Suburban Infill Development is Good, Greenfield Development is Bad

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No real disagreement here with Rich Wilkins about the desirability of infill development in the now built-up suburban areas of the Lehigh Valley, but there’s an important distinction to be made between the kinds of suburban growth that are good and the kinds that are not good for the environment.

Greenfield development, where you need to build new roads and new sewer lines and new electric and broadband infrastructure out into a field that doesn’t have it now is horrible.

The more we’re adding to the car dependence problem by building housing and commercial developments where driving is the only option, the more we’re cooking the planet. The built environment contributes about 40% of global greenhouse gas pollution, and auto emissions make up about 50% of the “contribution” from the US. Global GHG emissions need to peak before 2020 to avoid crossing the dread 2 degrees Celsius mark where we will be unable to reverse the warning, and the planet will become uninhabitable for human beings. There’s no way to do that without significantly reducing auto dependence and sprawl. Our state’s most populous regions like the Lehigh Valley need to start taking steps to cut emissions.

What we should be looking to do in the built-up suburban areas is build new buildings in areas where they won’t require new infrastructure. No new roads or sewers, which is my problem with Madison Farms, but in-filling unused or underused land that’s already connected to the existing infrastructure. Here’s a cool presentation on what retrofitting suburbia for greater walkability entails.

Nobody is saying that the suburbs need to look like cities or that people need to stop driving – it’s all about making smaller changes (turning some more cul de sacs into through-streets, adding sidewalks, allowing neighborhood businesses in some more residential neighborhoods, or letting people use ones that already exist by-right, etc). When I went to Salt Lake City earlier this year some of their neighborhoods were kind of a hybrid like this. Basically they looked like the burbs in Palmer or Emmaus, but then there would be a restaurant building on the corner, and then a commercial street with a cluster of businesses, but all in a basically suburban setting where people didn’t have to drive, or drive far, to get to this stuff.

Is there going to be more greenfield suburban development? Of course. And I’d rather it look like the walkable Madison Farms village than the type of 1-acre McMansions that we were building before the housing bubble popped. But our zoning policies need to focus on making land that’s hooked up to existing infrastructure more price-competitive for development with cornfields. The regulatory overhead needs to be lower in the cities and in the suburbs.

This entry was posted in Environment, Land Use, Transportation.

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