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Your Town Alabama recalls days of more compact communities

Birmingham News
Wednesday, June 11, 2003

By Thomas Hylton

Gov. Bob Riley faces an uphill battle to convince Alabamians that higher taxes are essential to invest in Alabama´s future and improve everyone´s quality of life.

But there´s another culture change in the air, one less obvious but far more sweeping, that could save Alabamians money, improve their health, and even reduce the stress in their lives.

It´s called Smart Growth - a national movement that calls for rediscovering traditional towns as a way of life.

For most of its history, Alabama consisted of compact cities and towns surrounded by pristine countryside. Towns were designed on a human scale, placing houses for people of all incomes within walking distance of stores, schools, and workplaces. Because they were self-contained, towns promoted a sense of place and community.

A radically different pattern of development, one designed on a car scale, evolved following World War II. With the aid of massive road-building programs, Alabamians - like other Americans - began scattering new housing, shopping malls and office parks randomly across the landscape. This lifestyle offered people bigger housing tracts and effortless travel, but required a car for every trip, with parking lots taking up far more land than buildings.

Sprawling development has ruined scenic landscapes. It´s consumed enormous quantities of land. It´s isolated people, and it´s forced them into a wearisome life of constant driving. In metro Birmingham, residents drive an average of 35 miles a day. They spend nearly an hour just driving to and from work. In just one year, that´s 240 hours behind the wheel, the equivalent of six weeks at the office. For most households, the cost of transportation is second only to housing. And because we don´t walk anymore, more than half of all adults are overweight - double the percentage of 30 years ago.

Alabamians can view an alternative lifestyle each Saturday morning through July 5, when free walking tours will be conducted in more than 30 Alabama cities and towns from Birmingham to Wetumpka, sponsored by the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel. Although these walks are designed to promote pride in Alabama´s heritage, they also serve to remind us of a less frenetic lifestyle that Alabamians could rediscover.

As one who has lived his whole life in traditional towns, I can attest to their merit. Having grown up walking to school, I was careful to buy a house just a block from the newspaper where I worked for two decades. My wife teaches at our neighborhood elementary school. Our way of life has saved us countless hours of driving over 30 years and more than $100,000 for the second car we haven´t had to own and maintain.

There´s plenty of vacant land in Alabama´s traditional towns to accommodate all the development the state will need for decades to come. Birmingham is so spread out, for example, it already covers the same land area as Pittsburgh, Boston and St. Louis combined.

In recent years, numerous Smart Growth initiatives have been launched in the region:

  • A new state agency has been established to encourage the redevelopment of brownfields, abandoned industrial tracts mostly located in traditional towns.
  • The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce has been pushing for a regional transit system, one that can only work if new development is compact and clustered near transit stops.
  • Operation New Birmingham has fostered the rehabilitation of scores of downtown buildings for housing, stores, and offices.

One initiative I´m pleased to join (as a lecturer) is Your Town Alabama, a non-profit program that has helped more than 300 civic leaders from 100 towns plan their community´s future. Your Town will conduct its ninth workshop since 1998 next week in Jasper.

Like most Alabamians, Your Town´s participants care deeply about their communities. As we grow, we need to plan carefully -to ensure our communities remain places worth caring about.






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