“All Growth is Good Growth!”
This is a common belief in America, and it inspired a great discussion on a recent Pod Places podcast.
The first part of the conversation revolved around the nature of growth, and another lamented the loss of accessible countryside to development sprawl, and what we can do about it.
The Pros Of Growth
While some may bristle at the statement that all growth is good growth in terms of development, it’s understandable that many feel this way. Some places need to grow.
For example, many places are in the middle of nowhere, trying to build a sustainable community and desperately in need of local jobs and investment. Others still have gone through a rough time of economic and social decline.
Development is intended to bring new economic activity and new people into places that need this kind of infusion, but the kind of activity does matter.
The Limits Of Growth
Growth for its own sake has a terrible track record. You don’t want to go through the expense of growing, and end up having nothing really good to show for it. Worse still is ending up with less than you had before, but now with legacy maintenance liabilities as far as the eye can see.
This concern about growth isn’t just about communities and towns— it’s a problem with businesses, too. During our current economic and health crisis, many big companies have gone under because they focused on growth over stability and didn’t have enough margin for resilience.
The Quick Shot-in-the-Arm Agenda
It’s sadly common for places to end up selling themselves out for a couple bucks per parcel. Places that have sold for the short-term like this underestimate what they could have become.
Some American towns are fortunate enough to still have an intact historic main street, maybe with a few square miles of underutilized land around it, where it would be so easy to build more of what they had that worked so well in the past.
But by the end of the 20th century, building that way became illegal, thanks to zoning, land use, and transportation ordinances. So instead, the only option became to grow and sprawl out like dime-a-dozen, Anywhere-Burbs or No-Place-in-Particular-Towns.
Everyone’s seen these places before– they’re everywhere these days. But somehow, no one is clamoring to move in– and those who already do live there are still leaving (or trying to leave), despite the “investment.” Understandably, most young people in particular, want more sociable, convenient, and sustainable lifestyles than these places can currently provide.
These highly-engineered (yet cheap) places don’t build pride. In fact, they’ve been proven to be incapable of it, as evidenced by the spreading scourge of municipal failures and social discord across the country.
Making Room for Other Choices
To be clear, no one at Proud Places is trying to ban new-build roadside subdivisions. We just recognize that there are other forms of development, that are, in fact, now illegal, and we want to correct that. Everyone deserves more options than what’s currently allowed in the United States. People should have many choices available to them. This is America, after all.
We’re just giving voice and vision for those people who want something different, and in particular, more compact and walkable.
We speak for those who long for the convenience and simple pleasures of small quiet streets with everything you need for daily life within a 10-minute walk, for those who want homes that are close enough to foster convivial neighborliness, and for those who believe that these things are worth fighting for.
Unfortunately, there are so few examples of these types of compact, pedestrian-focused places in the country, and the very few that do exist have become expensive enclaves for the elite.
And yet, when people actually experience a well-proportioned, human-scaled place, it can be an epiphany. They realize, “Wow, this is what it could be like. It’s just so simple and convenient. Why can’t I live in a place like this, too?”
Lamenting the Loss of Countryside Local Swimming Holes and Country Roads
Another interesting part of the podcast was a discussion lamenting the fact that most Americans don’t live in a place with local countryside anymore.
Sprawl has consumed everything, and it might take an hours-long drive just to get to something as simple as a swimming hole or a quiet country road to learn how to ride a bike on. These are things people used to take for granted as local walk/bike-to features even just a generation ago. But now, it’s common for people to have lived their whole lives never seeing a fishing hole or a hillside meadow to have a picnic on.
It’s something you see when watching one of those European cross-country bicycle races on TV.
They’re rolling past the fields in the middle of the countryside, and then—all of a sudden—they’re in the middle of a community, riding past townhouse apartments and umbrella’d cafe tables on the public squares. And then just a second later they’re back in the countryside.
As an example, here’s a hyperlapse showing a countryside ride between two Dutch town centers:
Growth Without Sprawl
Now, heading into the middle of the 21st century, there’s an opportunity to create more compact types of places again, where we can add, let’s say, 10,000 people to a community and make amazing public amenities, while preserving our countryside and natural amenities.
We’re fighting for it to be more compact, because we want to protect the rivers, mountains and farms. We not only want—but need—these sorts of familiar environments in our lives again.
This can be done by returning to the practice of building 2-8 story attached buildings that face small, pedestrianized streets. Just look at what’s worked for thousands of years around the world before the 20th-century experiment of automobile-enabling sprawl.
Many places are growing by those 10,000 people (or much more) anyway. So either we start providing options for compact development, or we’re going to have to put those 10,000+ people into new sprawl, with all its accompanying traffic, tensions and associated costs.
There are tens of millions of Americans who are desperately yearning for more durable community forms, where kids and the aged participate in—and are central to—the neighborly normalcy of walkable streets.