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Stop Sprawl
Livable Communities

People need livable communities and a high quality of life. The attractiveness of older small towns and a scattering of newer developments demonstrate the appeal of certain characteristics. Lively downtown areas, streets designed for pedestrians as much as autos, a scale and pattern of development that allows us meet everyday needs by walking, are all key factors in ensuring cities provide a high quality of life.

The Problem

The standard style of suburban development since the 1950s produces less livable communities. Uses are rigorously separated into housing subdivisions, shopping malls, and business parks, which are then segregated by walls and wide collector streets. Residents must depend on cars for all their shopping, family and recreational trips. Traffic congestion is the norm. A sense of community is often lacking.

Cities that work for people
  • People-friendly streets
  • A mix of uses in an area
  • Provide the benefits of town-like density
  • Build on a human scale
  • Provide public places, civic amenities
Development patterns to avoid
  • Segregated uses
  • Strip commercial
  • Buildings surrounded by parking lots
  • Office parks
  • Ribbons of development into rural areas

We are building sprawling mega-cities that provide this lesser quality of life, while consuming vast acreages of farmland and wildlife habitat. Fifty years ago, Los Angeles was a delightful place to live, a sunny city surrounded by stunning mountain ranges, and the nation's number one agricultural producer. Now it's a vast mega-city stretching 50 miles in all directions, with commuters driving 50 miles between their job and affordable housing. Traffic congestion reduces mobility, but lack of public transportation and scattered services and jobs mandate auto travel.

Air pollution remains a major problem, despite dramatic reductions in individual auto emissions. Agriculture has all but vanished. Many species and habitats are rare and imperiled. A variety of fiscal and social problems accompany this sprawl. Inner cities, and then inner suburbs, decay as growth moves outward like an ever-expanding doughnut. Peripheral growth incurs tremendous costs for constructing and maintaining infrastructure, costs which are rarely internalized into the price of new development.

Low density development is particularly expensive: new infrastructure on the edges of urban areas can cost up to $30,000 a house. Meanwhile, localities cannot afford to maintain existing infrastructure in older communities. More and more people endure ever longer commutes between jobs and distant affordable housing. Family and local government economies suffer. Decisions are made on the basis of short term fiscal needs, rather than the long-term good of the communities we are building.

People move out of the Los Angeles area, often to get away from these ills and find new homes with better quality of life. But because we have not learned that sprawling development causes so many problems, their new locales are on the same path to becoming dysfunctional cities.


A growing number of planners and architects are learning from communities that work. Leaders like Andres Duany and Peter Calthorpe promote design principles and work with developers to produce model communities. Here are some of the key principles.

  • Mix uses, rather than segregating them. Designs like dwelling units placed above shops, and streets with a mix of stores offices and housing are a basic feature of these cities and towns.
  • Change street design and relationships of buildings. People-friendly streets have some common characteristics. They are narrower, lessen the overwhelming presence of speeding vehicles with trees, parked cars, and traffic calming devices. Shops and businesses front directly on to sidewalks, while any parking lots lie behind. Houses present front rooms and verandas, rather than a line of garages, onto the streets.
  • Provide the benefits of town like density. Well planned, town like mixed-use development gives vibrant communities and opportunities for walking on errands. It allows cost-effective public transit.
  • Build on a human scale. "Everything in these coveted neighborhoods is built on a smaller and therefore more intimate scale" states a 1993 Sacramento Bee editorial on neighborhoods which work. From narrow streets, to homes pulled closer together, to lively retail businesses that people walk to, these areas provide areas provide real communities.
  • Provide public places and civic amenities, including small parks, and civic buildings. A collection of large stores surrounded by parking do not make a 'town center!’

We also need to address two other issues in order to obtain successful communities and curb suburban sprawl:

  • Changes in local ordinances and building codes. 'Under today’s zoning regulations, most of the standard practices of good town planning are against the law' says James Kunstler in his 1993 book The Geography of Nowhere. This is a major stumbling bloc. We need a concerted education campaign and the promotion of model ordinances and zoning regulations that will allow livable communities. In California, the Local Government Commission does a superb job in promoting the need for change to local government officials.
  • Firm urban boundaries. There are many schools of thought on urban limit lines, some claiming that are not an effective way of addressing growth. Urban boundaries are a natural feature of compact cities, are common in Europe, and are a centerpiece of the successful Oregon land use planning law. We can combine these boundaries with conservation or agricultural easements and transfer of development rights programs for lands outside the outside the urban growth boundaries.

Finally, there are things to avoid. They include ribbon development, strip commercial, malls with buildings surrounded by parking lots, and office parks.

Change Must be for Real

Unfortunately, these concepts can become buzz-phrases, providing attractive packaging without the substantive changes. This is reminiscent of those billboards, peddling housing developments with scenes of oak studded rural valleys, or wildlife-laden ponds. Currently, the term 'mixed-use' is subject to abuse. Architect Peter Calthorpe provides a guide for spotting fake 'mixed use' planned communities. They still separate uses into individual development zones segregated by major arterial roads. They isolate pedestrians from the street. They use a hierarchy of streets, so causing congestion of feeder routes and continue to design streets for autos, not people. And they fail to provide effective public places.

The writings and lectures of reformist planners and architects have increased awareness. California's Local Government Commission educates local officials and promotes the Ahwahnee Principles for planning communities that work. But still it is largely business as usual. The 'Beyond Sprawl" report of the Bank of America and others states the problem. 'Little constituency exists beyond groups of government reformers, some local government leaders, community groups and conservationists. Political alliances must be forged between environmentalists, inner-city community advocates, business leaders, governments experts, farmers and suburbanites.' An essential task for the years ahead.

reprinted from Linkages, newsletter of the Institute for Ecological Health.

Further Reading on Livable Communities

  • Carl Abbott Planning the Oregon Way: A Twenty-year Evaluation. Oregon State University Press. 1994.
  • Randall Arendt. Conservation Design for Subdivisions. Island Press. 203 pp. 1996.
  • Randall Arendt. Rural by Design. American Planning Association. 440 pp. 1994.
  • Bank of America Beyond Sprawl: New Patterns of Growth to Fit the New California. 1995.
  • Peter Calthorpe. The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community and the American Dream. Princeton Architectural Press. 1993.
  • Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Towns and Town-Making Principles. Rizzoli. 1991.
  • James Kunstler. The Geography of Nowhere: the Rise and Decline of America's Man-made Landscape. Simon and Schuster. 1993.
  • Local Government Commission, Sacramento. "Anwahnee Principles" (text and slide show). 1991 and 1995.

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