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Thread: Is "Smart Growth" missing the big picture?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Is "Smart Growth" missing the big picture?

    I got a call from a western state about a job interview. One of the things that always goes through my mind when I consider a move is "do I really want to live there?" This is a great city, just the kind of place I would fit in. I started thinking about my garden then, maybe because the first flowers are beginning to bloom now. Could I have a garden like this one? It is the west, and water is a problem. Later, I read an article on Glen Canyon in Backpacker Magazine and soon I was starting to wonder if the Smart Growth or Sustainable Development movements have failed to look at a much bigger issue than sprawl. Should we even be in some places to begin with?

    Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and many of the other large, rapidly growing cities of the west do not have the water to meet their needs, and in the prosecc of taking what they can find, are destroying whole ecosystems. Glen Canyon is but one example of this. You could easily add Hetch Hetchy, the Salton Sea, the Gulf of California, the Snake River, and countless others to the list. Promote Smart Growth as much as you like. You could have cities ten times as dense as now, but you still need the water to sustain human life, along with industry and agriculture (and to wash the mud off our SUV's after a weekend of tearing up the backcountry).

    The western drought is, I think, going to bring this issue to the forefront. We have had four years of low rain, and some scientists think we are cycling into an extended drought such as the one thought to have led to the collapse of the Anasazi civilization. Will this lead to a disaster for out desert cities? Are we failing to plan, when we allow them to grow beyond the means of the land to sustain them? Or are we going to further compound the problem, causing new environmental catastrophe by diverting water from the north and east over the Continental Divide? Is no growth the smartest growth for these cities?
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  2. #2
    Member Wulf9's avatar
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    The first thing about those cities is that their basic planning module is "wet climate suburb." They are spread out, with lawns, and are heavily watersports and golf course oriented.

    The smart growth model is also a wet climate model.

    Truly smart growth would be climate sensitive as well as a using classical midwestern town model. Perhaps smart growth, Arizona style, would be pueblo style.

    Of course, then the white flight to the arid south would not be nearly so huge. Those folks wouldn't want to be there if they had to live the "arid" lifestyle.

  3. #3
    You're focusing on one issue: water. What about the host of other issues? Should the Bay Area continue to expand along fault lines that will undoubtably kill scores of people? Should swamp and wetlands in the Southeast continue to be "reclaimed" for development?

    Obviously "smart growth" models need to be tailored for local environments. They often are. The houses in Tucson's central city usually don't have grassy lawns. Floridians don't have basements. New Orleans shotguns are painted in light and bright colors to reflect the summer heat.

    I certainly don't think that smart growth is to blame for the boom of the Sun Belt. I don't even think its smart growth's responsibility to keep people from flocking to places with warm climates. Curtailing growth in certain extremities is outside of the jurisdiction of "smart growth," which while its name suggests otherwise, is more of a design concept.

    If we lived in a more historically South-centered culture, we'd probably be blaming people for wasting all that heating resource by moving North. After all, the thermostat's a pretty huge resource hog.

  4. #4

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    I've been west three or four times, to Phoenix and Las Vegas. I came away with the same feeling that Cardinal is expressing here. I traveled extensively through both cities, and always came away thinking that there is nothing sustainable about them. In a PC world, neither city "should" have been built, but they were. And "Smart Growth", however defined and implemented, will not make their fundamental problem -- the lack of water -- go away.

    I also understand passdoubt's points as well. There's nothing especially sustainable about New Orleans or South Florida, either, and the threat of complete destruction from earthquakes exists all along the California coast. But if you look at a spectrum of sustainability, places like New Orleans and Miami will always be seen as more sustainable, because they don't lack anything that is essential for survival.

    Smart Growth or no Smart Growth, each city will be faced with responding to the challenge of its own sustainability

  5. #5
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    One of the things that profs have told me when discussing Smart Growth is that the term is defined specifically for the special characteristics of each city--Smart Growth in Arlington, VA is not the same as Smart Growth in say Phoenix, AZ. While there are definitely several cities that have overdeveloped or should not have been created in the first place, one of the goals of Smart Growth must be to mitigate the negative effects of growth on those locations. It's practically impossible to stop growth to the Sunbelt, but we can try to lessen the impact of the growth. With the example of water, cities like Phoenix and El Paso have become great examples of water conservation. Does that make them sustainable? Probably not, but it does help minimize the negative effects of the growth. For most Sunbelt cities, we are left to make the best of a bad situation; people will continue to move there in their pursuit of the American Dream and a "better" climate (in every since of the word). I don't believe it is possible to create a truely sustainable American city, but personally I'd rather "die trying" with a theory like Smart Growth. If I was to rename the theory, I would call it "Smarter Growth"; it is not a true solution to a problem but it is smarter than what we have.

    I definitely understand where you are coming from with your discussion of large populations locating in places that they have no business being or outgrowing their sustainable population, especially in regards to water supply. I live near San Antonio, the largest city by far that relies on aquifer water for a water supply. The Edwards Aquifer is extremely porous limestone and while it does recharge quickly, it does not have the filtering that many sand aquifers have-making it very susceptable to pollutants. In the summer San Antonio often has to implement water conservation measures when the aquifer reaches a certain depletion level (yet for some strange reason they still let people install typical suburban water-sucker landscaping). People keep coming to San Antonio, so it needs to do more to mitigate the impacts of the growth on the aquifer and find a firm water supply.

    Sorry for the long post-I usually try to avoid being long-winded. You just happened to touch on a topic that has a lot of interest to me. I keep hoping that someday someone will explain to me exactly why the hell Las Vegas came into existance in the first place.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  6. #6
    Cyburbian boilerplater's avatar
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    Dry humor

    I keep hoping that someday someone will explain to me exactly why the hell Las Vegas came into existance in the first place.
    Its what happens when you build an economy around a human weakness and fail to regulate it. Its what happens when organized crime gets to build a town.

    In my own thinking about moving west, I've had similar thoughts to Cardinal's. Would I be just adding to the problem by being one of thousands to put development pressure on a western state? All my life I've been living in places that were thought of as places to move away from if one could afford it. Those southwestern states really do need to do more for reducing water use, they need more bio-climatic design. The older cities of the US were developed before much was known about sustainable design. These places that are growing now are ignoring great opportunities to become models of sustainable design. The economic forces to make old cities more sustainable are not there. They are for places with growth pressure. We pipe natural gas from Texas and Louisiana to heat our homes in the northeast. Will they be piping water from the Great Lakes to the southwest in the future? Mankind has been modifying his envoronment for eons. Its just that the scale we can do it at now is unprcedented.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
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    Smart Growth doesn't address self-sustainable existence. Las Vegas cannot self-sustain its population level. We've modified our environment through technology to allow us to live there.

    The real issue with planning these areas is creating awareness of population and development caps and prohibiting further growth in these areas to reduce to possibility of longterm and major water shortages.

    Allowing cities to be built on flood plains, fault lines, and in hurrican zones is not necessarily bad planning. Risks to these areas are dramatic, but short lived. We are able to rebuild and resume life much quicker from these events than we are from an extended drought or water shortage. What recovery plan can be put in place to resolve a water shortage? I don't believe we could ever meet the water needs of these communities through shipping in emergency water.
    Dude, I'm cheesing so hard right now.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by boilerplater

    Its what happens when you build an economy around a human weakness and fail to regulate it. Its what happens when organized crime gets to build a town.
    No matter how you cut it, it comes down to economic development, regardless of vice, sin, sinners, and all manner of so-called angels.

    In Michigan, presettlement times had our landscape full of White Pine forests and wetlands - err, wait, that's anachronistic, let's try the more apropos "swamp." In the late 1800's, massive logging left the landscape barren and prone to fires. There were literally fires every year that scorced the land, making it unsuitable for viable regrowth. We also drained all the swamps, put farms on them, and now we put subdivisions on the farms. Vast reources of biodiversity have been lost. The most suitable soils for our food and fiber system now have a dense, impervious surface layer of bitiminous or concrete on the uppermost strata.

    Tell me, how is this any different from the so-called western water "crisis" any different from what Michigan and the rest of the midwest is facing?

    Yeah, the underground aquifers is the west will run out... some day. But exactly when will that be? But won't the suitable soils in the midwest be completely paved over by the year 21YaddaYaddaYadda? How will we feed our nation, then? Isn't this just as important?

    When Cardinal asks:

    Is no growth the smartest growth for these cities?
    There are legitimite land use management concerns all across the nation, so isn't this question applicable to everywhere?

  9. #9

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    Of course: the real big picture is can we support a country of 500 million Americans living the "American Dream"? There are already strains at 300 million.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian jresta's avatar
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    i think people put way too much stock in smart growth.

    I support it for what its worth but it's only a tool to prolong the pain.
    Indeed you can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen's imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens.

  11. #11

    Inland Empire

    Desalinization better take grip or we're sh*t out of luck. I have been in disbelief for a few years that there are no restrictions on water use. If we had to buy water like we buy gas, native vegetation would be back in style and we'd take less showers, wash clothes less, you name it.

  12. #12
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by The Irish One
    Desalinization better take grip or we're sh*t out of luck. I have been in disbelief for a few years that there are no restrictions on water use. If we had to buy water like we buy gas, native vegetation would be back in style and we'd take less showers, wash clothes less, you name it.
    Desalinization is still cost-prohibitive for most cities; they can still buy water from other cheaper sources and most state water policies are extremely weak (especially Texas). I think you're hitting the nail on the head in terms of reduction in water use: it's going to come down to applying market forces to water to improve our current situation. What that price threshold is for people to really start to change their lifestyles is the question. With your example of gasoline, prices are reaching historic highs yet people still aren't significantly changing their lifestyles.

    By the way, I'm not to sure about the "taking less showers" bit, I really don't like stinky people .

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  13. #13

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    But, isn't gasoline really not that expensive-when you consider inflation/income adjusted dollars? Especially since many of the people buying $50,000 Lincoln Navigators are not REALLY that affected by an extra $11/tank.

    I agree that "limited showers" sounds pretty bad. Who do we want to become-the French?

    Its landscaping-especially the endless golf courses-that really require the water.

  14. #14
    I was going to say something about southwesterners resembling the French but,,,,

    You're right about Desalinization. I'm just putting things in the big picture and seeing how we can possibly sustain 200 million people in the desert. It comes down to tapping the ocean -there is no other way to do it.

    What that price threshold is for people to really start to change their lifestyles is the question.
    I think it is very low. Just consider the amount of water people put into their front yard -it's completely insane in these parts -total lunacy. $2.50 for a gallon of water and people would get "water wise" as the slogan goes here, real quick. How many gallons of water do we use when showering?

    What about Toilet to Tap?

  15. #15

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    We have been thinking about moving the other way, but not because the West will run out of water (though some places may). The disturbing thing about the West to me is the failure of its people to mature, to leave the speculation that one will eventually find a place to get rich behind and start on the hard work of building communities that last (to build a society to match the scenery, as Stewart Udall once said). But having just flown back from what is allegedly one of the most livable small cities in the country, I have to say that the differences are not as great as I hoped. Nice sprawl is still sprawl.

  16. #16

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    Amen, Lee Nellis. I smirk a little but when I hear Californians complain about sprawl. Compared to the Midwest and the Southeast, California suburbia is very dense and compact-and we have sidewalks. I don't think Knoxville, where I lived before moving out to California a decade ago, had a single sidewalk outside the downtown area. Even older neighborhoods were death-defying for pedestrians.

    My hometown, with a metro of about 400,000 total, spreads southwest-to-northeast, for probably 35 miles. They built a huge new bypass that is a new nexus for growth. Fort Wayne even has an outdoor yuppie mall that looks lifted straight from Walnut Creek. Former farm towns and smaller industrial towns nearby are now commuter towns.

    Of course, easy sprawl means housing-nice housing-is very, very cheap.

    Edit: I think that the west is "America writ large" but it is still not that different than the rest of America as far as "maturity." Midwesterners have largely abandoned their traditional towns and cities for exurbia or suburbia.

    Look at the popularity of gambling casinos as the economic cure-all (or government subsidized WalMarts (Sam's Law!)) Because wells and drainable soils are more available in the east, the American Dream (parodied by one of jordanb's better posts)-exurban sprawl in a rural landscape-is much more available. (Not that such sprawl isn't happening in California. The foothills of the Sierra are being destroyed by new "country houses" which means narrow rural roads travelled by huge SUVs barrelling down them at 50 mph.)

  17. #17
    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
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    I was just thinking about the differences between Cali sprawl and Illinois sprawl. It seems that new development in Illinois is the 2-4 units per acre range. BKM, I believe that new suburban sprawl in Cali is 4-6 units per acre?

    Land here is cheap, flat, and ready for develpment. The ecological and economic costs are unforseen. As Wanigas? mentioned, as the west battles with water problems, the midwest battles with prime land consumption issues as development ever decreases in density.
    Dude, I'm cheesing so hard right now.

  18. #18
    Cyburbian jresta's avatar
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    Domestic water use only makes up for about 14% of the pie.

    Irrigation hogs about 40% and another 39% gets used in our power plants
    (yeah, it's 2004 and we're still boiling water to make electricity).
    So if you ask me that's where we need to start.

    We get plenty of rain in this part of the country but we still have problems. The salt line in the Delaware River is now up to Chester.

    Cape May and Atlantic Counties in NJ have had to install desal equipment to purify their drinking water b/c of salt water intrusion. Atlantic Co. is getting ready to add another one. Cape May just started a ground water recharge program, you think they would've thought of that before they had a problem.

    Camden/Burlington Counties had to close their shared aquifer b/c of mercury contamination. They lowered it to the point that it started to suck down a lot of ground water and . . .well now they've just gone deeper down to the PRM.

    So on the domestic tip we need to get rid of top loading washing machines. Go to the dual-flush toilets like the aussies and europeans, half flush for liquids and full flush for solids.make all new shower heads low flow (but still with good pressure). ban lawn watering. (Lawns? Like this is England?) Native vegetation would help grab a lot of that runoff - lawns aren't much better than the driveways and sidewalks they accompany in terms of catching runoff.

    More importantly make all new surface lots permeable or turf block. Storm sewers should just be phased out all together in places where creeks haven't been buried.
    Indeed you can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen's imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens.

  19. #19
    Cyburbian DecaturHawk's avatar
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    Water is important everywhere. Decatur's economy is dependent on the reservoir that was built here in the 1920's. The lake was constructed strictly for economic development purposes. At that time, new food processing industries needed a large and steady water supply for grain milling operations. It's still true today. Food processing giants Archer Daniels Midland and Tate & Lyle (fka AE Staley) use millions of gallons a day. The city recently purchased a 2.5 million-dollar lake dredge to maintain adequate supply. We have a 500 acre dredge disposal site outside of town to hold the silt. Since our lake safeguards over 4,000 jobs in agribusiness (and many more as a result of the multiplier effect) as well as a corporate headquarters (ADM), we take our water needs very seriously. We don't expect to have major water troubles, because we have planned well for our needs. However, it's interesting to see what can be done when the corporations get behind protecting the water supply. If more heavy industries that were highly dependent on water were to locate in the arid developing areas, perhaps water issues would be taken more seriously?
    SOME say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice.
    From what I’ve tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate
    To know that for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.

    Robert Frost (1874–1963) (From Harper’s Magazine, December 1920.)

  20. #20

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    If more heavy industries that were highly dependent on water were to locate in the arid developing areas, perhaps water issues would be taken more seriously?
    Isn't there capacity from the Firestone plant?

    Sadly, the era of lots of heavy industry locating anywhere in the United States are laregly over (barring a few Japanese and German auto transplants-and given market saturation...)

    Can there be a corollary to Sam's Law like "Poe's Law" for my economic doom and gloom

    I was just thinking about the differences between Cali sprawl and Illinois sprawl. It seems that new development in Illinois is the 2-4 units per acre range. BKM, I believe that new suburban sprawl in Cali is 4-6 units per acre?
    We are seeing a lot of 4500 square foot lots, and our RLM zoning has a 4-8 range. Some developers are even doing single family housing in the medium density range.

    Of course, away from the Bay Area and in the foothills (130 miles east), you are actually still getting the very low density pseudo-rural sprawl (the I work in the city, shop in the city, but I live in "THE COUNTRY" folks-the foothills are very beautiful, so I can understand it).

  21. #21

    The Federal government's assesment of potential water supply crisis.


  22. #22
    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    Rather than trying to come up with new ways to get water, why not start building tertiary treatment facilities to make waste water potable? For water used in industry and power generation... perhaps require that they all build condenser towers and put the water back into the source rather than venting the vapor into the atmosphere.

  23. #23

    Toilet to Tap

    to make waste water potable?
    Here's a snapshot of some of the issues that come up with reclaiming water from sewage. http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/m...m4treated.html

    Okun, a retired University of North Carolina environmental engineering professor, said there are close to 100,000 potential contaminants of water. Many are undetectable with current testing and there have been no studies to determine their health effects, he said.

  24. #24
    Cyburbian ludes98's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jordanb
    Rather than trying to come up with new ways to get water, why not start building tertiary treatment facilities to make waste water potable?
    Public perception problem: drinking water they have defecated in.

    Here (AZ) reclaimed water lines are required in some jurisdictions for new development/redevelopment. In the future they will be in service when cities begin distributing reclaimed water (like they do drinking water) for irrigation. It isn't far off, but I can't beleive we didn't have it years ago.

  25. #25
         
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    Some free-market assistance

    I think this is a case where some "free market" medicine might be helpful. Let people pay the true cost of what they're using. Or more fairly, give a low, subsidized rate for an initial amount that, say, a family of four relying on state-of-the-art conservation technology would need for basic life needs (drinking, showering, washing clothes, etc.) Then ratchet up the rates from there to scale up to what it really costs. That's how you get market incentives for conservation.

    This is one of my pet peeves: "Free market" advocates seem to apply it selectively. Small subsidies for public transportation, but much larger subsidies for building and maintaining roads. This is a deliberate public policy decision, and let's stop pretending otherwise. Except for toll roads, users aren't paying to repair and plow the specific roads they drive on -- we all are. Everyone seems fine with the concept that the snow-plow budget comes from their property taxes, even if one person drive 5 miles a day and another person drive 100, and some people don't have a car. But people start screaming if tax money goes to subways or Amtrak. We've chosen to be a car-oriented society and subsidize highways more than railways. Let's be honest about it.

    What if everyone paid the entire cost of their water, including such things as "opportunity cost" of the land used for wells, etc. (i.e. property taxes lost)? What if rates were scaled to penalize instead of reward large users? Of course you'd have people crying foul. But is it fair for a conservation-minded homeowner to subsidize a McMansion -- or, for that matter, a factory where he doesn't work or a farm he doesn't own or use the produce from? These are all public policy decisions -- the jobs at the factory (or luxury hotel) today are more important than a future water crisis. But there are consequences to all these decisions, and at the very least, people need to understand those full costs and who is shouldering them.

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