Reaching Local Communities Across the Country!
Packin' in the People
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Slower traffic, centralized amenities, the feeling of harmony and a sense of place, downtowns are an evolving phenomenon that are sometimes very cool, and more and more are being touted as the sustainable foundation for human growth and expansion.

Take, for intances a planned mixed-use community project near Tianjin, China. What caught my eye, and became the motivation for this column, was the plan involved moving more than 50,000 people into a 1.042 square mile area, about half of which was a lake and wetlands. The project is tauted as a 'Green' project specifically for the Green issue, however, the elephant in the room was how a project packing 50,000 plus people into less than a half square mile (320 acres) section of the area could be sustainable? Certainly the project was not self-sustainable, especially when it appeared that the project was completely surrounded by similar developments. Over the past several years I have written many times about the New Urbanism movement, where developments are being built in which private property is measured by the amount of interior living space, and landscape is described in terms of public property. Some of these project are actually pretty cool, and many are chock full of sustainable elements and recipients of enough LEED Gold, Silver and Platinum points to make one think they were paving the streets with the precious metals.

In southern California is a development called the Spectrum. This development, or more accurately, this community, is a couple of square miles in area and contains numerous apartments, an industrial section and in the middle a great outdoor mall with retail, entertainment and restaurants enough to serve the surrounding inhabitants. I get it. Much cleaner and way less dense than anything I have seen in NYC. It is really a nice area to visit and, I imagine, to live in. The tallest apartment is maybe five stories, with a few commercial buildings reaching up to a dozen stories or so with maybe 5,000 people living in the community. We often visit the mall for dinner, shopping and a movie. It draws as many visitors from outside the area as it does from the surrounding apartments.

Like I said . . . I get it: central amenities, centralized utilities; fun food and family all within walking distance. The allure is great and the community is vibrant. Sustainable, however, it is not. Oh, I’m sure that a great deal of the landscape is sustainable, in that it is xerophytic, low maintenance and capable of filtering stormwater. However, there is not one thing in that community that is not imported; that’s the rub.

There is a great cry out there for environmentalism . . . Cut the sprawl. Centralize community. Save and protect wilderness. On paper . . . Good. But good is relative as was pointed out in a news item that came in too late to make this issue: “Concerns over Loss of Wetlands and Prairie,” which you can find at It discusses the impact on the environment from expanding farmlands. In effect, as communities centralize and densify, farmlands centralize and then expand into the surrounding lands and habitats. Cause and effect. Yin and yang. Building up does not reduce the need to carve out the wilderness. It just transfers the cause from sprawl to agriculture. Unfortunately, history shows us that when crop production becomes too centralized, it also become susceptible to plight . . .

Now, before I get all into doomsday scenarios and lose the train of thought . . . This issue is about downtown development and the projects inside are great examples of how downtowns can be that central point of community. But the great thing about a great downtown is having a great residential area to retreat to at the end of the day. There is no doubt that having a central area to gather resources and come together for industry and entertainment is both desirable and efficient. My point is that, unlike that commercial where the little girl is so sure that “more, more, more” is always better, packing 50,000 people into a square mile is not an ideal downtown, and adding a little wetland to the project certainly does not make it sustainable . . .

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