Sprawl Versus Infill and the Population Growth Policies that Make Us Choose

The two pics above and one at the end are three examples of benign infill type structures of 2 1/2 stories where the third story is built into the roof line. The building on the left appears to be a duplex, but it could have a rear entrance or entrances for possibly two additional units. The structure at right is a single family residence. The building at the end could be configured into 4 or more apartments.

1995. Versions were in the Oregonian and Medford Mail Tribune

            Oregon communities wouldn’t struggle so much to preserve their quality of life if Congress pursued a policy of zero population growth.  This is feasible through reducing immigration and the tax exemptions for large families.  Nationally we add 25,000,000 people each decade which results in losses of freedoms and contentiousness over land use in fast growing states such as Oregon.  In favoring a 1% annual population growth Congress continues linking economic growth to population growth, regardless of the consequences.

           With a stable population, concern would diminish about how and where people live because change would be slow and impacts stable.  We wouldn’t need so many laws intended to preserve a range of things from threatened degradation.  We wouldn’t experience the rapid change that makes some communities almost unrecognizable after a generation, causing those returning after absences to feel as if they have no roots, no place to call home.

          In accommodating population growth the debate rages over how to plan tolerable cities.  Generally we fail.  Inner city areas built before automobiles dominated transportation have often been abandoned by whites as well as the educated and wealthy of any race.  People fled to automobile oriented suburbs where, through automobile usage, they maximize wanted personal contacts and minimize unwanted contacts.  Inner cities are deemed disasters, but actually they are more environmentally sound than our resource wasting new cities.

            Overemphasizing automobiles resulted in sprawled, soul-less cities lacking neighborhoods and walkable centers.  Absent is a feeling of human-ness and warmth because facilities for cars dominate, not environments for people.  This tragedy contributes to the alienation of our youth growing up in these characterless, hostile environments.

           Realizing that a total commitment to automobile accommodation had more liabilities than benefits, citizens and planners began objecting to land-wasting automobile oriented development styles in favor of a thriftier use of land.  Many now favor higher density over lower density because low density is synonymous with sprawl.  Once this link between low density and sprawl is established, the objective becomes how to increase density with minimal impact.          

         The debate concerning sprawl versus density must balance both the sustainability and marketability of projects.  Which density threshold best conserves resources in development, costs the least for infrastructure maintenance, impacts farm and forest land the least, yet easily attracts buyers indefinitely? 

          Worldwide, Hong Kong’s density is greatest at 247,000 people per square mile.   Approximate population densities per square mile in some Western cities are: Paris, in its 39 square mile core, 80,000;  Manhattan Island, in its 22 square miles, 60,000; Toronto, 20,000; Montreal, 17,000; and San Francisco proper, 16,000.  Los Angeles, one of North America’s greatest planning nightmares, has almost 7500 people per square mile, far higher than any Oregon city. 

           Therefore, we must question Oregon densities.   Portland is our most densely populated city with 4600 people per square mile.  In Southern Oregon, Medford has approximately 2700 people per square mile, and Ashland, about 3000, though Ashland’s small Railroad District has the equivalent of 12,000 people per square mile.  

         Determining the exact optimum density isn’t easy, but consuming vast expanses in development further maximizes our reliance on automobile transportation at the expense of the young, old, or in-between who don’t drive.  It is also apparent that eventually we must pay for resurfacing every bit of asphalt we lay.  

          Probably, the minimum density required to not greatly favor automobile use over other transportation modes is 5000 people per square mile with central areas having greater densities and fringe areas less.  But larger cities should probably have densities exceeding 10,000 people per square mile.

          To evolve towards more density and a more efficient use of resources we must do the following:

      *   Tie annexations and urban growth boundary expansions to a minimum population density standard that increases over time; 

      *   Develop affordability oriented infill strategies concurrent with open space programs to mitigate the effects of increased density;   

      *   Limit development in rural areas where cars provide the only viable means of transportation, or traffic will impact cities despite their compactness;  

      *   Provide better funding for alternate modes of transportation to the automobile. 

          We must factor both present and future resource consumption into all aspects of planning to approach sustainability in planning. 

          As things stand, our business and political leaders laud Oregon’s quality of life while ignoring its deterioration from resource wasting development practices and population growth.  Few link national population growth policies to Oregon’s fate as our losses from population growth exceed gains.   Like California leaders before them, Oregon leaders unknowingly preside over a great state’s gradual demise. That’s a pity. 

Brent Thompson

         Density figures for Hong Kong, Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles, and San Francisco from The World Almanac and Book of Facts- 1992.   Densities for Manhattan and Paris from other readings.

Another example of a three story structure that doesn’t assault the senses–The third story is in the roof line.