Tag Archives: sustainable communities

Local neighborhood

Can Sustainable Housing Really Be A Part of Arizona’s Future?

Perched on the threshold of economic recovery, cities whose housing markets crashed and burned during the Great Recession are struggling like modern-day Phoenix birds to rise from the ashes.

While rebirth comes naturally for some, others seem caught between a trap labeled “sprawl” and a wide-open window tagged “sustainability.”

The question is, can cities that once embraced policies favoring sprawl over density buy into a new vision calling for a more sustainable, livable and socially just way of life? The shift required may be dramatic, but it’s not impossible.

The sprawl trap is certainly familiar territory for Phoenix, a post-WWII boom town where production builders John F. Long and Del Webb are hailed as the Godfathers of Post-Modern Development. Using innovations like simple, mass-production construction techniques, Long and Webb delivered Phoenix’s first work force housing to an eager middle-class audience.

Now, a half-century later, sprawl and the suburbs are being blamed for everything from global warming to social segregation. High suburban-growth states like Arizona, California, Nevada and Florida felt the busted housing bubble like a sock to the gut two years ago. And, faced with aging infrastructure and higher maintenance costs, fringe communities are now home to the country’s largest and fastest growing poor population, according to a report by the Brookings Institution. Between 2000 and 2008, the country’s largest metro areas saw their poor population grow by 25 percent, almost five times faster than either primary cities or rural areas, the report states.

Many economists believe the country’s latest economic pause presents the opportunity for a massive do-over; a chance for cities to end their love affair with the automobile and hook up, instead, with development practices that create more dense, walkable neighborhoods.

The Obama administration evidently agrees.

“The days where we’re just building sprawl forever, those days are over,” President Obama declared shortly after taking office. He followed up those remarks earlier this year by telling the U.S. Conference of Mayors, “When it comes to development, it’s time to throw out old policies that encouraged sprawl and congestion, pollution, and ended up isolating our communities in the process.”

The President’s willingness to back up his convictions with $1.5 billion in TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants and $1 million set aside for regional integrated planning initiatives is further proof that the suburban landscape is indeed changing. So is the federal government’s new Partnership for Sustainable Communities, an all-hands-on-deck approach to smart growth by the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency. It — along with the government’s “Smart Growth Guidelines for Sustainable Design & Development” — presents a radical new perspective on how future growth is handled, and offers a lifeline to municipalities looking to turn over a new and greener leaf.

But, for cities like Phoenix, where density has traditionally been considered a dirty word, the challenge is not so much where the money is coming from, as it is how to change public perception. Will Phoenix, with its Wild West sensibilities and traditionally renegade attitude, take kindly to federal intervention intended to help wean itself from a dependence on sprawling development?

In all honesty, it’s likely to be a tough sell. True, infill development takes advantage of current infrastructure and services and produces a measurably smaller environmental impact than does its conventional counterpart. True, higher-density building creates additional living options for homeowners in the way of row houses, walk-ups and brownstones. And true, Phoenicians, like many Americans, acknowledge they would rather walk than drive, or at the very least, have access to more transit-oriented housing, making it easier and more convenient for them to utilize public transportation.

The first step forward, however, will have to come from developers and municipal leaders willing to reach out a hand and grab the support line being offered in the way of these new smart-growth initiatives and incentives.

“Successfully addressing the challenges and opportunities of growing smarter and building greener will require that communities collaborate with each other, as well as with regional, state and federal agencies and organizations,” write the authors of Smart Growth Guidelines for Sustainable Design & Development. The end reward, they say, is decisions that benefit households in the form of greater choice, lower combined housing and transportation costs and healthier communities, thereby producing stronger local economies.

Isn’t that what communities like Phoenix, that are battling their way out of the recession, really need? Shelley Poticha, a transportation reformer and Partnership for Sustainable Communities senior adviser, thinks so.

“To me this is about helping to rebuild our economy, about growing jobs in terms of making housing more energy-efficient,” she said in a grist.org interview. “It’s also about helping places and regions really understand where their economic future is going and how they can use that to be more sustainable.”

Illustration of suburb with recycle logo

Sustainability Is Possible In The Suburbs. Really.

Is it possible to build a sustainable suburb? The answer depends largely upon your perspective.

Of course, sustainability is a word freely associated these days with eco-friendly building materials, alternative energy and “living off the grid,” and is usually used in conjunction with the concepts of urban living, light-rail and transportation-oriented development. However, some of the first sustainable buildings were lovingly referred to as “land ships,” and built far from cities.

The deserts of Taos, N.M., for example, still host these forward-thinking renegade buildings dating back to the late 1960s and 1970s, and were colorfully branded by many as “crazy hippy stuff.”  And certainly these buildings are a far cry from the buildings and locations we think of as locations of sustainable development today.

Arizona has long been associated with sprawl, and frankly it’s the reason why the sustainable movement has been slow to catch. However, with a struggling economy and real estate development virtually at a standstill, it’s important to think beyond our limited frame of reference. But the suburb? Can it really be sustainable?  Our twin love affair with privacy and the automobile has made the suburb far from a likely place to orchestrate sustainability. Places where garages line streets instead of trees and retail buildings have walls around them virtually imposing a drive instead of a walk. But there is a sustainable sun on the horizon.

Arizona State University’s Stardust Resource Center has created a Growing Sustainable Communities Initiative, and its strategies for growing sustainable communities in the Valley of the Sun include:

  • Promoting mixed land uses
  • A range of housing types
  • Thriving economies
  • Environmentally responsive design
  • Having a variety of transportation choices
  • Compact development
  • Making places safe
  • Promoting healthy living
  • Community engagement

 

I could write four pages about each of those points, but essentially they mean: building sustainably occurs block-by-block, street-by-street, house-by-house. It is an organic process and there is no cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, the standard of cookie cutter replication is what has created much of the challenges in every community built after 1950 in Arizona.

To be successful, it is imperative that we change our standard “square mile” approach to development, where commercial businesses exist only on the edges and residential homes on the interior and there is virtually no interplay between them. No parks, and no tree-lined streets. A better strategy is to develop on the quarter-mile, where neighborhoods have work and play uses and schools and shopping centers interact with residential neighborhoods through a network of paths and pedestrian/bike connections — just like the village concepts of the historic neighborhoods built prior to the 1950s. Ask any Midwesterner what they miss about home and I’ll bet they say their “neighborhoods.” There’s a reason why.

What the sustainable movement is advocating is greater creativity on the developer side and less regulation and restrictions on the government side. Scott Carlin, an associate professor of geography at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, makes an excellent case for a deeper theory of sustainability. He suggests we re-invigorate ties to cities and villages, by building new homes only where there are existing water and sewer lines, sidewalks, schools, businesses and the other infrastructure within a reasonably close radius. In other words, so we can get out of our cars and walk.

What about existing neighborhoods? Well, they can be re-imagined as sustainable by relaxing zoning code to allow for commercial uses consistent with vibrant neighborhoods and by resisting the status quo. It will also happen when residents advocate for and pursue the creation of public amenities like parks and pathways and tree-lined streets. Even the Urban Land Institute recognizes the opportunities suburbs represent because it’s where the biggest gains could be made. Still, it cautions that connecting the dots between suburban projects through effective sub-regional planning is essential.

It is possible for us to focus on more than buildings when we think of sustainability.  With a bit of imagination, and the commitment to integrate the principles of sustainability even on the outskirts of town, we can succeed. Surprisingly, in fact, we won’t be creating anything new. Because, it’s when we look to the past and incorporate the best of what it means to live in an American neighborhood we win. Sustainability is certainly a look to the future, but its reality and its secrets are grounded in our American past.

Teen Sustainability 2010

The Future Of Sustainability Is In The Hands Of Today’s Teens

I’ve lived half my life and never heard the word cotillion. So when I went to my first cotillion event this fall, I didn’t have any preconceived notions about what to expect. And I was blown away by the experience.

The Phoenix Cotillion was formed more than 50 years ago to give young men and women the opportunity to learn philanthropy, to be exposed to the fundamentals of etiquette and to become better acquainted with their peers by attending annual social events. This focus remains today, but membership is open only to young women of high school age throughout the Valley, and nearly 500 of them are currently members.

Another mission of The Phoenix Cotillion is to support a charitable organization at each event. Valley Forward Association, the 40-year-old, business-based environmental public interest group that I’ve managed for nearly two decades, was the charity of choice for the recent Mother-Daughter Fashion Show.

So, I found myself on the rooftop of the Wyndham Phoenix Hotel one Sunday night amid hundreds of gorgeous girls and their moms, all dressed to the nines. They lined up to give me cash and checks to support Valley Forward’s mission of environmental stewardship. They also clearly demonstrated the theme of their event, “Teens Looking Good and Going Green.” A few young men were invited to escort the models during the fashion show and stood out among the mostly female crowd.

In celebrating Valley Forward’s milestone anniversary this year, our leadership is looking ahead at what the next 40 years might look like as we continue to advocate for more livable and sustainable communities.

It occurred to me as I looked at these bright young faces with eyes full of promise — each of them brimming with poise and confidence — that they hold the future in their delicate and capable hands. And for that I’m grateful and somewhat relieved, because these incredible young people already are doing so much to give back to the communities in which they live. They belong to environmental clubs in their schools. They volunteer to help clean up neighborhoods, plant trees and support green projects around the Valley and state.

Valley Forward’s historic agenda has embraced such issues as land use and open-space planning, desert preservation, transportation and air quality, water management, and most recently, energy.

While these issues remain prevalent, our burgeoning Valley cities struggle with ways to grow smarter and in harmony with the pristine, natural desert environment that is unique to Arizona.

As the green movement now sweeping the nation, and indeed the world, touches all business and industry sectors, the quest for a more sustainable future appears within reach. Maybe one day, it won’t be a movement — it will be the lifestyle of choice.

Today’s youth are certainly making it that way. And the next 40 years really belongs to them.

Diane Brossart is president of Valley Forward Association, which brings business and civic leaders together to convene thoughtful public dialogue on regional issues, and to improve the livability and sustainability of Valley communities, www.valleyforward.org

Promoting Smart Growth in Down Economy

Promoting Smart Growth In A Down Economy

Please welcome Diane Brossart, president of Valley Forward Association, and guest blogger to the AZ Green Scene. This is the first blog of our exclusive monthly blog partnership series, where Diane will share her experience and insight regarding the state’s sustainable industry.

Freezing impact fees to stimulate economic development runs counter to the principles of smart growth.

There is no evidence that placing a moratorium on impact fees results in any increase in residential or non-residential construction, according to a number of authoritative studies, including the Brookings Institution. Yet with the hope of establishing momentum in the development industry our legislature recently imposed a freeze on acquisitions and increases until June 2010.

Not only won’t this stimulate growth but it places a huge burden on Valley cities when they can least afford it. Most communities are struggling with severe budget cuts, reductions in personnel and impending tax hikes. Now they’re facing yet another economic hit in the form of lost revenue from impact fees.

New development should pay for itself, period end of story. Impact fees implemented by local governments on new or proposed developments assist or pay for costs caused by growth and expansion. These fees help fund the construction of offsite capital improvements including infrastructure and public services such as road expansion and maintenance, expanded police and fire services and increased demand on schools.

In short, impact fees effectively eliminate the financial encumbrance on local jurisdictions that are trying to deal with population growth within the area. The capital required to fund new growth is simply the cost of doing business.

The widely held perception that development results in economic growth is not always the case, however. Badly planned growth creates vast burdens that are often subsidized with tax dollars.

The financial crisis our state is now facing has little to do with impact fees. It’s the result of poor and unscrupulous lending and borrowing decisions that led to a nationwide credit freeze.

Legislation should work to promote livable and sustainable communities by creating viable incentives for developers to undertake projects within urban areas rather than in greenfields on city edges. Our policies should facilitate a balance between economic growth and environmental quality.
The moratorium on impact fees undermines smart growth while shifting the cost of development from one sector to another.

Diane BrossartPresidentValley Forward Associationwww.valleyforward.org