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Sprawl optional, if we have the will

Memphis Commercial Appeal
Thursday, Sept. 2, 2004

By Thomas Hylton

There´s a lot of talk about consolidation in Memphis and Shelby County, just as there is in my home state of Pennsylvania, where the mayor of Pittsburgh and the chief executive of surrounding Allegheny County recently touted the idea.

Whether the issue is consolidating schools or a full city-county merger, consolidation could be less complicated to achieve in Tennessee than in Pennsylvania. Including Pittsburgh, Allegheny County encompasses 130 municipalities (some less than a square mile) and 43 school districts.

Inefficiency and the duplication of services are a fine art in the Keystone State, unfortunately, and we´re paying the price for our parochialism. Pittsburgh is a fiscally "distressed" city where major cutbacks are currently being dictated by a state oversight board.   Allegheny County, which has been losing population for 50 years, recently started laying off 500 employees.

Consolidation would surely lower the cost of government and make for more orderly growth in both regions. But for all its benefits, consolidation won´t stop inner city decline and the loss of countryside to sprawling development.

In fact, a national model of consolidation, Metro Nashville-Davidson County, was ranked by USA Today as America´s most sprawling city in 2001. Between 1982 and 1997, the amount of land developed in Metro Nashville-Davidson increased five times faster than population growth. And just as people are migrating from Memphis to the rest of Shelby County, people are migrating from Davidson County into adjacent counties.

At bottom, the proliferation of sprawl is based on people´s desire to live on large, isolated building lots. Large lots require the use of a car for every trip. Abundant highways are then needed to keep traffic flowing, and every destination requires parking for every potential visitor.

That´s how we´ve turned landscapes into junkscapes - by stringing out our buildings along our highways, for easy access by car, and placing an ample parking lot in front of each one.

Legally, most states already have the tools to control sprawl. In 1998, Tennessee enacted growth boundary legislation similar to the system Oregon has used to protect farmland for 30 years. Together with zoning, growth boundaries can determine the appearance, location, and density of new development.

But local governments usually don´t have sufficient willpower to use these tools effectively. For example, the Hernando, Miss., Planning Commission - not wishing to inconvenience Wal Mart, which is building a supercenter there - recently voted to allow the retailer to disregard a city requirement that new power lines be placed underground. (On Wednesday, Wal-Mart announced it was withdrawing its request to use overhead power lines at the site.)

England, which has protected its towns and countryside perhaps better than any country on earth, enjoys both the laws and the cultural disposition to control sprawl. The English have established green belts, protected open space from 5 to 20 miles wide, around most of their cities and towns.

Development is largely restricted to existing towns or areas immediately adjacent to them. The first priority is to re-use vacant industrial or commercial sites, and in recent years, more than half of all new housing has been built on previously developed land.   

Draconian as these policies might seem to Americans, the English overwhelmingly support them.  England´s countryside looks much as it did a century ago, and two-thirds of all retail trade is still conducted in traditional downtowns.  

Whether we´re dealing with inefficient little municipalities or larger, cost-effective ones, growth management laws won´t really work until more Americans decide they prefer walkable neighborhoods over isolated housing lots.

As the continuing rejuvenation of downtown Memphis demonstrates, a major change in lifestyles isn´t as far-fetched as it might seem. Weary of traffic congestion and homogeneous sprawl, a growing number of people are looking for traditional communities with a sense of place and identity.

Throughout September, Heritage Memphis and AIA Memphis have scheduled a series of lectures, exhibitions and tours to highlight the city´s distinctive buildings and comfortable neighborhoods. I hope they attract a great deal of interest. The more people who move into Shelby County´s countryside, the more it loses its rural character. But the more people who migrate to Memphis, the more livable, inviting, and sustainable the city becomes.



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