Urban developers call it “smart growth,” and it’s a trend that should attract the attention of north Alabama policy makers.
Not so long ago, urban centers were more than commercial hubs. People lived close to stores and banks and government centers. Roads were rough and cars were a luxury, so people tended to live close to each other and to their daily destinations.
Then came urban sprawl, dramatic in large cities but significant even in Decatur. Better roads and reliable cars contributed to the trend. Changes in agriculture opened up inexpensive land for suburbs. “White flight,” and outlying schools to accommodate it, accelerated sprawl.
Government policies perpetuated the flight to suburbia. Zoning ordinances separated residential and commercial areas. Tax dollars flowed into highways, but rarely into sidewalks and bike paths. Sewer and water lines became a tool to increase sprawl.
The trend is changing, though. People increasingly resent long and stressful commutes. Gas prices — high and destined to rise — add a cost to long commutes and distant errands. A busy population is less enthralled at the prospect of maintaining expansive lawns.
As a society, we are recognizing that our automobile-centered lifestyles contribute to obesity and related ailments. We increasingly acknowledge the environmental cost of our dependence on gasoline.
Some cities aggressively encourage smart growth, consciously contracting population centers.
Decatur is taking some steps in this direction in its downtown area. The city invested in a streetscape project designed, in part, to make its urban center more pedestrian-friendly. Pocket parks provide green space in the midst of commerce. City planners are scrutinizing land-use regulations, looking for ways to encourage downtown residences.
The healthy trend away from urban sprawl requires a mind shift for city officials that goes beyond streetscapes. Every capital project should be evaluated, in part, by whether it is consistent with smart growth or perpetuates sprawl. The trend affects everything from school locations to sewer expansions to incentives for retailers.
A recent column by Neal Peirce of the Washington Post quoted demographer William Frey: “A new image of urban America is in the making. What used to be white flight to the suburbs is turning into ‘bright flight’ to the cities.”
A decade ago, urban sprawl seemed inevitable and investments to accommodate it seemed prudent. A decade from now, city leaders may wish they had channeled more of those resources into creating what one urban developer calls the “walkable city.”
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