Nodes and Fringes

An article I wrote about suburban development patterns, infrastructure maintenance obligations, and tax revenue was published by Strong Towns yesterday, for which I’m very grateful. Here’s the link:

I wanted to pick up the thread at what I think the concrete solution is. Of course I subscribe to the Strong Towns idea of incremental and financially productive growth. But for Gallatin, what would that mean on the ground?

Gallatin is a vast municipal entity. Roughly 40,000 people are spread over 32 square miles. We are a small town that covers a lot of ground. As such we don’t just have one central node of activity, with residences spreading out from that. We have several different nodes that have sprung up over the past 70 years, either spurring more annexations or developing because of them.

In an environment like this, the call to concentrate on the core and halt sprawl cannot imply the abandonment of these outlying nodes. Though I think there is some feeling that widespread abandonment of sprawl will occur one day (from increased transportation costs, economic collapse, or something that just makes it fundamentally unviable), in the meantime we must remember that all of this “stuff” on the edges of our historic cities is sunk capital, is living, working, and playing space for a good chunk of our citizenry. That’s why I think our short-term strategy should be to adopt a node-focused zoning regime that identifies focal points for development and “freezes” the level of development in areas not so identified. Over time, these nodes could develop into small villages in their own right. When the “collapse”–or, at least, the great change in our thinking about transportation costs–occurs, these centers of activity could be resilient enough to remain as self-contained communities.

The market is starting to move in this direction. However, it is hampered by the zoning ordinances that govern most small cities, which are at the same time too restrictive and too permissive. Too restrictive in that nodal areas are suppressed from developing to their full potential; too permissive in that gobbling up land at the fringes and building disconnected tract housing seems like what our ordinances were designed to facilitate.

An example is Harpeth Village, out Highway 100 in Davidson County before you get to the Natchez Trace Parkway. There’s a Publix, a few strip mall type retail/restaurant spaces, and some outparcels. But just across the road is the townhome section of the development, which provides an acceptable density footprint in its little corner within walking distance of the amenities. The whole thing also backs up to other retail/restaurant strip centers.

While it’s nothing pretty (big wide parking setbacks, the usual chain stores), it is getting at a live/work/play model. What if we were to take this as a node, and to authorize much more intense levels of density and usage? Unleash the market, so to speak?

I’m not advocating total laissez faire. The other side of the coin I’m proposing would involve placing strict limits on development at a certain distance from the nodes. Ideally, these limits would begin at the maximum extent of walking distance from the center of the node and grow more restrictive as distance increased. Hopefully offices and other employment would congregate to these nodes as well as increased residential density and a panoply of commercial uses. This would allow us to maximize the productivity of infrastructure at the nodes and save the farmland out beyond them. The intensely used nodal infrastructure would get replaced more often but would generate the money to pay for those repairs while the less intensely used backroads connecting the nodes would last longer and be subsidized, basically, by the productivity of the nodes.

This is basically a riff on the idea of “retrofitting suburbia” but put into the context of a citywide or micro-regional vision for growth. But it’s important it’s combined with both unleashing the market on the nodes while restricting the market at the fringes. This in effect is a way of taming the market to do what we want it to do. The way we’ve set up development, land ownership, and economies of scale in this country necessarily produce the single-site, to-a-finished-state, all-at-once leapfrog type development that is stretching our cities to the breaking point and gobbling up our beautiful countryside. It is producing amorphous blobs of semi-urbanization that is not only environmentally and fiscally irresponsible: it also destroys town identity and sense of place. We have to put up sensible controls that will accomplish what a growing number of people see as the desirable form of growth. This is both pro-market and pro-government, and it comprehends the ways we can both channel and encourage the creative abilities of our developers.

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Memphis’ comprehensive plan update, Memphis 3.0, is following a similar strategy. It will be interesting to see how their “anchor strategy” translates into concrete zoning controls.

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