Government Buildings

Brent Thompson. 2015

          Until Americans begin electing Congressional representatives who are sensitive to the liabilities of overpopulation, we are faced with a U.S. population increase exceeding 25 million people every ten years and 250 million over the next century.  Therefore,  municipal, county, state, and federal government bodies will need more staff and more space to assist, educate, and regulate these additional millions of Americans.  The question is how and where should government find the space it needs.

         In Oregon due to Senate Bill 100 passed in the early 1970’s, we have some tools to accommodate the growth we are forced to accept with less sprawl than in other states.  And some Oregon cities have infill programs to attempt to accommodate additional people with less impact.  But generally these attempts to minimize sprawl fail because they don’t go far enough.  

          To be really serious about reducing land consumption in accommodating growth, we must look at every aspect of planning that contributes to sprawl and follow through with a greater commitment to thrift in land use.  

          Sprawl destroys wild life habitat.  Sprawl permanently removes farm and forest land from production.  Sprawl wastes resources, and sprawl causes exponential increases in traffic as distances to everything increase.  Thus, most people consider sprawl to be bad, but since the collective mentality refuses to allow planning for adequate densities to diminish sprawl, it is an unfortunate inevitability in American planning while we choose to add people to the country.

          What is apparent but not often considered is that government contributes to sprawl more often than not by its tendency to relocate and expand outside of traditional downtown areas in one-story, pedestrian-unfriendly public buildings on larger than necessary parcels. 

          Governmental entities including educational facilities must commit to the frugal use of land.  Government must commit to buildings with smaller footprints by designing buildings of three and four stories, preferably with the top floor or floors incorporated into the roof line to soften visual impact.  Government must also commit to the placement of buildings in the core of cities so forms of transportation besides the automobile are feasible for both employees and the public. 

          Government must try to accommodate growth in staffs and operations on existing parcels rather than forcing neighboring businesses and residents to move by condemning adjacent parcels.  And while government ought to provide parking for normal need, it must not contribute to sprawl by providing for parking for maximum possible need.

          It is true that the reworking of norms for government construction projects means buildings will routinely have elevators, but the additional cost of these elevators will be repaid by the savings in not having to purchase additional land and by the reduced cost of subsequent stories since the first story is normally the most expensive.

          This is not to say that government buildings need to be high rise buildings.  Three,  four, or five floors do not constitute a high rise structure, and again the visual impact is diminished if the top floors are incorporated in the roof line.   

          In hundreds if not thousands of American communities citizens are struggling with how to accommodate additional governmental space needs, and these citizens more often than not are choosing to waste land and other resources by thinking in terms of low- profile one and two story public buildings.   These same people often simultaneously mourn the loss of the small town feel their communities once had as their vision of a low density town causes the geographical footprint of their town to grow far larger than necessary.   Thus, the biggest impediments to proper planning are its counter-instinctive or its contra-intuitive aspects.

          While low density seems like a good thing on the surface, it really isn’t because in the U.S. we just keep adding people so eventually we have spread out planning and resource wasting disasters such as Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, Phoenix, and Atlanta.

          While low rise buildings seem like a good idea, they also are not because we simply keep using more land than necessary in every planning action, thus creating an outward pressure on our cities and towns.

          Our sprawl-growth tendencies will not likely end, but sprawl can be retarded somewhat if government bodies lead by example by conserving land in the construction of public buildings by building to local height limits.  

  Brent Thompson

  Former Planning Commissioner and City Councilor