Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Urban/Suburban Sprawl

I am starting to have more concern about this topic then I had in the past. Maybe slightly ironically, because I live in your typical suburban condo development and have for 7 years. All the stores I regularly shop at are sprawled about within a few miles of my home. But there's nothing within reasonable walking distance from my house.

I live in an inner ring or second tier suburb, if you drive out another 10-15 miles on a major freeway, it's just like this all over. It really makes me wonder about the sustainability of it all. Can we continue to develop every last square inch of land for strip malls and spread out, cookie cutter style housing developments?

It really hit me on a recent trip to visit my Grandma in Naples, Florida. Naples is your typical Florida retirement community - it has achieved absurd growth over the last 20 years. Since the 1980s, the West Coast of Florida has been a viable alternative for some looking to avoid the more populus Miami/West Palm/Ft Lauderdale complex. My grandparents first moved to the area in the early to mid 1990s as snowbirds. Upon first visiting you got the impression that it was certainly on the way up population wise. They moved to a well known development called Pelican Bay and it was pretty clear that there was still room for this development to grow. Not any longer - Pelican Bay seems nearly fully developed, as do most of the coastal development in that area. The development of housing communities in that area now extends 10 to 15 miles east of I-75 with no signs of stopping (maybe slowing a bit due to current economic conditions).

What really struck me was the strip malls, they've continued to multiply in somewhat of a willy nilly fashion in that area, and the saturation of businesses is pretty crazy - you have every type of restaurant imaginable, what seems like a grocery store at every major intersection, stores of all sizes and shapes plugged into themed strip malls. Naples has virtually no high density areas, it has a downtown that's 8 or 9 square blocks, but the rest of it exists in this massive strip mall sprawl along US 41 and other east/west and north/south coridores, and the massive-mega acreage developmens with fancy names. There is a good mix of density in many of these developments, but most of them still require you to get in your car to dine, shop or run errands.

I'd imagine that, eventually, it will hit a critical mass, where new development will slow down, but there's no sign of that occuring as of yet, and there's more and more baby boomers retiring every day.

I'd like to see a more thoughtful approach to community design in this country, and we have to do more than building poorly desgined "city center" type developments that end up being a bust. But I wonder where that's going to come from or when it will ever happen. I have hope that higher fuel prices will spurn people to think about this more, and I think it might be one of the only things that does so. Otherwise, cheap land and developer greed seem to be winning this battle - in the short term it's beneficial, but the long run damage that we are doing seems to be too great to ignore anymore.