“It takes a village to raise a child” is the saying, but we don’t build villages any more, we build suburbs. Considering just the amount of land consumed, suburbanization is enormously wasteful. When Los Angeles’ population increased 40%, for example, its land area increased 300%. This is the consequence of low-density (few homes per acre) building. The costs imposed on suburbanites by such expansions—especially on the poor—are enormous. They include increased commute distances, pollution, and the “tax” of having to own and drive cars. These costs remain one of our time’s most poignant tragedies.
For those concerned about town planning, and the alternatives to low-density building, Roxanne Warren’s The Urban Oasis is an invaluable resource. As she says: “The unmet and pressing needs of our cities, and our mandate to conserve the earth’s resources-apparently divergent areas of concern—are in fact opposite sides of the same coin. When people abandon cities to settle in suburbs…they may be finding solutions for their own households, and for their own generation. However, without effective land use planning, today’s small-town refuge in the Rockies will become tomorrow’s Los Angeles, complete with traffic, smog, and destruction of the habitat. To flee the problem is not to solve it.”
Warren goes on to debunk the myth that higher density building-cities-are necessarily poorer or higher in crime. The startling truth is that sprawl towns like Los Angeles and Phoenix have higher per-capita crime rates than Manhattan.
Her discussion of transportation yields similar surprises. She is no advocate of conventional mass transit. She rejects bus, light and heavy rail as too expensive. Basically, she says the infrastructure designed as sprawl is too unpopulated to ever supply enough transit riders to make it economic, even with subsidies. She goes on to outline how our society heavily subsidizes autos, by some reckonings as much as $300 billion a year.
What does Ms. Warren propose as an alternative? Her “Urban Oases” would be high-density developments, with peripheral parking and with enough population to support shopping, schools, employment centers, good parks and cultural events. Transportation within these developments would be either on foot or using “Automated People Movers” (APM’s). Lest readers believe her proposals are some figment of a theme-park planner’s imagination, she also cites successful recent developments around the world that use this technology. Refreshingly, she also takes the time to explain why some developments using APM’s failed.
Warren’s effort is thoughtful and well-reasoned. This reviewer’s only caveat is that the ideas are not necessarily new, and powerful economic forces oppose them. The $300 billion annual auto subsidy did not come from nowhere. Whether APM development will sway enough of the public to get developers, policy-makers and planners to pay attention, much less change their ways, is really open to question.
However, as Warren amply demonstrates, unless we curb our appetite for land in the way we build, we will reap the whirlwind. For that alone, her book is worth reading. Given its real, down-to-earth consequences, town design is certainly more relevant to our daily lives than most of the crises that dominate popular media, yet land-use planning is one of the most under-reported issues since the savings and loan bailout. The Urban Oasis is a step at least part way toward remedying that imbalance.
Mark Dempsey is a former Realtor and former vice-chairman of a Community Planning Advisory Council in Sacramento County.
The Urban Oasis: Guideways and Greenways in the Human Environment by Roxanne Warren, McGraw-Hill, 177 pages.