How to “Unsprawl” the Suburbs: HOAs and Local Governments Help and Hurt

July 29, 2013 at 10:30 am CDT

Time to further add to your summer Livability reading list. In today’s installment we open up Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places .

The book, edited and largely written by Simmons Buntin, is a compendium of case studies about how cities of various sizes are revamping themselves. One thing that makes it interesting is that it’s built on a series of stories that originally ran over the course of many years on , which combines fiction and nonfiction about the built and natural environment. The case studies are updated, so rather than a snapshot in time, you get to see how they played out and how successful the projects were in the long-run. talked to Mr. Buntin about some of the trends he saw in all the case studies:

Livability: One thing that seems to come up a lot is the role (sometimes positive, sometimes not so) of home owner’s associations (HOA). What have you seen?

Buntin: Even when there’s not an HOA there’s usually a design review committee, so we can say as a baseline that design is important. In Civano [a development near Tucson] there’s an HOA, but the HOAs covenants codes and restrictions were created fairly quickly and not with an new urbanist model in place. What they’ve done in effect is down-zoned some of the mixed-use area of the neighborhood’s center district. That’s been problematic for people who want to put small apartments in that area. They have to get approval from a super majority of the neighbors. Personally, I’m in favor of not having an HOA. I’d like a little more organic evolution of the homes.

Livability: It’s good to have at least someone paying attention …

Buntin: … as annoying as sometimes that can be. There’s a reason that we have original design guidelines for communities, while accepting that we need some flexibility over time.

Livability: What are some projects you’re keeping an eye on?

Buntin: The great thing is you have a growing level of cool projects. They may or may not be called new urbanist, but they’re about placing people over cars and creating livable places.

Livability: Livable. We like that word.

Buntin: It’s replaced the phrase “sense of place.” They both can be massaged and vague, but sense of place is more emotive and livable is more factual in a way. One of the trends we hear about is the younger generation seems to be less interested in owning cars. For that to be a viable model for them, they have to live in a community, whether it’s new development or not, that supports that. If more and more people go that way, you’re going to have more compact, more livable communities that support not owning a car. That’s still not the case in Civano or Prospect New Town [in Longmont, Colo.]. But if we look at projects like the Belmar redevelopment [Lakewood, Colo.] or Dockside Green [Victoria, British Columbia] or the more urban developments, you’re going to find projects and people who are not so interested in owning a car and who are interested in a live/work environment.

Livability: Cities are seemingly being put in the position lately of taking the lead on issues that the federal government, for instance, can’t even agree are issues. Like climate change, for example. In the book, you discuss cities that are already planning for sea levels to rise.

Buntin: If you look at Suisun City, [the waterfront district redevelopment in Suisun City, Calif.] that’s probably the project that’s the biggest paradox because of California’s removal of redevelopment agencies and because they have to plan for the sea level to rise, yet most of the redevelopment that’s taken place is well below the initial level they need to plan for.

Livability: Planning for climate change is hard because it’s often most needed at the regional level, where planning is especially difficult.

Buntin: There was an example in Denver years ago where two cities were almost like enemies, so they built a road and were so bullheaded about it that it didn’t even meet in the proper way. It’s a great lesson. I mean, it’s a sad lesson.

Livability: It seems like a lot of the energy in planning these days at the city level is about undoing what are now seen as disastrous federal policies from the 1950s and 1960s.

B untin: The local entities are not off the hook. Here in Tucson, what they call wildcat development is still pervasive because it’s still inexpensive to build on the fringe. The real cost of infrastructure is being put off. Pulte Homes were working on a new greenfield project out here in the desert called Red Rock . All they had to do to get the permits to do that and extend the water line was show that there was enough water [for the community to use] for 50 years. To me, that’s such a short-sighted perspective.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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