Friday, March 03, 2006

Reclaiming Suburbia's Birthright

From Brownfields To Roosevelt Field To Greenfields

Richard E. Dansky, author of Suburban Sprawl, An Amazon Short, had this to say about suburban sprawl:

My wife and I bought our house in part because it was well away from strip malls, prefab house farms and the like. Unfortunately, the development in our neighborhood has been taking place at methamphetamine speed. I came back from an extended business trip and found that while I was gone, a lovely tract of forest had been chopped down, plowed up, and otherwise prepped for an incoming Food Lion. I saw that gash of raw, red clay just sitting there bleeding mud into the street – it was over a year before they actually started construction – and thought about the angry forest taking it back.

On our Long Island, the unbridled growth and development of the 50s, 60s and 70s, through that silently creeping sprawl, created the "brownfields" of today. Now, with most of Nassau County completely "built out," we begin to reclaim those "brownfields" -- the abandoned, the outmoded, the crumbling, the contaminated, and the archaic -- with the building of strip malls, drive-thru Dunkin-Donuts, and Food Lion equivalents.

In other words, we are reclaiming yesterday's strip malls, drive-thrus and super centers -- which have become today's "brownfields" -- with tomorrow's "brownfields."

The typical response to paving a parking lot, and putting up another parking lot -- even among civic leaders -- is, "Well, it will be better than what we have now." Unfortunately, "better" is not always "best" for communities in dire need of redesign and revitalization. "More of the same" is hardly the appropriate remedy for poor planning, absent visualization, and inadequate zoning.

It is, of course, easier and less of a brain-strain to build what we know -- that which has become familiar and comfortable, if not lacking in aesthetics as well as functionality.

Surely, we won't let "that vision thing" get in the way of tearing down that decaying commercial building and putting in its place a 30,000 square foot super center with a 500 car parking lot. Where opportunities abound to expand upon that sense of community and place, we contemplate instead tearing down the local movie theater, erecting in that space a Walgreens or a CVS. Never mind that there is a Walgreens and/or CVS but a stone's throw away -- the dynamics of "neighborhood" must yield to the dogma of senseless redevelopment every time, if for no other reason than to feed the landlord/developer, while starving out any remaining semblance of community.

The lessons of the past notwithstanding, we continue to build -- under the guise and misnomer of "smart growth" -- strip shopping malls and asphalt parking lots, necessitating car trips for the smallest of errands. What we should be building instead are sustainable meccas of mixed-use, rejuvenating -- and in many instances, creating for the first time -- habitats for living, working and shopping in walkable, convenient town centers.
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Click HERE to read Brownfields and Sustainable Development
Click HERE for Brownfield Redevelopment, a Rhode Island case study
Click HERE to read a comprehensive report, inclusive of case studies, on Downtown Revitalization

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