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Urban Land Institute

Earth Day 2010: A Pivot Point for Land Use and Community Building

By Patrick L. Phillips
Chief Executive Officer, Urban Land Institute

The fortieth annual recognition of Earth Day finds the world of land use in the midst of change, much as it was in 1970. However, in terms of community building, where we’ve been over the past four decades is not where we are headed for the next 40 years. What we’ve learned is that we can build in a way that both accommodates growth and protects — even enhances — the environment.

When the recognition of Earth Day began, people were moving to suburbia by the hundreds of thousands, returning to downtowns primarily to work or shop in department stores. Suburban malls were still innovative; the average home cost about $23,400 and covered 1,400 square feet; the average car cost $3,900 (plus $39 for an eight-track stereo); and a gallon of gas cost about 36 cents.

Triggered by relatively cheap housing, cars and gas, our urban regions were continuing the postwar form: growing outward in two general patterns – rings, based primarily around major highway construction that circled around cities; or linear growth tracking a spine of major highways. The result was the familiar “hub and spoke” metropolitan pattern. Our cities were growing in spite of the environment, not in harmony with it.

Even as urban sprawl was advancing, the Urban Land Institute warned of the potential for dire consequences. A 1970 article in Urban Land magazine cautioned, “We have carried the concept of conquest and dominion over nature to a point where large areas of our living environment have become not only unsightly but downright unhealthy.” It implored the land use community to be aware of development’s toll on air and water quality, and to appreciate “the interplay between the natural earth forces and land development activities.”

It was a fortuitous message then, and one with even more relevance now: How we use land matters. Land use has an enormous impact, not just on the natural environment, but on the long term economic and social viability of our cities. Vast demographic, financial, and environmental shifts are necessitating a major overhaul in what and where we build, and will continue to do over the next 40 years leading to Earth Day 2050.
Among the forces of change now in place:

  • The U.S. population has grown by more than 100 million people since 1970, with an additional 150 million expected over the next 40 years;
  • The first wave of baby boomers are hitting 65 — most will shun retirement and stay in the workforce, and many, if healthy now, could still be alive in 40 years;
  • The children of baby boomers, Generation Y (the most technologically connected generation in history) has started to enter the housing market and workforce;
  • Household size is shrinking, due to more people living alone, delaying marriage and childbirth, and having fewer children;
  • The U.S. is now the largest importer of oil, rather than the largest exporter, leading to stepped up efforts to develop alternate sources of energy;
  • The U.S. transportation infrastructure system, once a world leader due to the new interstate highway system, is now falling far behind Asia and Europe in terms of transportation investments;
  • Concerns over climate change have resulted in an increasing number of government mandates aimed at limiting carbon emissions from vehicles and buildings; and
  • The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has 1) thrown credit markets into prolonged turmoil; and 2) left many markets with unprecedented housing foreclosures, causing a decline in the homeownership rate and a long-term change in the perception of homeownership as the American Dream.

All these changes are taking place as the U.S. is becoming an increasingly urban nation, and as our urban regions are evolving into different nodes of employment, housing and recreation spanning 40 or 50 more miles. It is difficult to predict exactly what the city in 2050 will look like. However, what is clear is that piece-meal, haphazard and poorly connected development is a thing of the past. It’s also clear that the majority of the growth will occur not in downtowns, but in the suburbs. And in these areas, less land will have to be used to accommodate more people. This change in how suburban areas grow will have a major influence on the environmental and economic sustainability of entire metropolitan regions.

Going forward, this is what we can expect: building more densely to conserve energy, water and land, and to reduce the need to drive. Better coordination of land use planning and transportation planning, so that more development is oriented toward transit options. And, reusing and adapting obsolete space in a way that reflects the changing needs and desires of a much more mobile society – a society in which many are likely to rent longer and change jobs much more frequently.

At 40 years, Earth Day 2010 marks a pivot point for land use and community building. Looking forward to Earth Day 2050, it’s important to consider how the impact of urban design and development meets residents’ expectations for livability, amenities, flexibility and choice. Ultimately, cities are about what’s best for people, not buildings, and not cars. The places that get this right will be the winners in the decades ahead.


From Eyesore To Eye-Pleasing, Rio Salado Has Changed Dramatically Over The Years

Once an ugly swath of usually dry land that often served as a dumping ground, Rio Salado today offers the best of both worlds — economic development opportunities and a riparian haven for environmentalists.

Options for education and entertainment round out the dream planners had 40 years ago for the Salt River as it winds through Tempe and Phoenix. Tempe Town Lake, a two-mile stretch of sky-blue water that anchors the eastern section of Rio Salado, marks its 10th anniversary on Dec. 12. Meanwhile, in Phoenix the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center, an 8,000-square-foot education facility, opened in October.

Ask Steve Nielsen, who was Tempe’s Rio Salado project manager for more than 13 years, if it has reached its potential, and he replies without hesitation: “Absolutely.”

But he concedes: “With current economic conditions, development around the lake hasn’t progressed as quickly as we had envisioned. At the same time, Rio Salado was the least valuable property in all of Tempe, and now it is the most valuable.”

Nielsen, currently assistant vice president of university real estate development at Arizona State University, says the primary objectives of Rio Salado were flood control, economic sustainability for Tempe and environmental enhancement.

“From that perspective, we achieved every one of those,” he says.

What’s more, Tempe established wildlife habitat areas upstream and downstream from the lake. In Phoenix, at 3131 S. Central Ave. on the south bank of the Salt River, sits the National Audubon Society’s first education center in Arizona. Sam Campana, vice president and executive director of Audubon Arizona, calls the learning facility a centerpiece for Phoenix’s Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Project.

“Birds are the main attraction, but children also learn science, geology and history here,” Campana says.

The five-mile stretch of Rio Salado in Phoenix also features more than 20 miles of hiking and biking trails. Yet, with all that Rio Salado offers, and with 35 schools within five miles of the center, there is a sense that this inner-city paradise is underutilized.

Rio Salado Beyond the Banks is an advisory committee to the city of Phoenix that has a vision of maximizing the long-term educational, recreational and economic benefits of the river to the community. But George Young, an active member of the committee, says, “It’s a very slow work in progress, frustrating at times. The city has budget problems, and that’s kind of thrown a wrench into a lot of our ambitions, especially as far as the promotion of Rio Salado goes.”

Chris Parks, Rio Salado Habitat supervisor for the city of Phoenix, says plans call for restoring the river bottom from 26th Street to 19th Avenue, with trails, equestrian paths and restaurants along the way. Eventually, the city hopes to establish a sense of connectivity with Tempe Town Lake for the public, as well as animals and birds.

Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman says development around Tempe Town Lake stalled around 1999 and 2000, but picked up in 2004 after services provided by the city’s development department were streamlined to help developers and local residents avoid costly delays. Today, virtually all development around the lake occurred since 2004, and that includes 18 months of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Tempe Town Lake, along with projects on Mill Avenue and Apache Boulevard, offers developers various paths to success, Hallman says. Tempe, he adds, is well positioned for economic recovery.

“The lake is part of that picture,” he says.

SunCor Development Company, which is developing the Hayden Ferry Lakeside project at Tempe Town Lake, occupies 40,000 square feet in one of the towers. Thus far, SunCor has erected six structures with more than 1 million square feet — two office towers, a loft office building, two condo high rises with a total of 150 units, and a garage. The overall urban infill project encompasses 43 acres from bridge to bridge on Mill Avenue to Rural Road. Nine more towers, more commercial than residential, are planned and will add 4 million square feet of space to the project. Steve Betts, president and CEO of SunCor, says it will take seven to 10 years to complete the project.

“We always thought Hayden Ferry Lakeside was a multicycle project, with ebbs and flows through several up and down cycles,” Betts says.

He expects the project to be one of the first to come back when the economy improves.

“It is literally the geographic center of the Valley surrounded by three freeways, it’s on the light rail, it’s five minutes from the airport,” Betts says, “and you have the only urban lake at your doorstep.”