Published: Jul 31, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Jul 31, 2012 06:54 PM
Growth limits bogus if we grow right
Your July 22 editorial, The inevitability of growth, ends with the question, Are we on the right track? I would say the answer is: Barely. We are only just on the right track building UP rather than OUT and there remain many in the community who want to derail this common-sense approach.Our twinned towns lack a clear, agreed-upon idea of whether, how much, and how we want to grow in spite of numerous public-input processes over the last three decades. Every time someone requests a permit to build something new and attempts to follow our conflicting directives, there follows an incredibly expensive, adversarial, and enervating approvals process. As a result, the price of the projects that do get built has a premium and others who might build facilities here are discouraged from doing so. Your editorial argues there is a maximum reasonable capacity. Space is finite On what basis do you make this determination? Carrying capacity is a scientific concept created to characterize much larger systems than our towns, and it is a notion abused by those who simply dont want us to grow. Making decisions based on science is sensible and laudable, but science provides no inherent support for limits on urban densities. To the contrary, in fact: numerous economics, policy, planning, and environmental organizations have concluded that compact urban form is the most efficient and environmentally protective approach for American communities, regardless of population size.How would one determine capacity for a couple of towns or a political entity like Orange County? It is a moving target how many of us can live here comfortably is a function of how were arrayed and organized; not just whether we can obtain the resources we need, but how well we share them. Implementing such a concept is problematic as well. We could study and argue endlessly to develop a population limit and then how do we enforce it? What if weve already exceeded it? Who has to leave? Who gets to decide? The notion is bogus and further pursuit only distracts us, cruelly, from the real issue: how do we reduce our resource footprint so that whatever our number we can live comfortably and in harmony with planetary systems?The editorial correctly identifies building up, not out as the path our communities and many others have avowed to take. In previous editorials you have supported public transit, yet here you reject the density tool requisite to keep transit affordable. You make no mention of the positive relationship between this development form and the per-capita reductions in land and resource needs it enables. Instead, you mulishly lament taller buildings and demonize their appearance in our communities. Looming, towering, hardly welcoming structures clearly, you dont like taller buildings, but could we be enlightened as to the basis for your persistent objections? The critical issue here is: what is the role of the city? Most consider the things humans make as not natural. Yet we are the product of evolution and natural selection, the same as every other living thing on the planet, including the other creatures that socialize, make tools, and build nests. We make nests for organizing our activities too. Yet somehow, ours are not natural and so are disdained especially when they get big. Urban forms are how humanity organizes itself and its activities. Even the most distant rural residents lives depend on their urban connections for markets, goods & services. Cities have been evolving for millennia, and natural selection works on them just as it does in ecological circles. In this era where our global population of 7 billion is making enormous demands on the planet, we must create the most frugal kinds of habitat we can, else nature will have its way with us.If you will accept that taller buildings, higher density, and mixed use are indispensible tools for reducing our resource footprint, then we can have a civil and learned discussion about how to make structures & blocks of structures likeable as well as more resource efficient. But as long as you can only articulate emotional objections, constantly oppose new things because they dont cohere with your notion of small town character, our dialogs will not be productive and our communities will continue to fumble after competing objectives. Emotional complaints about building size do this community no service. Lets have a conversation about why tall buildings bother you and how they might bother you less. Then, we might get more firmly on the right track.
James Carnahan is a founder of the Village Project Inc. and a former chairman of the Carrboro Planning Board.