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Shaping a better city


Blair Humphreys October 5th, 2011

We had the opportunity to discuss the issue of “sprawl” with more than 600 citizens who gathered last month at a town hall meeting in Oklahoma City. The meeting included presentations from Councilman Ed Shadid, City Manager Jim Couch and the director of almost every city department.

Everyone addressed the issue based on their own experience and expertise, providing a diverse range of perspectives. Still, there was certainly a common theme repeated over and over again: It became quite clear that a connection exists between the type and density of development, municipal functions and quality of life.

One aspect of this relates to the cost of our infrastructure and municipal services. Simply put, the more people (or houses, or business, etc.) in an area, the cheaper it is to provide roads, police and fire protection, trash pickup, transit, emergency medical care and more. While much was said to define the problem, we didn’t really have a chance to discuss the different options for addressing it. One option is to charge people the actual cost of providing these public amenities and services to their property, which is more or less the idea behind impact fees. Or, we can charge people the same amount, but provide differing levels of service depending on where they live. Another option is that we could charge everyone the same, and give everyone the same level of service, although some will be getting more, and some less, than what they are paying for. This last option probably most closely resembles the system we currently have, and it definitely seems less than ideal.

It is not that we need the suburbs to be more like downtown.

Even beyond the costs of providing the infrastructure and services to these areas, research suggests that sprawl is costing us in other ways. Topping the list is the link between sprawl and a number of negative public health outcomes, especially obesity. It is quite simple: People who drive more are found to be more obese. We drive a lot in Oklahoma City and are, not coincidentally, some of the fattest people in the United States. As Winston Churchill once mused: “We shape our dwellings, then our dwellings shape us.”

It should go without saying that the issues are more complex than stated, but these complexities only help conceal what is a fairly fundamental reality: Sprawl costs us more than the benefits it provides. It is not that we need the suburbs to be more like downtown. What we need are better models for building new neighborhoods and better development policies so the benefits outweigh the costs. Hopefully, in the end, we will have a better city that shapes a higher quality of life for us all.

Humphreys is a fellow at the Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma and an adjunct instructor in the OU College of Architecture.

 
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