By Euphemia Anderson
Vermont is known for its picturesque pastures, endless seas of white pines, and its historically tight-knit communities. Being the sixth smallest state in the country geographically, with the second smallest population, it has maintained its open spaces without infringement for most of its existence.
But there is something that is slowly killing this dream-like actuality of Vermont. It exists, slowly creeping through the farms and wooded mountain areas, wiping out native vegetation, separating the rich from the poor, and making personal cars a requirement.
This silent killer is known as urban sprawl.
Urban sprawl is the expansion of developments away from city centers, usually done in leapfrog patterns. There are both positives and negatives associated with urban sprawl. Affordability of larger homes for less money, for example, is a big reason sprawl is increasing. Coupled with this is the possibility for citizens to own larger plots of land, which are often unattainable in city centers. Another desire of those moving out of city centers into suburban areas is the increased feel of community with lower population densities. These low-density areas also offer less populated schools that are attractive to prospective parents.
So what’s wrong with Vermont? Although there are both pros and cons associated with urban sprawl, outward developments from city centers have exacerbated both environmental and socioeconomic issues within the state.
Environmentally, sprawling developments foster habitat fragmentation and habitat loss, which can lead to decreases in biodiversity. Socioeconomically, isolated towns and settlements outside of city centers worsen geographical separations between the rich and the poor. Leapfrog developments create car-dependent communities that are peppered in equality issues related to vehicle accessibility.
In order to slow the proliferation of urban sprawl, urban planning should be utilized. Smart-growth strategies can be used to create policy frameworks that offer high-quality residential areas in existing cities. These smart-growth development patterns will promote high-density developments in land plots that are underutilized, or not utilized at all. This offers feasible options to improve existing infrastructure.
Vermont is in a period of population growth, which is optimal for a places looking to utilize urban residential intensification (URI).
URI would entail developing land areas that have already been urbanized. To effectively employ URI, cities should focus on infill developments, which would efficiently utilize land. Another key characteristic of URI is building up, instead of out. By reevaluating building height restrictions, building vertically instead of horizontally would provide an efficient and effective way to maximize housing in city centers. An important component in increasing and intensifying residential areas in cities is the concept of mixed housing.
By building diversified residential areas that are available to various income levels and family size, everyone will have more options of places to live.
A key ingredient to the proliferation of sprawl is the funding to do so. Policies that redirect funding away from sprawling development outside of cities into the city itself can have a huge impact for smart growth strategies. In 2001, Gov. Parris Glendening of Maryland created a cabinet-level position that focuses solely on producing incentives for smart growth, emphasizing efficient land use, transportation, and growth related issues. This new smart growth track also set in motion legislation that prevents state funding from funneling into developments that would increase overall sprawl.
Fix it first. Why build more when we can improve what we already have? Using smart growth strategies, and increasing development within existing urban areas allows cities to capitalize on the present transportation infrastructure. Portland, Oregon was one of the first cities in the United States to implement a comprehensive Pedestrian Master Plan, which emphasized increased funding and developmental designs of interrelated bike paths, walkways, and effective mass transit. This plan not only helped the city become sustainable, accessible, and equitable, but also helped Portland reach the Health People 2000 goal set by the CDC. By building less sprawling infrastructure, funding can be put into existing infrastructure allowing more people to use it. This not only improves the sustainability of a city center, but also acts as an economic stimulus.
Smart growth strategies may not reduce the sprawl that has already happened, but they will help improve city sustainability, efficiency, accessibility, and overall economy moving forward. By improving existing infrastructure before building new, as well as redirecting funding towards non-sprawl development, smart growth planning strategies and design can be an integral part of using finite land resources to the best of their potential.
Euphemia Anderson is a senior student in the Environmental Program at the University of Vermont.