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Cows on the Hillside: Thoughts on Sprawl

Charles Simpson takes a stab at the fraught question of Sprawl, used all too often to justify unconscionable city building projects:


Cows on the hillside

VT sprawl is largely due to the opportunism of town governments as they transformed farm fields into shopping plazas within sight of the interstate--St. Albans, So. Burlington, Williston, perhaps now even the land around exit 4. Few if any of these shopping plazas included mixed-use and thus housing and historic Main Streets were ignored.  Suburban housing developments within driving distance occurred simultaneously as speculators exploited people's desire to live in proximity to stores with free parking. To some degree this is a cultural problem--confusing a lawn with "being in the country", measuring social status in square feet of lot size. And it is baked into the law, as with the tax deduction on home mortgage interest that discriminates against renters and hence cities, something Tony has pointed out, as well as the bias of federal transportation funding for highways and not mass transit. The result of this self-re-enforcing loop has been a free for all with bulldozers ripping up farm land and Act 250 having little or no deterrent effect.
Developers and realtors and, sadly, our city planners think in terms of "adding to the housing stock" rather than building viable communities. Case in point, the demolition of 100 homes and blighting of another 100 around the airport in a cavalier manner--potentially many thousands with the arrival of the F-35.
What has revived other cities--Boston for example--is in part a cultural shift. Children that grew up in suburbia fled to the more exciting and diverse city as soon as their adult status and incomes permitted. Housing costs there also shaped the drop in fertility. That was good and bad, the bad being gentrification that took place in the absence of programs to adequately provide subsidized scatter-site housing or sufficient Section 8s. And Boston continued to benefit from the 100 year old mass transit system that gets many (if too few) off the roads. At the same time historic preservation prevented a complete conversion to office and apartment towers and thus kept the city attractive and "authentic", as with Beacon Hill, Quincy Market, etc. And the "draw" of population continued to be a strong and multi-faceted economy--health care, finance, insurance, education/culture--even as manufacturing was forced off-shore by federal policy.
There were shortfalls and injustices aplenty in this process--displacement, congestion, racism, rent gouging--but in American terms,  Boston works. Burlington? It isn't bringing in new people to take advantage of expanding economic sectors. If anything, it is the state's small farm economy and food processing boom that requires a rural base that takes up a bit of the economic slack. Here, beginning with urban renewal and after a pause, continuing via market forces, property speculators working with government have pushed out the lower income segment of the existing population from adequate housing options and there is a beggar they neighbor competition going on. Downtown property owners want a bigger share of a static (for now) population and are buying into the "street vitality" schmooze and tourism we see in Plan BTV opportunistically because they can't offer much in the way of new productive jobs.Hence the fixation on "students" as a new renter demographic in the city center. But higher ed is static in a state that refuses to pay for it with tax money; the health care industry here grows only by absorbing regional health entities and markets. Winter sports hit the cliff of climate change and even the lake with its "snot algae" seems in decline, water quality issues and over-developed marina facilities making it less and less attractive.
What's the answer? While I don't know, experience tells us that we must look at solutions from technical "experts" with skepticism as they are usually the minions of economic opportunists. We must value our own experience as city residents, defending and expand what we know works as a shared environment while being open to new possibilities.
The towns in Chittenden County have an immense task in preserving the rump end of open space, reconstituting their town centers, and enhancing mass transit. I don't think what we do in Burlington about Burlington will affect that one way or the other, though we can certainly trade ideas.

-Charles Simpson






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