Alternatives for Building Sustainable Communities
By John Dantzler
Over the millennia, cities have evolved as administrative centers, trading posts, ports, military strongholds, transportation links, and economic and industrial hubs. Whichever of these varied
purposes cities served, they made solid economic sense. The people who lived in the city worked in the city, and vice versa. Only in the 20th century have we departed from this norm.
The departure has been particularly marked and particularly recent in the sunbelt and especially so in South Carolina. Here, suburban living did not become attractive until the development of air conditioning, particularly mobile air conditioning for automobiles. At the same time, a large and continuing influx of people from other parts of the country turned our compact little towns into miniature versions of Los Angeles surrounded by suburban sprawl. (Our cities and towns all fit Alexander Woolcott's description of Los Angeles 50 years ago: "six suburbs in search of a city.") Commuters clog the highways, morning and evening, driving to and from jobs in town. Their daytime presence in town requires extensive municipal services.
More sustainable solutions to the problems of living and working need to be reached for our cities and towns to become as pleasant and livable as in years past, or perhaps more so. Many approaches have been tried or considered by other communities across the country. We in South Carolina can benefit from their experiences and even attempt to be pioneers in the field of bringing greater sustainability to our communities. The concept of sustainable development requires that we identify and eliminate waste of natural resources and any and all avoidable sources of pollution and greenhouse gases. This is so that our children and their children will have a world at least as livable as ours is now.
Traffic jams are a major cause of the harmful emissions being released into the environment.
There is little argument that the principal enemy of both environmental integrity and energy independence is the private automobile. Persons like myself (and the producers of the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) too young to remember the first half of this century tend to think of it as a golden age of trolley cars in town and passenger trains between towns. For my part, I've worked out that folks weren't riding trolleys because they loved them; they simply couldn't afford alternatives. The spread of mass production techniques and the post-war economic boom brought cars within nearly everyone's grasp -- and grasp them we did.
To talk about the car as the enemy may seem strange. A person turns the key, applies a foot to the gas pedal and goes wherever he or she wants. There is no question that most Americans see the car as a tremendous boon to their lifestyles. But automobiles use up valuable resources and emit noxious gases. Even with catalytic converters and rising fuel economy standards, the net impact on the environment from cars is little changed due to the widespread purchases of second and third family cars. Automobile emissions are dangerous to our lungs and dangerous to our future: the carbon dioxide emitted is a potent green house gas. Due to this and other such gases given off by our industrial society, our climate soon may change dramatically and permanently in a runaway greenhouse effect. At the same time, the almost exclusive reliance on automobiles has a strongly negative effect on our health. Cases of childhood asthma have skyrocketed in recent years. Many environmental factors may be to blame, but poor air quality caused by automobile emissions is the likeliest culprit. One frequently ignored economic argument against automobiles is that the fewer miles we drive, the lower our health costs are likely to be as a society.
Another frequently forgotten ill effect of automobiles is the runoff from roads when it rains. Oil and rubber wash into our storm drains or into the soil, eventually poisoning our waterways and our land. This is another example in which reliance on the automobile for transportation is not sustainable. Finally, dependence on automobiles encourages poor land use and wasteful land development patterns. A less sprawling suburban landscape would require less fuel and eat up less of the surrounding farmland or forests and would at the same time make mass transit more viable.
Ways and Means
Of course, several strategies have been tried to reduce our
reliance on the automobile. (The car would not create such a great degree of
environmental stress if so many trips by car were not made solo, of course).
Greater commitment to carpooling would reduce rush hour traffic greatly. Many
cities have established HOV-4 (High Occupancy Vehicle-minimum 4 passengers)
lanes on major thoroughfares. These give carpooling commuters (and buses) an
advantage over rush
hour traffic, and create an incentive for people to carpool.
In our cities and towns, bike lanes would make it much easier and safer for people who want to bike to work to do so. Many cities have converted derelict railroad tracks into hiking and biking trails (such as the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle) running from outlying areas to center city areas. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), passed by Congress, is intended to support increased public transportation, car-pooling, and bicycle and pedestrian opportunities. South Carolina's Department of Transportation and our various municipalities should be doing the utmost to secure ISTEA funding to improve these options. (At the moment, we have a State Bicycle Path Coordinator, Tom Dodds, and some South Carolina towns and cities expect or have received ISTEA funds for projects more or less related to the spirit of the legislation. Bike paths and rail-to-trail conversions are few and far between in South Carolina so far, however.)
In our cities and larger towns, the synchronization of traffic lights would not only save energy and money, but would eliminate one of the major frustrations of urban living. Waiting for a red light to turn not only raises the blood pressure but also wastes gas. We all know that city driving takes more gas than highway driving. This is due to the stop and start nature of driving in the city. To the extent that these stops and starts can be eliminated, we save energy and money for blood pressure medication.
An idea which has been gaining greater popularity and prominence in recent years is that of urban villages. Urban villages would take advantage of mixed use zoning. Rather than saying that this part of town is devoted to commercial pursuits while that part of town is residential and that other part industrial, mixed use zoning would bring all aspects of city living as close together as is practicable. Obviously, there are problems with bringing industrial applications too near commercial and residential zones. (Pollution prevention programs in industries heretofore considered "dirty" are rapidly evolving into pollution elimination programs. It may not be unreasonable to expect more industrial applications to be located nearer residential areas in the future. Pollution prevention will be discussed in a future article in this series.) But the goal is to make it practical for the largest number of people possible to walk or bicycle to jobs or to shopping or to restaurants. To the extent that this is possible, we can cut down the number of miles traveled by private automobile, reduce our dependence on imported oil and improve our health.
A Potpourri of Ideas
Other ideas which would be effective may seem a little far out. Higher gasoline taxes, wildly unpopular in energy-producing states (and not exactly considered the "cat's meow" in non-energy-producing states) would certainly reorient the incentives toward driving and might even reverse the decades-old flight to the suburbs. We will see what effect the recent rise in gas taxes has on suburban settlement patterns and on carpooling and mass transit.
It has been suggested that the dramatic gas price hikes of the 1970s did not result in significantly greater use of mass transportation. Therefore, higher gas taxes could not be expected to do so. In the economic parlance, mass transit is an "imperfect substitute" for automobiles. I would argue that the run-up in oil prices during the '70s was not called a price shock for nothing. America was reeling from Vietnam and an external organization was causing gas prices to skyrocket. Monies from the price rise did not primarily accrue to Americans, but to interests abroad. As there was (and is) very little in the way of mass transit in most communities, most people swallowed the price rise and drove anyway. As time passed, they tended to buy much smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, but they kept on driving.
A gas tax is different primarily because the revenue accrues to Americans. So long as some percentage of the monies raised are earmarked for mass transit or programs like ISTEA, it is possible to make mass transit (or cycling, or walking, or whatever) a more nearly perfect substitute for driving. At the least, folks will tend to go back to purchasing more fuel-efficient automobiles, which we have been getting away from since oil prices have receded.
Something states and municipalities can do to reduce driving is to create toll roads. Tolls would be used to maintain roads and bridges and would have the added benefit of causing drivers to think twice about taking unnecessary trips. Tolls also make the people who actually use highways pay for them instead of spreading the cost across all of society. (A variant of this idea is "congestion pricing" which involves charging higher tolls or fees for driving at certain times of the day on busy highways, or using certain lanes of traffic.)
When issuing mortgages, banks take into account a person's income and the cost of the house. Non-avoidable costs, such as a person's fuel outlay to commute to work and associated depreciation on his or her vehicle are not taken into account. Were they so considered, a disincentive would be introduced militating against living in the suburbs and commuting to work, and an incentive would be introduced tending to cause people to live nearer their place of work. This idea will likely gain favor with banks on the grounds it would probably increase their profits. While banks are in the business of making loans and not of penalizing customers for locational decisions, taking into account such non-avoidable expenses would allow bankers to be more confident that the borrower will be able to pay off his or her mortgage.
An idea gaining favor across the country is that of telecommuting. With the advent of the fax machine and fiber optic telephone lines, people often find they can do their work just as effectively at home, sending "paperwork" in by phone. Although supervisors and co-workers may find it trying at times, telecommuting is likely to be a cost-effective substitute for traditional commuting by car for many office workers.
Some municipalities are experimenting with converting their city-owned vehicles to burning compressed natural gas. More widespread conversions of this nature would both make our air cleaner and reduce our dependence on imported oil. Some local governments are forging partnerships with private industry to assure at least no worsening of air pollution. For example, firms wishing to build new plants or expand capacity in a manner that would likely increase emissions agree to buy back and destroy a certain number of automobiles (usually from used car lots) that cannot meet current standards. Increasing fuel efficiency and emissions standards mandated by Congress in recent years mean that new cars have much less of an adverse impact on the environment than older cars. The number of cars bought back would be calibrated to negate the emissions from the new plant or expansion.
As stated earlier, South Carolina cities and towns have become rather spread out. Most analysts believe that mass transportation cannot be self-supporting. However, mass transit would certainly be more nearly so (i.e., subsidies would be lower) were urban densities much higher. Part of the difficulty may lie in a misunderstanding of what constitutes mass transit. Most of us think of subway trains and trolleys and the like. But for areas of lower densities, such as suburbs, even buses may be more "mass" than is needed. Reliance on passenger vans on less traveled lines as feeders to bus lines would be a cost-effective way to get more people to utilize mass transit instead of driving. Of course, greater frequency of service is a must. In the cities where private firms still operate the bus system, (in the U.S., Columbia and Charleston are the only ones) substitution of a regional transportation authority may be required.
Many of the changes discussed above can result in more people moving back into town. The higher urban densities required for more sophisticated mass transit systems will thus be created. In this case, more serious consideration could be given to using trains, trams or trolleys to get people to work.
Pollution, Pollution and Pollution
Apart from reducing automobile vehicle miles traveled, we can combat toxic emissions, both the lung-harming kind and the global warming kind, by maintaining green areas and planting more trees. One of the most attractive features of South Carolina communities is the tree-lined residential streets. Still, we could only benefit from planting more trees. Trees not only process carbon dioxide, but also provide shade, all important in our climate. Shade trees thus
Proving that sustainability is not just a fad, many roads are being widened to provide bike lanes.
save energy and money spent unnecessarily on air conditioning.
Water pollution caused by urban and suburban living has many sources. As mentioned, runoff from roads is a serious threat to our drinking water and our environment. Runoff from lawns treated with chemical pesticides and fertilizers can be as serious a problem as the runoff from similarly handled farms. In some older municipalities, storm-water runs into the same sewers that handle sewage. Under conditions of heavy rains, excess water may be diverted from treatment plants directly into waterways, including some sewage, with adverse effects on both wildlife and downstream communities.
None of these problems are amenable to quick or easy solutions. Householders
need to consider the consequences of using fertilizers, pesticides and
herbicides on their lawns. Storm-water drains need to be separated from those
carrying sewage or treatment capacity needs to be increased, whichever is more
cost-effective. Of course, we can reduce sewage flow by encouraging the use of
low-flush toilets and water-saving shower heads. That would reduce our water use
and save homeowners money and reduce our adverse impact on the
Of course, I am writing only on the basis of an educated guess when I casually say that cars are the enemy. In any city, energy use is divided between residential, business and transportation applications. In the Piedmont region of our state, industrial applications are likely to be more important than elsewhere in South Carolina. However, I would surmise that throughout the state, energy use is highest in the transportation sector. South Carolina badly needs an energy survey to determine how energy is used and by whom, and how it might be better allocated. My admittedly cursory library search reveals no such work done since 1983. Hopefully, the creation of the State Energy Office by the Energy Conservation and Efficiency Act of 1992 will redress this problem.
Regardless of whether cars are in fact the most important energy drain in our communities, it is important to improve our performance in the other sectors also. In the realm of architecture, energy efficient building design is becoming more important after decades of short shrift. Such revolutionary ideas as using day-lighting instead of electric lights and shading instead of air conditioning are returning from our pre-electric past. Buildings can be built with arcades to provide shade for pedestrians. Shaded sidewalks would make downtown shopping more pleasant, especially given our climate, and bring more people back to our largely abandoned central business districts.
Innovative energy sources could be used to lessen our reliance on fossil fuels. Cogeneration could be applied to industrial, commercial or residential applications. Cogeneration uses waste heat from industrial processes either directly to heat buildings or to generate electricity from steam much as a nuclear power plant operates. Other non-traditional forms of energy, such as solar and wind power would be well adapted to our somewhat wild climate. (Best would be a combination of both; in South Carolina, if it isn't sunny it's windy, and if it isn't windy it's sunny.)
In residences, both passive solar (i.e., putting the water heater by a window with southern exposure) and solar panels can be used for energy to heat water. Ceiling fans are a much more energy efficient alternative to air conditioning. New housing should be of the rowhouse or semi-detached type. Party walls save a lot in terms of heating and cooling by comparison with fully-detached homes. Many architects argue that in downtown areas building heights should be restricted so that long building shadows do not make surrounding lots undesirable for development, especially residential development.
The Big If
The attentive reader may have noticed that although I turned to the subject of urban villages early on, I paid it pretty scant attention. Many, many factors combined to create the urban-suburban sprawl form of development we see in South Carolina and in other parts of the sunbelt. Desegregation of the schools and the resulting "white flight" are well-known reasons. To reverse this flight, the quality of inner-city public schools needs to be redressed. While this problem is beyond the purview of this article, it cannot escape mention.
The levers mentioned above in the context of influencing people to drive less primarily do so by making it more expensive to commute. As such, gas taxes, new mortgage rules, etc. may cause people to relocate from the suburbs by making suburban living more expensive. However, they cannot make city living less expensive. A comparable house in the city costs more than one in the suburbs due to the greater convenience of living nearer. By making it more expensive to live in the suburbs, we raise demand for housing in the city. More housing can be built to a certain point. Older houses in decaying neighborhoods can be rehabilitated ("gentrification"). And multi-family housing can be built in some areas for those willing to forego the American Dream of a house and a yard. (All these would raise urban densities, again making it more likely that mass transit could be a more nearly paying proposition.)
However, at a certain point, there aren't any more lots, and there aren't any more people willing to sacrifice living in their own home for living in a condominium or apartment. Mark Twain's rationale for the high value of land ("They aren't making any more of it.") definitely applies here. Therefore, we should consider an alternative to moving the people to the jobs. That is, we should consider moving the jobs to the people. The concept of suburban villages works equally as well as that of urban villages. Many operations are already locating in business parks in the suburbs in preference to going downtown. This is not necessarily an undesirable result. Moreover, it has already happened all over the country. We should not be surprised when the trend of moving office operations to the suburbs accelerates here, too.
Here's the rub. If commercial operations all move out to the suburbs, the city dies. Therefore, cities usually fight to attract and to keep businesses within city limits. We see unattractive struggles like the one a few years ago between Columbia and Irmo over the annexation of Columbiana Centre. However, if city and suburbs will work together, everybody can benefit. What is needed is some form of elected regional government with some degree of taxation and planning powers. (This idea is discussed at greater length by Neil R. Peirce in his article, "Regional Governance: Why? Now? How?" in the Summer, 1992 issue of the Forum.) That way, the town at the center of the urban area doesn't suffer tax losses due to a firm's rational decision to locate nearer its employees. Long-distance commuting and associated pollution and health risks are reduced, and everyone is better off. Urban villages can be set up in the suburbs making driving less necessary. Malls can be made more amenable to pedestrian access with covered walkways across the parking lots. Abandoned commercial properties downtown can be converted to multi-family housing for the employees of businesses remaining in town. Everybody drives less because everybody can live nearer their workplace.
It is essential at the same time that poorer citizens not be crowded out of
these projected sustainable communities. Gentrification eats up affordable
housing. Raising demand for housing in the city raises housing prices, possibly
leaving many with no place to live at all. Additional affordable housing needs
to be built in cities and towns in conjunction with the programs discussed here.
A further discussion of affordable housing concepts appears in the related
article, "A Tale of Two Cities."
Carrots and Sticks
Of course, local authorities almost never are thrilled by the idea of giving up any of their prerogatives to regional authorities. An alternative approach would be uglier, but probably also effective. Many cities charge city wage taxes, so that people working in the city but living elsewhere are forced to pay for city services their presence requires. A city levying such a charge could instead apply some of the revenues to improving local school districts, redressing a problem mentioned above. Alternately, as mentioned above, tolls could be levied on major routes into the city. Doing so and applying the revenues to school districts would supply both a stick and a carrot to entice suburbanites to move back to the city.
Some municipalities require police and firemen to live within the city limits. A municipality might go further, requiring all city employees to live within its corporate limits. (Of course, policies like this have direct and indirect affects, as well as intended and untended consequences. And, other factors clearly condition the adoption of such policies, such as availability and affordability of housing.)
Sustainable Communities As Sustainable Development
The goal of making our communities more sustainable is a cornerstone in the effort to make the nation and its economy as a whole develop in a sustainable manner. There have been successes in various parts of the country. The Sustainable Cities Project uniting Portland, Oregon and San Francisco and San Jose, California has set a goal of 10% net reduction of energy use in each of the three cities by the year 2000. Significant progress towards this goal has already been made. New housing developments have been designed and built all over the country centering on much less automobile use and relatively greater reliance on transit, bikes and walking. The Clean Air Act and ISTEA legislation still have to prove their promise, but indicate a move in the right direction towards lessening driving and offering viable alternatives. On the whole, there is a great deal of reason for hope, but we must all work together, whether from city or from suburb, to make our communities more nearly sustainable.
A Tale of Two Cities
Charleston and … Charleston
Architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of Miami are among the foremost figures in the movement back towards traditional pedestrian- and transit-oriented towns. Duany is godfather to
the development of Daniel Island in Charleston Harbor. In 1991, he visited Charleston to address the Sea Grant Consortium's Ninth Conference. He had a number of strongly positive things to say about how exceptionally well Charleston is laid out.
More recently, in October of 1993, the Charleston Post and Courier reported in detail on the costs of urban sprawl to Charleston and its environs (Specifically, October 3, 1993, p. G1, "Stopping the Sprawl" by Robert Behre). It is a tale of two cities, none too original a concept perhaps, unless the two cities are one and the same.
Duany finds central Charleston to be compact and walkable. It has the "sense of place" so many communities are missing. He argues that Charleston did not become a tourist destination until the loss of this sense became pervasive in recent years. (Most writers in this field make the same argument about Main Street USA at the Disney resorts; I don't know whether this superficial resemblance should make Charleston leaders proud or not.) He contrasts traditional Charleston with the auto-based sprawl form of development and its ills.
As long as you keep building roads, you can keep growing. The issue is how do we not build any more roads, because roads are not environmentally neutral. They cause, they exacerbate, they encourage the pollution that automobiles cause. Aerosol cans, lighter fluid, these are nothing compared to starting one American automobile. This is what is destroying the atmosphere.
He remarks that, "If a foreigner analyzed our current pattern of growth, he
would believe that the Bill of Rights was written for cars." The sprawl mode of
development, especially suburban thickets of cul-de-sacs connected by
thoroughfares, leads to fantastic waste of
energy and time, and to mounting frustation when the thoroughfares back up. Every function of life, work, school, shopping, requires a trip by automobile. As Duany remarks, "as a result, in the most advanced suburban situations, such as Orlando, Florida, each little house generates an average of 14 car trips a day. So what you find is that these little suburban houses, these little American dream jobs, are actually monsters of pollution…."
Duany contrasts the sprawl mode with the traditional grid pattern of American towns. Work, school and shopping are likely to be closer to residences, so walking is much more viable. Grids allow motorists to take many alternate routes if one is congested. (However, I'm not sure Duany has ever driven in Charleston if he is including it in this description of drivers' Xanadu.) He argues that building and zoning codes of today are entirely geared to an automobile-based sprawl form of development. Charleston, he says, could not be built today; it would be illegal. He suggests that we chuck our codes and start over with more sustainable building and zoning practices in mind.
Duany also addresses a matter considered elsewhere in my article: the need for affordable housing in the city. He argues that dispersing low cost housing throughout the city and making sure that it is stylistically in line with the existing housing stock is the solution. He says, "Charleston is one of the few places on earth that builds affordable housing that looks normal and is in very small increments; it's a lesson to the rest of the country."
Other solutions include building apartments "above the store" (over retail space) or reviving the garage apartment. But above all, he be lieves that any way we can allow people to get by with one car in place of two, or none in place of one, we also free up their spending money so they can afford better housing. This can be done by creating bike paths, urban village style zoning or better mass transit. He suggests that the way to pay for the wonderful new urban world is to reallocate monies from road building to applications more congenial to human use.
The authorities interviewed for the Post and Courier story see
the same world of suburban sprawl as Duany does. but they perceive sprawl in the
Charleston metropolitan area which Duany doesn't see by confining his
observations to central Charleston. Dana Beach, executive director of the S.C.
Coastal Conservation League, extends Duany's commentary, saying, "Sprawl is not
only a bad thing to look at, but it's a terrible thing for the economy." Many
aspects of suburban and exurban sprawl, some less than obvious, affect the
economy adversely. For example, lot size affects the affordability of housing in
The cost of a new, 1500-square-foot home is increased significantly if it is built on a larger lot, according to a study by the Westvaco Development Corp. and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.
That study showed such a home would cost about $95,000 if built in a low-density development, while the same house in a medium-density development would total about $82,000. The annual income needed to buy the home in the low-density development would be about $33,000, while the income needed to buy the latter home would be about $25,000. The point is analogous to the discussion of affordable housing in the city; there is a crying need for more affordable homes in this country which is not being met.
The newspaper article cites a study in New Jersey where planners analyzed the cost difference between sprawling suburban development and a different approach centered on villages and towns. The study found that over 20 years, the latter approach would save $1.4 billion in capital costs as well as $3.8 billion in operating costs. Much of the savings comes from existing infrastructure, such as roads, fire stations and sewer lines which could serve more people.
Meanwhile, suburbs are becoming exurbs as development pushes further and further into the countryside. A study of nine northern Virginia counties found that for every dollar farm property generated in taxes, it required only 21 cents in services, while residential development required $1.20 in services for every dollar it produced in taxes. I possess a master's degree in economics, so I can count on my fingers and work out that this is not a paying proposition.
Even apart from the hard economic numbers, many analysts have pointed out that exurban development leads to massive waste of productive farmland. Frequently, cities are located where they are as trading centers for surrounding fertile lands. As these lands are eaten up by suburban development, productive (and tax producing on net) applications are replaced by pollution and gridlock creating (and tax consuming on net) housing developments.
Returning to a look at Charleston, lack of regional cooperation has led to many unfortunate results. Development has boomed where there is much room for doubt whether demand will ever arise. As an example, water and sewer lines are being extended much further than is necessary due to a crazy quilt of districts with authority for this vital function.
By 1998, enough sewer service will be available to provide for the amount of growth expected through the year 2013, Beach says.
"Each one of those districts without the broad knowledge of where the regional growth is going to go, is going to try to meet the most optimistic growth projections, so everybody overplans and overbuilds, and the result is a tremendous capacity," he adds. Again we see that an essential component to creating sustainable solutions to our urban problems is cooperation among all municipalities and levels of government in a given region. Perhaps that is the final moral of this "Tale of Two Cities."