Thoughts on Development: We Have To Do It Another Way

As I have repeatedly witnessed (and been part of) citizen oppositions to new development, I have come to realize that opposing development is often shooting ourselves in the foot. People will always need places to live. And to buy groceries, gas, prescriptions.

Rather, we need to look at how 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).

This post started out as a couple of comments I made in response to a post in one of my local eco groups on Facebook, listing residents’ concerns about an upcoming residential development.

Comment 1) I sympathize with the residents who are worried about extreme change in their neighborhood.

That said … Asking for “one-story units only” is self-defeating. It creates sprawl, and actually makes it harder for the developer to preserve the oaks and other greenspace. If the buildings are two- or three- story, it’s more efficient from a nature-preservation standpoint (keep the “footprint per human” to a smaller area; leave more space for nature).

Density also makes public transportation more feasible.

If I were a developer, I would aspire to build a 3-story townhome complex, using low-impact-development (LID) principles to preserve all the oaks, and add NATURAL stormwater features onsite. Mini wetland areas etc, no shaved sprayed ponds.

Walking trails would wind around the ponds and buildings and the oak groves, and out to the sidewalk so residents could easily get to the bus stop etc.

And, I would market it as a “car-free living, nature park” complex. There’d be a few parking spaces for guests, but all residents would sign a no-car covenant. Enough people are embracing car-free living these days; I suspect it would not be hard to fill the units.

There would be dedicated parking areas for bicycles.

I’d also, as a developer, never want to build any residences without at least a grocery store and a drugstore in walking distance. If those stores were not there already, I’d team up with other developers to build them.

Restricting development to one-story just creates more of the very sprawl and traffic we are trying to avoid. I think the key to making a development palatable to existing residents is to make a top priority of preserving trees, and minimizing added car-traffic.

And I would also add new ones — including maybe fruit trees, grapevines, passion fruit vines, etc.

And creating or preserving beautiful, restful, natural water features.

If I wanted to get really fancy I might even add a natural swimming-pool for residents. Natural swimming-pools, which are chlorine-free (instead using plants for filtration and cleaning), are getting to be a hot item. That would be yet another selling point for the residential complex.

Comment 2) Also: Renters are not automatically undesirable residents! Many renters, if they find a good location with a good landlord, will stay in the same place for 10, 15 years or more. They contribute every bit as much to the safety and social fabric of a neighborhood as owners do.

More thoughts:

Below is the list of concerns raised by neighborhood residents opposing a development in a city near me. This is in regard to a specific development. But the following list is very typical of the objections that residents of just about any place tend to voice in opposition to just about any new development:

Traffic concerns – increased number of vehicles
Water and sewer lines increased demands
Roadways in need of improvements to handle traffic
School overcrowding
Safety of streets and children, especially those walking to school
Property tax increases
Property value decrease
Crime increase
50 feet of green space
Save the oaks
One story units only
No zone change
High density traffic flow that this area will not accommodate
Infrastructure costs in current residents for lines to the property and hookup
More police services
More fire services
Rise in crime inevitable
Homeless camps continue at <nearby intersection>
Transients and renters
Traffic study
Mandatory Sidewalks

Now I’ll attempt to address each of those objections with a permaculture-inspired approach. My hope is to spark a broader creative conversation about how we can create development that is both eco-friendly and people-friendly (because contrary to popular belief, we can’t have one without the other; the two 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; apartment 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 a new 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 means 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
• 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.
• 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 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 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!

More thoughts in closing …

• Lately, I’ve stopped automatically opposing new developments. (Of course, I always prefer infill development of existing urban lots and buildings, as opposed to new construction on forest or wetland.) Rather, I tend to support new multi-family complexes more than I support new single-family homes each with its own big yard. And, for any type of residential development, I always want to know if there are grocery stores, drugstores, banks, laundromats in walking distance. If there aren’t, I encourage the developer to add them into the development plans. Sometimes the most eco-friendly thing a developer can do (besides protecting oak trees and other existing nature) is add a grocery store right there.

• In related news, the brand-new Wawa gas station/convenience store in my city features a dozen or more newly planted oak trees and sabal palm trees. Adding oak trees, and protecting existing ones, is one of the best ways to boost the quality of life for all residents — human and nonhuman!

• In a neighborhood not far from me, a segment of a sidewalk was rebuilt to accommodate a stand of oak trees that otherwise would have been taken down. The new segment of sidewalk curves gracefully around the majestic old trees.

• One of the main reasons why so many efforts to fight development ultimately fail, is that fighting development is fighting human nature. Instead of fighting against development, we need to push for development that is truly eco-friendly. It needs to be a top priority.