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Q&A: WTC Attacks And The Smart Growth Movement

A New Colonist Exclusive

The secondary effects of the recent terrorist attacks on New York and Washington will be slowly realized over an extended period time. In order to get an early feel for how the attacks may affect perceptions of density, transportation and city life, we asked two experts for some insight.

The first response to each question is from Harriet Tregoning, Special Secretary for Smart Growth at the Maryland Governor's Office on Smart Growth. They will be preceded by HT.

The second response is from Geoffrey Anderson, Director Development, Community and Environment Division U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These remarks are preceeded by GA.

Not all questions were answered.

NC: Skyscrapers undoubtedly contribute greatly to density. Are they a necessary part of Smart Growth?

HT: Skyscrapers are not a necessary part of Smart Growth--they are just one of the products or building types available. While encouraging more compact development is an important consideration in promoting Smart Growth, it is critical that development fit into the context and scale of the existing land use pattern. If designed properly to integrate into the community, skyscrapers are an appropriate building type in places with similar density in the surrounding neighborhood.

GA: No. Skyscrapers are not a necessary part of smart growth. However, more compact development patterns are an important principle of smart growth.

One of the most important attributes of compact development patterns is their contribution to more transportation choices. A critical mass of people also makes retail and commercial business viable. A combination of density and a mixture of uses means more people have the option of walking because they live or work within a short distance of transit stops or stations as well as stores, offices, schools and other destinations. In order for a community to support cost effective transit, certain levels of density must be met. The rule of thumb is 7 residential units per acre for basic bus service or 15 per acre for premium bus service. For rail service, minimum densities are even higher. To give a sense of scale, a 3-4 story apartment building built on top of parking can provide 30-70 units per acre. So, while density is an important aspect of growing smarter, clearly skyscraper heights are not required to achieve transportation choice.

In vital urban spaces with limited room to expand, such as Manhattan and San Francisco, it makes economic sense to build taller buildings because the land is so valuable. However, there is a limit to this economic argument. At some point the building's size becomes a burden, not an asset. Around 50 stories is cited by some as the upper limit on economic effectiveness.

NC: Following the World Trade Center destruction, many will consider tall buildings, and major cities in general, targets. What message can be sent to companies to keep them from looking for new locations in suburban office parks?

HT: Skyscrapers are popular because of the large number of people and mixed uses that can be accommodated within the same building. In places where land uses are very intense and land prices are very high, the economies of location and proximity will likely continue to favor offices in skyscrapers. Suburban office park locations will be favored where proximity to a large number of related businesses and services is less important (e.g., back office operations), where almost exclusive reliance on automobiles is not a hardship for employees, and where employers are willing to forego the kind of vitality often found in cities where skyscrapers are built.

GA: The relative risk of a terrorist attack, like the risk of fire, earthquakes, floods, or other calamities, will be factored into corporate decisions about location. This risk is not likely to be sufficient to overcome traditional location factors such as overall quality of life, workforce availability, and access to markets. If the risk of terrorist attack does become sufficient to create noticeable changes in corporate decisions, then we have much bigger problems than sprawl.

Companies that have not already moved to suburban locations usually have very strong economic reasons for staying in the city. In many large cities the cluster of companies that make up a specific industry are service-based industries. In New York City, for example, the financial services, advertising, and entertainment industries are all strong in the central city. All of these sectors depend primarily on a highly skilled workforce that interacts with others to share information and ideas. They are relationship-driven businesses, they need face-to-face meetings in public places that are separate from yet close to work. The variety of cafés, restaurants, and bars in central cities like Manhattan supply these "Third Places" away from home and work [in which] business relationships can be fostered.

To succeed in knowledge-based industries, companies need to attract the highest quality workers. These people are well paid and have the freedom to live many places. They seek a high quality of life as well as a high quality job. Unfortunately what defines a high quality of life changes as one ages. Access to the 'in-spots' becomes less important than quality schools when you have young children but empty nesters may find access to cultural events is more important than maintaining a large suburban yard. In order to provide high quality of life, employers need to locate in areas where worker have a wide variety of living options.

The American Housing Survey found that proximity to and accessibility to work is the number one reason people choose where to live. Central cities have the transportation infrastructure that allows workers to live all across a metro area and still be able to choose how to get to work. In the New York metro area, depending on where you live, you can drive, walk, skate, bike, or take the bus, subway, commuter rail, or ferry to Manhattan. This transportation choice gives workers the ability to choose where they want to live, improving their quality of life.

NC: Is the age of the mega-city over?

GA: Throughout history, agglomeration has been associated with increasing economic productivity and other advantages to society. There are numerous examples throughout history of cities which have suffered a wide variety of catastrophic events, both man-made and natural, but which have been rebuilt and continued to thrive. In addition, in the short run, a number of demographic, economic and lifestyle trends make it likely that cities, including urban core areas, will continue to attract new residents despite the events of September 11.

Census 2000 found a significant decline in the proportion of households with children in them (now less than a third of the nation's households), and a rise in the share of those households that have only one parent in them. This and the aging of the US population contribute to the increasing diversity of household types. Such diversity leads to a demand for increased housing, employment and lifestyle choices--a demand which at present is only met in metropolitan areas.

The 2000 census also found continued concentration of population growth both within and adjacent to metropolitan areas. The proportion of the nation's population that lives in metropolitan areas (using 1990s definitions) now exceeds 80 percent, and fully 50 percent of the population lives in suburbs. After decades of losing residents, many U.S. cities are regaining population in downtown neighborhoods. So, the age of the mega-city is not over.

However, "mega-cities" are not always good places to live and do not necessarily represent smart growth. Mega-cities can be composed of low density, auto dependent, segregated use development--the opposite of smart growth.

NC: Sprawling cities like Los Angeles are harder targets for terrorists and military attacks than dense cities like New York. Do you think a fear of living in dense cities will have an impact on the smart-growth and anti-sprawl movements?

HT: No. The revival of cities has occurred around the country because many people are choosing to live in close proximity to work, entertainment and culture. In addition, people are choosing to live in cities because of the diversity of people, housing types and transportation choices. Those dynamics are likely to continue.

As the country reflects on the tragedy of September 11, 2001, the need for security, safety and community are foremost on people's minds. The first reaction of people in New York, Washington and elsewhere was strong desire to "come together" as part of a larger, interconnected community. The need to know and trust your neighbor has never been more important. Cities and suburbs that are designed to promote neighborhoods and neighborliness are likely to become more popular. To the extent Smart Growth encourages the creation or revitalization of great neighborhoods, inspiring public spaces and a rich civic life, it will thrive, even in the wake of this national tragedy.

GA: Dispersed populations would obviously not be as easily targeted as the World Trade Center towers for the specific type of terrorist attack perpetrated on September 11, 2001. However, contrary to popular perception, Los Angeles is actually quite densely populated. Statistics show that on a metropolitan scale, the Los Angeles region is as dense as the New York region (between 5000 and 5500 persons per square mile within the Census-defined Urbanized Area [UA]). The difference in perceptions is probably due in no small measure to the fact that LA relies almost exclusively on the automobile for transportation.

Clearly parts of Manhattan are more densely populated by residents and workers than anywhere else in the U.S., due to many factors including the geographic constraint of the island itself. However, Los Angeles also contains many skyscrapers, ranging up to 1000 feet in height, although none are as symbolic as the World Trade Center towers. Extremely livable "smart growth" communities exist at much lower aggregate densities--many traditional downtowns include civic spaces accompanied by 3-10 story buildings hosting residences, jobs, and other activities. Such locales provide many choices in where and how to live, at much lower densities. Even in a large metropolitan area like Portland (Oregon), which offers a wide variety of living and transportation choices, overall density is only about half that of NYC or Los Angeles. Appropriate levels of density vary depending on a variety of factors. It is important to remember that density is only one of many variables which determine whether growth is smart or a place is livable.

The terrorist attack also demonstrated the amazing resiliency of New York's multimodal transportation system. LA-style auto-dependency would not likely perform well under such circumstances. On September 11th, many in lower Manhattan were able to walk, bike, take the subway, take the PATH train, take the ferry, or take the bus. Remarkably, the intricate network of gridded streets and numerous underground trains has allowed much of New York to remain accessible to residents and workers, to within blocks of the devastated area. Providing transportation options, a central principle of smart growth, only makes economic sense at moderate and higher densities, and with many types of activities within reasonable proximity.

New York City's World Trade Towers proved uniquely vulnerable in that they were high-profile, ultra-high-density, and highly symbolic targets; the Pentagon was an equally symbolic target. But before the targets could be hit, there were strategic weak points in our air transportation security system that allowed the hijackers to board and forcibly take control of four commercial aircraft, turning them into weapons of destruction. Would terrorists strike exactly the same way again? Perhaps not. Is Los Angeles more secure than New York City? Or is it possibly vulnerable in different ways?

In general, smart growth does not advocate hyper-density as represented by the World Trade Center. On the contrary, smart growth cities can be sufficiently dense without very tall skyscrapers. Despite the events of September 11, cities that make density an advantage--with walkable neighborhoods, mixed uses, and transportation options, and great public spaces--still have a lot to offer, and sprawl still comes with high environmental, economic, and social costs. For many reasons, then, people will not turn away from smart growth and the economic, social, and environmental benefits it offers.

NC: Since the hijacking and crashing of four commercial airplanes recently, Amtrak has experienced record ridership. How do you think rail passenger service will be affected in the long term as a result of the recent attacks?

HT: Transit ridership was already increasing around the country before the attacks. Rail should experience a strong and sustained surge in ridership. Airline shuttle service was an attractive option for the business traveler seeking the fastest mode of transportation. Quick airplane shuttle service may no longer be the preferred option since increased airport security translates to more time spent in lines. The train may become the most desirable mode of travel for trips within 300 miles.

NC: I think it was the president of Union Pacific Railroad I saw quoted in an article recently saying that if airports are requiring passengers to arrive at the airport three hours early, all of a sudden passenger rail could be profitable again on short hauls. Does passenger rail contribute to smart growth ideals? How? Could a resurgence in passenger rail help America's Cities?

HT: Passenger rail can be Smart Growth because it represents another mobility/travel option and is an alternative to both the automobile and to shorter distance air travel. It provides the opportunity for people to have additional transportation choices and frees up congested airports that are often providing short hauls for businesses. Train stations are often located in core urban areas that can often benefit from the new investment that would follow significant increases in rail service/use. It is not enough to bring back the rail system, we also need to concentrate on investing in the surrounding neighborhoods. With a surge in use, the areas adjacent to train stations may also experience increased vitality as new retail markets become viable with the increase in traffic.

GA: It's important to distinguish between different intercity and regional rail services. Many regions have found that rail transit combined with well-designed, mixed-use development around stations helps to provide choices of places to live and work and ways to travel, a fundamental principle of smart growth. Interurban or commuter rail can also contribute to good urbanism, again when stations are surrounded by a mix of activities. However, this type of service can also produce more dispersion when stations are surrounded by commuter parking lots rather than towns. Careful planning and incentives can combine to help ensure the crucial high-quality developments around rail stations--this would help America's cities and contribute to smart growth ideals.

When comparing air to rail for intercity travel, the effects are not clear cut. It is certainly easier to surround rail terminals with mixed-use, pedestrian-scale developments, due to their smaller size and other logistical issues. Also, train stations can be and frequently are located closer to, or even in, downtown areas. In general however, while rail service and infrastructure are more supportive of human-scale urbanism than air, both [air and rail]clearly have a place in a balanced transportation system that provides choices for intercity travel. Much analysis of intercity markets in the U.S. and around the world shows that high-speed rail service (150 mph or more) best serves trips of 300 miles or less, with air travel clearly preferable for longer trips. A smart growth intercity transportation system would provide both, with the airports located on efficient rail lines serving local super-regional urban centers. The potential diversification of our intercity travel services to include rail certainly has the potential to better serve travelers and contribute to the improving health of our cities.

NC: Please provide any other comments.

HT: The State of Maryland's Smart Growth efforts focus on restoring and enhancing existing communities, protecting the best remaining farm, forest and resources lands; creating a sense of community; and saving taxpayers from the high cost of building often redundant infrastructure to support sprawling development. Maryland's Smart Growth approach incorporates ten Smart Growth principles: mix land uses; take advantage of compact building design; create housing opportunities and choices; foster distinctive and attractive communities with a strong sense of place; preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, historic neighborhoods and critical environmental areas; strengthen and direct development toward existing communities; provide a variety of transportation choices; make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost-effective; encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions.

NC: Please provide a sentence about your organization.

HT: The Governor's Office of Smart Growth in Maryland was created to help coordinate the activities of other agencies, provide education and information on Smart Growth to the public, and facilitate the development of both redevelopment projects in existing communities and smart neighborhoods in growing communities.

GA: The mission of the U.S. EPA is to protect human health and safeguard the natural environment. How and where we grow has impacts on human health and the natural environment. Therefore, EPA has an interest in these issues. Studies have demonstrated that smart growth development approaches have clear environmental benefits, including improved air and water quality, increased wetlands preservation, more brownfield sites cleaned and reused, and increased preservation of open spaces. To help communities make smarter growth choices, EPA's Development, Community and Environment Division works with federal agencies, state and local governments, communities, and the development, banking, and other private business sectors. EPA is also a founding member of the Smart Growth Network (SGN) which works to encourage development that serves the economy, community, and the environment.

Compiled by The New Colonist