A Strategy to Roll Back Sprawl and Rebuild
by Richard Register
Everyone reading this magazine knows the automobile/sprawl/highways/oil
infrastructure is dragging us way, way down. And it's somewhat fashionable
now to skewer sprawl on its zillion disasters, which is fine, but let's
try to do it right. Let's don't just slow it down a bit. Let's roll it back.
Let's get some of those bulldozers working for us because we need big time
depaving, whole suburbs at a time, the whole "civilization." To
be realistic, it would be a few generations of time. To those advocating
more efficient cars, improved suburbs, and slow painful progress toward
greenbelt acquisition, a little here, a little there, let it be said that
you can't cross the chasm in baby steps. The gradualists and baby steppers
are helpful in some ways, but when we have to completely rebuild the infrastructure
on ecological principles, it pays to know what we are up to, to spend the
time getting ready for a different approach- then make the big effort and
jump that chasm.
I maintain that the particular jump we need to make is from the haphazardly
built community oblivious to ecology. It amounts to reshaping the city,
town and village for pedestrians, not cars, not even transit. San Francisco
has a transportation policy called "transit first." We need a
whole new (and ancient at the same time) approach that could be called "pedestrian
first." To get that, we need to design for it in the first place. We've
been building essentially the wrong thing for the last 150 years. We've
been building the civilization for machines (and those who profit by them)
rather than the civilization for people and all other living things.
The built community, our home, is overlooked in the debacle of our biosphere.
Our physical creations fail to help make us creative and wise after all
we have learned. Our home is in a shambles, dis-integrated, blown out over
the landscape to vast distances, stitched back together grotesquely by smoldering,
ravenous varicose veins of asphalt and concrete called freeways. Our home
is suffocating the surface of the earth with paving, lawns and endless rooftops,
displacing more natural habitats and agricultural lands by millions of acres
every year. To live in this land-use/infrastructure, this physical anatomy
of the built community, is to constantly be taught to keep on making profoundly
destructive mistakes. The way out is, very largely, the vision of the ecologically
healthy city, town and village and the strategy to get there-the jump across
The sprawl-eating dragon
Imagine for a moment there could be a beautiful dragon sitting in our
midst, harmless to us, in fact quite friendly, but horrifying to asphalt
parking lots, gas stations and ticky-tacky sprawl. Our ravenous reptilian
friend gobbles up little pieces of sprawl one or a few at a time, leaving
behind ever growing patches of nature and agriculture, which over time multiply,
consolidate and turn into natural landscapes with spectacular biodiversity
and rich soils for farming. Where vast sprawling cities had parks under
whiskey colored skies, now cities, towns and villages are islands of much
smaller size surrounded by a richness of species and agriculture known only
to a deep past and the best of organic farming, all under the bright blue
with clean white clouds that used to be normal in most parts of the world.
The dragon is the city, town and village center of the future, a kind
of compact cluster of buildings linked by pedestrian streets and bridges
between buildings, permeated by mid-block pedestrian passage ways, arranged
around public plazas, sun angles and natural features like creeks, dramatic
rock outcroppings, monumental trees and celebrated local views. The dragon
gets somewhat bigger (taller buildings, relatively speaking) while sprawl
gets radically smaller. The dragon is interesting because it grows by nibbling
away at the once-spreading rot, not by sitting in a natural field and eating
If the friendly big dragon is the town center sucking up the suburbs
steadily over decades, how does it do it? What's the trick? It turns out
there are many tricks and these are the tools of rolling back sprawl. Here
are some of those tools, just for you, because if you are reading this publication
you are already among the few with the curiosity and probably the commitment
to apply them.
The "Double Transfer of Development Rights"
or "Double TDR"
Transfer of development rights (or TDR) is a legal/financial arrangement
in which the rights to build on a piece of land are sold to a developer.
These rights are then transferred to another place where building makes
more sense. For example, a farmer might sell the rights to build on the
farm to a developer who then builds housing in a neighboring town rather
than build suburban sprawl on the farm. The farmer and those who might buy
or inherit the farm in the future will never have the right to build more
than exists there already. Thus the preserving of open space is assured.
The developer is allowed to build more than he or she would otherwise be
permitted to build, and if the ordinances by which this arrangement was
established were informed by ecological awareness, then that location would
be part of a highly mixed use part of town and close to efficient transit.
The "Double" TDR does one more thing: it restores. It does
this by removing buildings and re-creating the open space of nature or agriculture.
It does this by "de-developing" at the same time it transfers
development elsewhere. It "unfills" at the same time it "infills."
Ordinances encouraging this kind of real estate transaction must be written
so that the developer has a strong incentive and the citizens have better
access to housing, jobs, shops, transit, cultural life and nature and agriculture.
If Double TDR programs become popular, a very powerful tool for reversing
sprawl and building a healthy community will have been created.
The Ecocity Zoning Map
This is a map that identifies the centers of town that should be increased
in density and diversity of "land uses" and identifies the areas
farthest from those centers that should be a high priority for withdrawing
from automobile dependent development. Special features of high ecological
importance are also located on these maps, such as buried or degraded creeks,
shorelines and marshes, ridgelines, natural rock outcroppings, historic
trees and so on.
The ecocity zoning map directs the shaping of the city and the restoring
of nature-with special benefit to educating children about nature and healthy
communities. It is a new game board that is fair to all players. Environmentalists
and business people can both study the map and see that it is supportive
of both nature and development-so long as the right development is placed
in the right location.
The Double TDR Bank
Any non-profit or any municipality can create a fund to buy land and
sell development rights so that they can be shifted to other parts of town.
City ordinance must define the process and identify where the rights can
be sent from ("sending sites") and where they can be exercised
("receiving sites'), that is, where more can be built. Double TDR Banks
can do this after the municipality has passed such ordinances or even before,
to demonstrate that there is resolve and support for the reshaping of the
city in this way among the citizens. If funds are gathered from donations
from individuals, foundations, businesses, governments or any combination
of those, the original nest egg turns into land and buildings at the time
of purchase. The building or buildings are then removed and nature, agriculture
or other open space restored. Then at the time the developer buys the development
rights for use elsewhere, the fund is recapitalized and the land maintained
or deeded over to the City, a land trust, community group or other steward.
The Double TDR Bank is thus again in the position of buying more real estate
for further transformation of the urban structure and further restoration.
Should-be Open Space Acquisition Fund
City, state and federal governments can set up funds to purchase open
space for parks, gardens, sports fields, creek and shoreline restoration
and so on. They should also help buy real estate where buildings are in
the wrong place in regard to automobile dependence, floods, agriculture,
efficient urban structure and so on. These funds could be called "Should-be
Open Space Acquisition Funds" since the land is not open at the time
the fund is exercised to purchase the land with its existing development,
which could include buildings, driveways, walls and culverts and other "improvements."
Since replacing economically productive real estate with open space provides
no new means to raise rent or sell new development, considerable money has
to be provided up front. It's expensive. Thus if the costs of acquiring
the development rights are unrealistically high for the developer, they
do not have to be if a partnership between governments and developer is
created, that is, if they all contribute to the purchase of the property.
Later on the federal government will save money by not having to build as
much highway development, city government will make more money in taxes
from the increased development built by the developer who buys the transferable
development rights, and the developer makes more money by being able to
The car-free condominium or apartment
City ordinances almost always demand that developers provide parking
whenever they construct buildings. This is expensive and stuffs the streets
with cars, their hazard, pollution, and other tragedies. Yet there are millions
of people who are happy to save money and who even relish living in an exciting
and pleasant city without owning a car. Buildings should be built for them;
they stress the society and the planet far less than car owners. We should
help them live the beneficial way they desire to live.
Ecological Building Features
These features could be demanded of developers who are allowed to build
to higher densities in city and town centers. They include terracing, rooftop
gardens, solar greenhouses, simple windscreens to make rooftop uses pleasant,
rooftop restaurants and promenades, bridges between buildings, mid-block
street-level pedestrian passageways, design that relates to adjacent public
plazas, creek restoration, pedestrian streets, street orchards and more.
Heart of the City Projects
These are projects that create buildings and open spaces that embody
the inter relation of all the essential components of an ecologically healthy
built and natural environment in one location. For example, a Heart of the
City Project could create a public plaza, pedestrian street, housing with
ecological features, new shops and office space and transit all together
in one location with nature welcomed into the environment in the form of
a restored creek or special view to nature from the town center. A proper
Heart of the City Project would have to be in the center of the city, but
there could be smaller Heart of the Neighborhood Projects incorporating
an element of nature too.
A Roll Back Sprawl Campaign
These projects are all new tools for ecological city-building. Their
recent appearance is good timing because at this very moment, as Vice President
Al Gore declares sprawl a disaster and offers funding for open space land
acquisition and other steps to fight sprawl, society seems to be catching
on at long last, after so much of the damage has been done. But maybe not
catching on enough to make that leap over the chasm.
Taken collectively, the tools described above almost constitute the beginning
of a strategy to roll back sprawl. I say almost because we may find that
to activate the tools faster than society is building cars, low density
housing, highways and oil we may need a concerted strategy. Presently the
many environmental and preservation organizations with anti-sprawl programs
are not employing the sprawl-removing tools. They don't have the vision
of the friendly big dragon that is the ecological city, town and village
center, that's gobbling up the suburbs while building an architecture and
arrangement of buildings and open spaces that celebrate life systems. They
are cautiously avoiding the frontal attack on cars and highways, weaving
an inconsistent and confusing if hopefully "politic" picture that
demonizes sprawl yet says we can make better cars.
But if we finally say the whole car/sprawl/highway/cheap energy infrastructure
needs to be replaced with the person/compact and diverse land use/foot,
bike and rail system for access/ with natural energy systems, and if we
apply tools like the above to the problem, we can finally bring humanity's
home into balance with the home nature has provided for all us living creatures.
We can roll back sprawl and begin to build right in the first place.
For more information contact Richard Register at Ecocity Builders: