The future of development

The future of development

By Jeffrey Havens

The future of development

I read with great interest the recent articles written by Rod Myers in The Rock River Times that have addressed the issues of sidewalks and safe crossings for people, pedestrians, bicyclists, etcetera, along East State Street and the Perryville Path. Mr. Myers has, in fact, hit upon a much greater concern that relates to planning and development: specifically, the issues of suburban sprawl, urban renewal, energy usage, current zoning laws, land-based taxation, and most important, the lack of leadership by political officials and their citizens that have allowed such development to see fruition.

Communities have been designed around and for people since humans first moved beyond tribal existence some 10,000 years ago. This type of design around people rather than machines has allowed humans a greater quality of life with each subsequent generation since that time. However, this progression is threatened by our current “development” trends. About 80 percent of all ”development” that has occurred in the United States has been carried out since the end of World War II. Nearly all of the “development” has revolved around machines rather than people. This “development” has given us the car civilization that has made us unhealthily reliant upon fossil fuels for energy to run our machines, and it compromises our national security and inhibits our progress toward being a more advanced civilization. Developers such as Sunil Puri are only tangentially concerned about this community. Thus far, they are concerned only so much as it relates to their ability to provide a comfortable lifestyle for themselves and those around them, at the expense of the community’s welfare. This is quite evident by the type of “development” they promote and are given the right to implement by political leaders who lack the vision to see well into the future. This is not a new phenomenon. This is how we have become a car civilization. Furthermore, the political leaders rely upon the people responsible for such “development” to shape their opinions and decisions because the citizens, whom the politicians are supposed to be serving, do not get involved to promote sustainable and smart development until it is, or is nearly, too late. However, there are solutions to these problems if we have the will and courage to change the direction of current “development” trends, but it will require us to get involved.

Author James Howard Kuntsler has succinctly described and prescribed remedies for these “development” problems in his book Home From Nowhere. Similar ideas and solutions may also be found locally among at least one of our government officials, Corby Schmidt, the interim director of Planning and Development for Winnebago County. Unfortunately, such visionary and brilliant proposals for intelligent development have not seen the light of day because they are ignored by political officials who have been unduly influenced by people in the development and construction industries rather than informed and involved citizenry. The result is more suburban sprawl and neglect of existing neighborhoods, especially in the west and southwest areas of Rockford.

Intelligent development requires three elements. Each individual element has been proven effective in other areas of the country on small scales but has not been done on a large and coordinated scale due to people’s inertial resistance to such change. The first element for smart development is a type of architectural and community design called the New Urbanism. The New Urbanism requires more mixed use of land rather than the traditional, monolithic approach used under current zoning laws. It also scales back the size of most lots of land to allow people to walk to many of their destinations, such as a corner grocery store, neighborhood school, coffee house, or restaurant. This type of community also integrates the social classes as well as the races of people through sheer physical design. It is the type of neighborhood that was built prior to 1940 and coveted by many, that may be found in parts of the United States and Europe. Locally, you may find such neighborhoods in Lake Geneva, Madison, and remnants in Rockford, specifically, the Edgewater neighborhood.

The second element for intelligent development is a modified Henry George approach to property taxation that gradually shifts from the current practice of taxing buildings to the taxing of land. What this taxing of land rather than buildings achieves is to encourage better utilization of the land that has already been developed, renew dilapidated areas of the community and discourages sprawl.

The last element in intelligent development is to throw out the current zoning laws that have given us the car civilization and all its handicaps, and write new zoning laws that will allow us to build communities to human scale. These new zoning laws must allow for the New Urbanism type of development if we are to continue to progress as a society. We can choose to do this now or wait until fossil fuels are prohibitively expensive to sustain our current mode of existence. One way or the other, change will come. We have the ability to determine our own destiny, or we may have it dictated to us by future market or government forces. The alternative is more of the same type of “development.” The choice is yours. Get involved now and help shape the future or passively wait and have it changed for you.

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