Thoughts on Development: We Have To Do It Another Way (condensed version)

Thoughts on Development … We have to find a better way!

People will always need places to live. And to buy groceries, fuel, prescriptions and so on.

Rather than oppose development outright, we need to integrate sustainability and ecosystem restoration into ALL new developments (and retrofit those attributes into existing developments).

“Making peace with nature will be the defining task of the twenty-first century.” Those were the words of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, in the climate discussions held in December 2020.

And there’s no better place to start making peace with nature than in the realm of development. Human needs aren’t going away; we can’t NIMBY our own needs out of existence. Instead, we have to find ways to create our buildings and roads and utilities in a manner that doesn’t involve trashing every other species on the planet (right down to those all-important soil microbes).

In that spirit I offer my permaculture-inspired responses to a neighborhood’s concerns about a potential development. These concerns are in regard to a specific development, but they are very typical of the objections that just about every development tends to be met with from neighborhood groups, environmentalists, etc.

Below, I attempt to address each typical concern, in hopes of sparking a creative conversation about how we can do development that is both eco-friendly and people-friendly (because contrary to popular belief, we can’t have one without the other; the two must go hand in hand).

• Traffic concerns – increased number of vehicles:
— Promote development that adds little or no traffic, such as car-free townhome complex or urban ecovillage, or residential complex with car-share station on premises.

• Water and sewer lines increased demands:
— Well yes, but cities have been dealing with that since time immemorial. If we need to boost our technical expertise in this area, we could look at the public-works departments in Boston or NYC, who have been dealing with dense water & sewer requirements for centuries.

• Roadways in need of improvements to handle traffic:
— Minimize additional traffic by adding only non-car-dependent housing. Many people are seeking to live car-lite or car-free. I have even heard of townhouse or apartment complexes with car-share stations (Zipcar etc) built in or alongside.

• School overcrowding:
— If schools get overcrowded, we build new schools! Or build an additional storey onto the existing school. Better than the alternative, schools having to close for lack of students because no young families feel able to live in the area (whether because not enough jobs or what have you) — a sad thing that happened in my neighborhood, we no longer have a middle school.

• Safety of streets and children, especially those walking to school:
— We don’t make streets and children safer by keeping out new residents; we make them safer by reducing speed limits on roads, by making sure all roads have sidewalks and bike lanes, and by stationing crossing-guards during before-school and after-school hours.

• Property tax increases:
— Maybe, but that will probably happen regardless anyway. Might as well get something good out of it.

• Property value decrease:
— Doubtful! New residential development, as well as useful commercial development such as grocery stores, tends to increase property values.

• Crime increase:
— Maybe (and only maybe). But, for sure: more residents equals more customers for nearby merchants; more citizens to add life and civic engagement to a place; more people to offer yardwork, housecleaning, accounting, child care, elder-care, and other services the local residents might need. Also: New people mean more “eyes on the street” (thereby possibly REDUCING crime).

• 50 feet of green space:
— Easier to achieve if we allow developers to build multi-storey.

• Save the oaks:
— Easier to achieve if we allow developers to build multi-storey.

• One-story units only:
— Makes it harder to save trees and greenspace; promotes car-dependent sprawl and traffic.

• No zone change:
— Oftentimes, incremental zoning changes can be the best thing to happen to a place. Not talking skyscrapers or a delivery warehouse in a residential neighborhood. But duplexes; 2-story or 3-story multifamily dwellings, small neighborhood stores, yes! For more about gentle incremental zoning changes and the benefits they bring, see StrongTowns . org

• High density traffic flow that this area will not accommodate:
— Design ALL new development to minimize car trips. Make sure major goods & services are accessible by bicycle, foot, bus, wheelchair. Look into adding a ZipCar station or other car-share node at residential complexes.

• Infrastructure costs in current residents for lines to the property and hookup:
— Developer and new residents should pay infrastructure costs of new development.

• More police services:
— Maybe, but outweighed by benefits of new residents — see above. Also, density can bring down the cost of service per capita. “Economies of density.”

• More fire services:
— Maybe, but outweighed by benefits of new residents — see above. Also, density can bring down the cost of service per capita. “Economies of density.”

• Rise in crime inevitable:
— No it’s not – see above.

• Homeless camps continue at <nearby intersection>
— We won’t solve homelessness by keeping out new residents. That is a separate issue. Also, an influx of new people and more foot traffic might induce campers to move on to a more secluded area. Or better yet, the boost in population from the new residential development might provide a critical mass of citizen sentiment to come up with a real solution so people have an alternative to camping.

• Transients and renters:
— Renters can be every bit as good, contributing citizens as anyone else. Some of the worst “transients” I’ve known are what I call “rich transients”: People who buy second or third homes and only occupy them a week or two out of the year; people who buy houses just to flip them; etc. In contrast, fulltime residents — be they owners or renters — contribute to the life of a community. ARE the life of a community.

• Traffic study:
— No. We don’t need to pay for yet another traffic study; we already know that traffic sucks. And that asphalt creates a hot miserable climate. Not to mention, roads and parking lots are expensive to build and maintain. We need, rather, to start insisting that all future developments (be they residential or commercial) have reducing car-dependency as a primary aim.

• Mandatory Sidewalks:
— Yes! Good! And while we’re at it let’s make bike lanes mandatory too!