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Monday, December 18, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Developing an altered land

WASHINGTON — How do some of America's best minds in the real estate and urban development game — leaders and friends of the Urban Land Institute — react to projections of 100 million more people by 2043?

They agree the growth won't just spread out to all regions and areas in any equal way. Or, as Robert Lang of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute noted at the ULI's Larson Forum here last week, at least 60 million of the next 100 million people will likely locate in 20 or so "megapolitan" chains of closely connected city and suburban regions, from Charlotte-Raleigh to Chicago-Milwaukee to the Houston/Gulf Coast area. A common characteristic of all: high degrees of inter-region commuting.

Notably, the development community's reaction to coming waves of population isn't just rah-rah for new moneymaking opportunities. Instead, the ULI leaders and advisers focused on goals rarely mentioned in their circles a decade ago: sustainability (with special reference to energy and climate change challenges), equity (focused on the growing income gulf between American classes and races), and international competition (how our citistate regions can compete globally).

As one participant put it, we need a "triple-bottom-line" goal of economic profitability, social equity, and a healthy environment.

The physical chessboard will be different. Unlike the traditional city-suburb-"exurb" pattern of the 1950-2000 period, the emerging "megapolitan" regions show commuting patterns linking, "daisy-chaining" and filling in once-empty spaces between formerly separate places as much as 100 miles apart. Employment is split among the historic downtowns and new suburban office centers. Some people endure incredibly long commutes among parts of these regions, or, in a sure-to-grow phenomenon, telecommute from amazing distances, visiting their formal offices only occasionally.

But will the growth be as sprawling as development of the last decades? Yes, quite likely in expansion-happy areas such as Charlotte and Atlanta, said Lang.

Conversely, very dense development is almost inevitable in such increasingly land-locked regions as Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach and Los Angeles-San Diego.

Across all the regions, though, the ULI conferees saw tough problems — trip wires in the way of sound development:

Energy/climate. A worldwide energy crisis could paralyze the economy of America's heavily oil-dependent metro regions. Hundreds of new coal-burning, greenhouse-gas-emitting power plants are proposed in this country, as well as in India and China. Global warming threatens both our coastlines and the snowpacks that provide the West's water.

Splintered government. Local land-use regulations dictate lots of development choices — often badly. Example: green-light approval for wasteful McMansions, barriers for compact units appropriate for today's smaller family units.

But with huge regions of atomized units of government, it's tough to see what will trigger important reforms — new building and zoning codes to encourage recycling land and more mixed-use development, "green" buildings, distinctive town centers, and a more democratic town-by-town mix of housing prices.

Infrastructure — and a will to invest. The United States is the only significant player in the modern world economy that's not building high-speed rail — the ideal way to bypass clogged highways and spread economic opportunity in regional clusters of citistates and their airports. Energy-efficient freight rail is languishing, losing ground to trucks.

Schools. Inner cities lack great public education; substandard schools repel many families who'd otherwise choose dense cities. The No Child Left Behind program is apparently no magic cure.

Regulatory takings. Restrictions on eminent domain following the Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo decision, the ULI conferees felt, throw a shadow over "important city regeneration projects." Even worse — the regulatory "takings" measures on several states' ballots last month. The proposals give private owners sweeping rights to sue government if regulations purportedly reduce their property values.

The bottom line: Sound 21st-century development isn't likely without government support. But the Urban Land Institute doesn't lobby. The progressive-development community needs the political voice it noticeably lacks right now.

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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