Monday, July 14, 2008

New York State DOT Smart Planning Program

I'm back at the library in much better spirits about the future of development. A few weeks ago, the New York State Department of Transportation, usually only synonymous with road builders/maintainers followed up their first Draft Rail Plan in 22 years with a program to promote 'smart growth.'

I was completely floored by this development. Usually it is bloggers like myself or the Regional Design Center who would come out with a presentation detailing what constitutes good development alongside 'what not to do.' The state hopes to accomplish some sustainable economic growth and improved quality of life by partnering with communities to integrate land-use and transportation planning. Is it possible that the weight of maintaining the extensive asphalt infrastructure has sounded future budgetary alarms?

The 57 page Smart Growth and Transportation module is intended to provide municipal officials and the public with "a general understanding of smart growth and its relationship to transportation. Also included in their selection of "products" are a Smart Growth Checklist for Municipal Land Use Planning and a Smart Growth Checklist for Proposed Development Projects.

The DOT wastes no time in stating that the individualist's status quo is the wrong way to live. First on the agenda is the case of Syracuse's urbanized land sprawl vs. population growth comparsion from 1960-2000 (100% vs. 8%). Their stated goal of smart growth is to address and alleviate "unnecessarily high public and private costs, environmental degradation, and a reduction in our overall quality of life."

After positing that the effects of sprawl are not limited to cities, but also large economic viability destroyers of small villages, a graphic (above, right) illustrating just how isolationist we've become is employed to drive the point home about the inefficiencies of our current arrangement.

Every official document I've come across, from neighborhood charrette reports to metropolitan planning manuals to state rail plans, loves the bulleted list as a tool for program establishment. This document is no different, and as they attempt to explain to the masses this subset of principles of community design, a slide is dedicated to each bullet point (I will display the list soon, I promise). What I especially like about these slides is the blatant constrast they've set up on each. On every slide, juxtaposed against an actual photograph of something denoting smart growth, is a photo that could qualify for James Howard Kunstler's Eyesore of the Month. Each of these is underscored by the same rhetorical question, in an almost mocking manner, "Smart Growth?"

  • Preserve open space, farmland and critical environmental areas
  • Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
  • Take advantage of compact building design
  • Promote mixed land uses
  • Provide a range of housing opportunities and choices
  • Create walkable neighborhoods
  • Provide a variety of transportation choices
  • Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost-effective
  • Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration
  • Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place

Succeeding the stimulating visuals of what we are trying to do is the Core Issues section where the presentation preparer gets back to work hammering what isn't working and why it hurts the average citizen. From increased dependence on personal automobiles to a limited ability to utilize bicycles on many roads to initial and long-term taxpayer costs for supporting infrastructure such as water and sewer, the costs of sprawl lifestyle are established to be very high.

More sobering personal impact is employed to express non-monetary costs such as the 1,433 road accident fatalities in the state in 2006. This is one that has always made the anti-city rhetoric on unmoderated "forums" such as the Democrat and Chronicle's story comments so preposterous. I don't have the figures in front of me, but I am fairly comfortable guaranteeing that there were not 1,433 city homicides in 2006. And yet some Americans not only choose this lifestyle, but vigorously defend it as the level of anger on our roadways increases by the day.

Case in point, the average New Yorker was stuck in traffic for 36 hours in 2006. I can't think of a more miserable situation. The total cost of traffic accidents in New York in 2005 and 2006 exceeded $15 billion, yet some still can't wrap their head around and lament high auto insurance premiums. From a sustainability standpoint, the life cycle cost of roads built to accomodate McMansion style, one-acre lot development can consume more than 50% of the property taxes paid by residents. So much for the flawed (more like completely insane) logic that our road system is somehow fully funded by our paltry gasoline taxes.

There are environmental impacts, social impacts, and some other cost and traffic impacts that I haven't relayed. I'll leave it to you to read these as well as the public support for smart growth.

Smart growth as defined by the DOT requires more than an official government program to become a reality. Citizen stakeholders need to get involved, push a sustainable agenda at input sessions, and spread the word in their respective communities to develop consensus and make this the desire of reasonable citizens of New York, not a punishment or impingement on their rights to consume.

I'll leave you with images from a success story, the partnership of the town and village of Livonia, south of Rochester, who made a concerted effort to reestablish the village as the economic and social center of the community. This could only be accomplished through aggressive changes in our worst enemy, the zoning code (see Page 47 for a description of the major flaws of single-use zoning). Livonia's new and improved development management was able to leverage DOT capital improvements to their business district. The above image is from 1998, to the right from 2004.

That's it for today. Now I have to find a wireless provider downtown to publish (of all the sites to not work, Blogger can't be accessed from the library, and only Blogger it seems...). I recently got my official comments in to the DOT on the rail situation, there are only 4 more days in the public comment period. Be sure to make your voice heard!

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