is done responsibly, reasonably and with an awareness of consequences. Let us also remember: You can’t be a suburb of nothing.

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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