Saturday, March 12, 2011

1998: Sprawl and the Growth Lobby

This morning's paper brings the news that Tucson's urban core has continued to lose out to suburban growth over the past decade - just like in the previous few decades. This is a trend that can't continue forever, but it could get a whole lot worse before it gets better. Obviously, the "viable growth management plan" referred to below did not pass. It appeared on the 2000 ballot as Proposition 202 and received less than 30% yes votes in the face of strong industry pushback. Pima County subsequently developed a Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, and Tucson voters evertually passed a watered-down light rail plan after rejecting a more comprehensive version. But the momentum of sprawl will continue... until it doesn't. Seems like more overdue homework to me.

(Illustration by the great Andy Singer)

There's been a lot of talk about growth and sprawl lately, not just here in Arizona, but nationwide. The Sierra Club has started a national campaign against sprawl, recognizing that without such an effort, achievements in environmental reform will be incremental at best. We're losing too much of Mother Earth as the six-billion-and-counting of us spread out for more elbow room.

And here in the Grand Canyon State, we have a chance to put a viable growth management plan on the November ballot. Citizens for Growth Management is behind the effort, and they need 112,000 signatures by June 2nd, which is not impossible, especially if you help them.

Not only does reckless and haphazard sprawl rip up our precious Sonoran Desert and endanger native flora and fauna, but it's being subsidized by your tax dollars. For too long Tucson residents have been paying for new infrastructure to help developers raid the desert and make a buck. Too many of our politicians have been happy to help them, but maybe those days are coming to a close.

Voter-based growth management has been working just fine in Portland and other progressive regions. Of course the Growth Lobby will complain that Portland has become much more expensive to live in. Well, that's because they have a much better quality of life, thanks to sensible urban planning.

But the problem is that while nobody (well, almost nobody) is in favor of reckless sprawl. Nobody wants higher densities, either. In fact, Tucson has a lower density now than it did 50 years ago. But the number of passenger miles driven has grown much faster than the population - which means that our quality of life is deteriorating.

Time and again, in the Sustainable Tucson forums, the number one priority that citizens identified was sensible alternatives to automobile travel. And if they haven't gotten all that many alternatives, the dirty little secret is that mass transit requires more density to work.

Recently a proposal was floated for wildlife corridors to help our endangered fauna recover. The flip side of that is that we also need urban density corridors, along major thoroughfares like Grant and Campbell. Living on those streets isn't all that pleasant anymore, thanks to all our exhaust. So why not rezone them for higher densities? Grandfather out the existing single-family dwellings, and encourage multi-story developments, with retail on the ground floor, office space above, and apartments and condos on the top floors and in the back. With greater population densities, these corridors could support modern light rail systems.

Just a thought. Feel free to tell me why I'm full of it.

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