City Growth – The Smart Way

There has been much discussion about growth in my community and its impacts upon the quality of life of residents.  I live in Silicon Valley which is currently undergoing an upturn in high-tech job growth which is considered healthy for our economy.  But we are paying a heavy price in traffic congestion which is impacting our quality of life with more street noise, greater difficulty in getting around town, less safe streets, and increased air pollution.  People are becoming alarmed at how much their peace and privacy are quickly diminishing and of their lack to control it.  Many have risen up in alarmed protest at the way our city government appears to be handling the situation.

Solutions have been proposed that use technology to help solve the consequences of growth, primarily of there being too many cars on the road creating traffic congestion, air pollution, noise, and accidents.  Some are proposing elaborate high-tech transportation systems, others are hoping self-driving autonomous cars will come to the rescue.  But the most vocal opponents of this growth are a group of citizens who simply want growth and developments to dramatically slow down or stop.  They are using the initiative process to enact changes in city planning laws that will greatly limit certain parameters of growth such as building heights and occupancy density.  This locks the city into these growth parameters essentially forever that hampers the city’s ability to adjust to the future needs of the community thus strangling constructive development that can mitigate growth impacts.

Currently our city is pursuing transportation alternatives to solve the growth impact of traffic around town.  But our city was designed around urban sprawl many decades ago with mazes of streets and cul-de-sacs not amenable to bus service, so the use of cars is the only feasible way of getting round town or elsewhere.  Due to the lack of demand public transportation is not well developed in our city and our regional transit authorities are reluctant to develop it further.  So it looks like public transportation will not play a significant role in mitigating anticipated traffic congestion.

The problem is that most residents living in urban sprawl do not work in our city and most employees working in our city do not live here due to the high cost of housing.  So we have workers commuting from out-of-town to jobs here and residents commuting to work in other cities creating a lot of traffic during heavy commute hours.  Another problem is that job growth is far outpacing housing growth so the cost of housing is escalating beyond the reach of most young working people near many job centers here.  This increases the traffic congestion as young employees must seek affordable housing further from where they work.

But what if the cities planned new high density housing along existing transit corridors leading to major job centers in our city?  What if there was a development within walking or biking distance from a major work center like Apple or Google where there was a large affordable housing complex incorporating a shopping center, daycare, offices for doctors, lawyers, etc. and even a school and library: in other words a community within a community?  What if a large company such as Apple, Google, or eBay were to build such a community within a community as part of their company facility?  In a way some of these companies are already doing something close to this by making snacks and food free and proving rest, entertainment, and fitness areas for employees near employee offices.  I am simply taking this concept one step further.  All of these suggestions would reduce or eliminate the need for these people to drive 75-90% of the time thus reducing traffic from people commuting to work or other destinations.

This concept of city planning is expressed by a new movement called Smart Growth. Essentially Smart Growth is an environmental movement whose goal is to develop communities that do not increase their footprint onto undeveloped natural land and have minimum impact upon all aspects of the environment, while providing a vibrant environment for its inhabitants with attention to the conservation of resources and efficient and compact living.  That means adding or expanding no new roads and freeways and not developing into available open spaces.  It mean minimizing all forms of pollution and conserving natural resources and the use of energy.  It means access to jobs, shopping, and other destinations without dependence on cars.  This is most effectively done through high density, integrated mixed use developments near major transit corridors or employment centers.  It means not having to depend upon the use of cars most or all of the time.

This is how cities need to plan for the future, with the goal of minimizing impacts of growth upon all aspects of the environment: Smart Growth.

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