Imagine you have a headache from dehydration. You could go get a glass of water, but instead you pop two painkillers. The headache goes away, but the painkillers give you an upset stomach. The pill you take for the stomach ache makes you drowsy. So you chug a bunch of strong black coffee for the drowsiness, and now you're more dehydrated and your headache is coming back....

This absurd vicious cycle of treating the side effects of the previous treatment, ad nauseam (literally), when a simple solution was right in front of you, is not that different from the way many local governments attempt to manage the effects of growth. The rapidly growing, mostly-suburban county I live in has an absolutely byzantine tangle of regulations aimed at shaping the nature of future large-scale development on currently rural land, and mitigating the negative effects of that development. Those effects range from traffic congestion to loss of open space and wildlife to aesthetic impacts to concerns about affordable workforce housing.

The real problem is not that we haven't achieved the right balance of regulations to satisfy everyone's needs. The real problem is deeper and yet simpler. It's that the development pattern that we at Strong Towns call the Suburban Experiment is a costly failure.

The Suburban Experiment in Florida

Nearly all new residential construction in my area of Florida, like most of North America, is done at a very large scale by deep-pocketed corporate developers, owing in no small part to the aforementioned byzantine tangle of regulations. This makes it prohibitively difficult, in many cases, for smaller players to be in the game at all. There are no small bets in this environment, no low-risk experiments in different ways to build community, just a stifling homogeneity.

Much of the new residential construction in my area is built a full subdivision at a time, to a finished state. This results in almost guaranteed decline over time, as the neighborhood is frozen in amber and cannot incrementally evolve to meet changing needs and wants. Single-family houses can't become duplexes can't be replaced with apartment buildings. You can't open up a shop downstairs which gives way to a different shop which builds on an annex to make room for more customers.

Massive amounts of private and public debt are used to fund the construction of these master-planned developments, and whether or not they deliver long-term value and tax revenue for the public coffers, the public is still on the hook to maintain and eventually replace the infrastructure that serves them.

A classic Florida suburb (Source: Daniel Herriges)

A classic Florida suburb (Source: Daniel Herriges)

Each subdivision is an enclave unto itself, ensuring that its residents will need cars to access the rest of the metro area in a convenient fashion. This guarantees environmental unsustainability, and contributes to public resistance to developmentnew neighbors don't benefit you, they just mean more traffic on the road you take to your job every day.

This public resistance means that new development leapfrogs farther and farther into the countryside, where the birds and deer haven't figured out how to lobby elected officials yet. And where residents will be even more car-dependent.

What we have, folks, is a bad party. One where every new arrival makes things worse for the people who were already there. (If you haven't read Chuck Marohn's recent article fleshing out this analogy, take a moment and read it!)

The thing is, this is widely understood. Though people disagree on the diagnosis—and I think there's a widespread lack of understanding that there's a better way to grow a city—there's a pervasive sense that we're on the wrong track, that suburban "sprawl"—that great Rorschach test of a word—is ruining many places.

Policy makers understand this, too. That's why the vast majority of development regulations in most rapidly-growing suburban areas are devoted to mitigating the harmful effects of new development. You have to provide landscaped buffers between adjacent land uses. You have to provide more than ample parking, and fund roadway improvements. Et cetera et cetera.

Think about this for a second. The original purpose of urban planning in the U.S. was largely to protect people's basic health and safety from patently, outrageously dangerous conditions, like those of fire-prone tenement housing without adequate ventilation or sunlight. The original purpose of zoning was to protect people from grossly incompatible land uses, like a smelter on a residential street.

One of these things is not like the others.... Source for all three images: Wikimedia Commons

Fast forward a century. Go to any planning meeting in an American suburb and you'll hear plenty of talk about "protecting neighborhoods," but from what? From the side effects of new residential construction. That's how bad our bad party has gotten. The conversation we're having about growth, at least where I live, is literally about protecting neighborhoods from other neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, the way suburban governments triangulate between economic pressure for growth and the demands of the public for restraints on growth often produces a profoundly dysfunctional, confused set of policy incentives and requirements working at cross purposes to each other.

Most of these places are having the wrong conversation. The ship is sinking and we're not even rearranging the deck chairs; we're arguing about their color.

Anatomy of a Broken Policy Process

Let me focus on one example: In Sarasota County, Florida, new subdivisions in the largely-rural portion of the county east of Interstate 75 are required, among many, many other things, to set aside 50% of their land as "open space." The idea of this requirement is to ensure that new development is clustered into walkable "villages" (their term, not mine) rather than spread out as a uniform carpet of suburbia, and, to quote from the relevant section of the county's comprehensive plan "to protect the character of the rural landscape and provide separation between Villages and existing low density rural development."

Villages in the countryside... Hmm, so, the goal is to end up with something like this?

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Hey, sounds good to me! Let's read on:

These Open Spaces shall restrict uses to include only uses that are compatible with the Resource Management Area ideals, and high priority shall be placed on Native Habitat protection. These uses may include existing agriculture, and may include the following new uses: Low-Intensity Agriculture, agriculture that uses Best Management Practices, golf courses that use Best Management Practices, regional stormwater facilities, lakes, public parks, and wetlands mitigation.

Golf courses? To "protect the character of the rural landscape"? Huh?

Also in that list are a bunch of things that are non-places. Drainage ditches, strips of grass and vegetation at the side of the road, these things qualify as "open space" but they're not anywhere people are going to spend time. And that seems, oddly, to be the point. As I read it, the fundamental purpose of this open space is to spread developments further apart from each other—to protect neighborhoods from other neighborhoods, not to create places that add real value.

If we were throwing a good party, we wouldn't even be talking about this. However, we're operating under the assumption that we have to keep inviting people in to our bad party, but we're going to mitigate the unpleasantness by handing everyone a pair of earplugs for the noise of the crowd, and cough drops for when they get sore throats from yelling to hear each other over their earplugs.

What do the world's great cities have in common? Are any of them known for the beauty and expanse of their "open space"? Here are a few examples:

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

No one uses that phrase—"open space"—in these places. Parks, sure. You can have a great park in either a dense city or a leafy suburb. The key is that it attracts people by being a place people want to be.

And look, rural conservation is great. Native habitat is great. But this is a recipe for "Swiss-cheese development," extending conventional suburbia far into what's now wilderness, albeit in clusters here and there. Nothing about the 2050 policy framework (read it to appreciate it in its full convoluted glory) will turn these villages in the middle of nowhere into self-contained communities. They will be bedroom suburbs, completely car-dependent, because they're tied to a large metro area you can only get to the rest of by a long drive.

Above: Swiss cheese development pattern in suburban Atlanta. Source: Google

If you're trying to preserve rural land, preserve rural land. If you want high-quality development, provide incentives and standards for high-quality development, and invite it where it builds on existing success. Let established neighborhoods where there's proven demand for the next increment of growth and density exert their own gravity, instead of zoning them into a frozen-in-amber state. Invite people to the good party already happening down the block, not the bad one.

Stop green-lighting development that will never pay for itself, let alone subsidizing it.

A Non-Solution to this Bad Party

We need a very different, far-reaching public conversation about how and where we should grow as a region, but the institutional inertia of our established framework of policies and practices and incentives is immensely powerful. This is, to be very clear, not the fault of county planners, who are doing their jobs within a set of pretty rigid confines. It's not even really the fault of elected officials. Righting the good ship "How Things Are Done" is really, really hard.

But here's where we're at now. Here's what we do instead:

At the direction of the elected County Commission, staff are considering a comprehensive plan amendment to allow prospective "village" developers to petition to have their open space requirement reduced from 50% to 33%.

The justification for this change is actually somewhat reasonable, taken on its own. Developers of three proposed villages have already petitioned for and won comprehensive plan amendments that, on a site-specific basis, give them the right to request a reduced open space requirement. But that right only extends to those sites. Using the comprehensive plan for that purpose is bizarre—it's the equivalent of amending the state constitution to change the last-call time for bars in a select list of cities, instead of just passing legislation to do so.

So this new proposal would not actually reduce any developer's obligation to provide open space. It would simply level the playing field by allowing anyone to petition for such a reduction. They'd still have to make the case for it. And if they did, they'd still have to set aside the same amount of rural land for permanent conservation as a condition of their development approval—they'd just be free to do more of it off-site.

Are your eyes glazing over yet? Mine were by this point.

It’s really easy for a perfunctory public meeting about something obscure and procedural to morph into some sort of existential battle between good and evil.

I don't think I was alone. At the packed public Q&A session I attended on this topic, I would venture (based on the number of non-sequitur comments and questions) that less than 20% of the audience actually understood the arcane details of what was being proposed and why. A lot more of them, though, greeted it like Judas himself was manning the PowerPoint presentation.

I witnessed generalized anger at the perceived selling out of the public interest: Your job is to protect us and our neighborhoods, so why aren't you protecting us? Who are you serving? Who paid you to do this? How does anyone benefit from this, other than the developers?!

This is a common experience for any planner. It's really easy for a perfunctory public meeting about something obscure and procedural to morph into some sort of existential battle between good and evil.

If your frame of mind says development is something with only downside and no upside for its neighbors—if it's something you feel you need to be protected from—then anything that might make development easier feels like the government selling out the public interest.

And it doesn't help when what we're arguing about are tweaks to a broken system, too impenetrable for most people to understand.

The audience at this meeting grasped that they were having the wrong conversation, and not the one they thought they had come for. The most telling outburst of the whole two-hour ordeal was (loosely paraphrased, but as faithfully as I can remember it):

You say you, as a government employee, represent the public and are proposing this change on behalf of the public. Well, if you are the public, then what can we, the public, do to get you to put forth something completely different: a fundamentally different vision of what eastern Sarasota County should look like in the future?

Plenty of open space here, but for what purpose? (Photo by Daniel Herriges)

Plenty of open space here, but for what purpose? (Photo by Daniel Herriges)

We're not all going to agree on what that "completely different" looks like—substantive disagreements were evident just within that room. But we should be having those conversations. We should be building a ground-up, affirmative vision of the kind of place we want to build, not a negative vision of the kind we want to avoid. And we should be electing representatives with the political courage to push that vision forward.

This has to come from grassroots action. I'm trained as a planner myself, and I respect the challenging position the staff tasked with holding these meetings and writing these codes are in. And frankly, I respect the challenging position that elected officials who sought to rein in fiscally unsound, environmentally destructive, largely unwanted-by-its-neighbors development would be in. They'd be up against a whole host of bad incentives that they didn't create and can't alter—some stemming from federal policy, some from the mortgage loan industry, a lot simply from path-dependence.

There is no good way to do things differently, and if history is any guide, a few suburban places will figure out winning strategies to transform themselves, but for most, economics will simply one day force our hand.

But there is clearly a need for something more ambitious and more holistic than quibbling over how big an open space buffer the next car-dependent, built-to-decline, Ponzi-scheme subdivision is going to have to provide, and what procedures the developer is going to have to follow to get it approved.

There is a need for a more holistic effort to link the public interest—that is, the various overlapping interests that comprise the public—to the incentives that really determine what happens on the ground.

Let's think big. Let's throw a better party.

Related stories