Pondering sprawl

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Sprawl
is a plague for our cities and a failed usage of tax dollars. But there is a self-fulfilling component to sprawl for cities, and it's a tough one for public officials to be against.

Development, especially greenfield development, provides "new" economic development tax dollars for government. It provides new services, residences, and jobs for the region. These are all good things.

Still, the question should be, at what cost? In particular, what is the long-term cost of this type of economic development?

On the topic of sprawl, I go back to a 2008 discussion I and a few of my fellow Colorado Congress for the New Urbanism board members had with Andres Duany, one of the authors of Suburban Nation. Duany candidly noted that fighting sprawl is an exercise in futility. But over time, he said, sprawl always proves a failed experiment on its own.

After the battles fought against sprawl by Duany and other pioneers who brought infill and redevelopment to the forefront through the New Urbanism movement, it's understandable that a certain fatigue settles in. But Duany is right: Cities and regions that experienced high levels of growth during the era of consumption and city-core abandonment, post-World War II, are suffering major maintenance deficits and decay.

Colorado Springs is guilty of this, given that about 90 percent of the city’s footprint has been established since 1950. That’s an incredible and extreme statistic, incomparable to what you find in most other cities.

So what do we do about it? One extreme measure that’s been very loosely, yet intriguingly, kicked around is that the older areas of Colorado Springs secede from the sprawling patterns and portions of the city via de-annexation. This would be costly and time-consuming, and, well, would likely never happen. But it could actually be beneficial in the future as the Springs takes on the burden of the ever-increasing width of asphalt and low densities associated with the east side of the city.

Another measure would be to put a moratorium on the construction of all new public roads. This would be the conservative thing to do, right? Pay for and maintain what we have before adding more to it? Perhaps decrease the area of our existing roads at the same time? A moratorium would be a responsible alternative that isn't as controversial, but would still require some acceptance of our past failures to appropriately account for the long-term costs of our infrastructure.

Neither of these extreme measures is anti-development by any means. In fact, I would argue that both are still pro-development — just not the type of greenfield development that we’re accustomed to seeing. Strong infill policies that would balance out the ease of such development with urban and suburban infill will need to be in place. Infill is critical: As a city, we need density, and that density needs to be good density — as opposed to density that's monotonous, disconnected and auto-oriented.

What we cannot do as a community is continue to chase the end of the rainbow with the dream of mitigating congestion and continuing the low-density sprawl patterns that we have to date. In the 2013 QLI Study, the Springs was facing a $1 billion-plus maintenance deficit for our infrastructure. I’ve heard this number is now closer to, or beyond, $2 billion. This should be shocking to you, but then again, the condition of our streets — seen as a canary in the coal mine— could temper the shock.

John Olson is a licensed landscape architect, residing in Colorado Springs. He serves as the Director of Planning and Landscape Architecture for EVstudio Planning & Civil Engineering. He is also a co-founder of Colorado Springs Urban Intervention, which implemented Better Block Pikes Peak in 2012, the recent Walkability Signage found in Downtown Colorado Springs, and perhaps most notably, Curbside Cuisine.

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