December 30, 1990 - From the December, 1990 issue

An Environmentally-Driven Land-Use and Transportation Strategy

Environmentalists have long been grouped under the "slow-growth" movement. Veronica Kun and Mary Nichols provide a truer picture one which shows environmentalists as proponents of sustainable development. Veronica Kun is a Staff Scientist with the Los Angeles office of the Natural Resources Defense Council, specializing in transportation, air quality, and energy issues. Mary Nichols is a Senior Attorney in the Los Angeles office and Coordinator of the National Urban Program.

Environmentalists in general, and The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in particular, have long devoted much effort to promoting public policies which direct urban growth into those areas best able to sustain it.

Historically, we have done this in order to protect watersheds, wildlife habitats, and areas of natural vegetation. However, in the more recent past, curbing the motor vehicle monster, and thereby improving air quality and reducing energy waste, has become an additional objective for environmentally driven land-use policy.

Growth and Environmentalists

Unfortunately, the fundamental goal of environmental land-use policy is widely misunderstood. Policy makers and the public often tie the environmental movement to the efforts of “slow-growth” neighborhood organizations discouraging development in their communities.

Responsible environmentalists, however, are pursuing changes in land-use policies, not to stop or delay development, but rather to channel it into areas which can best handle additional growth. The common goal of both the environmental and the business communities should be to develop strategies for growth which produce economically and ecologically viable and sustainable solutions.

For these reasons, we will continue to insist that transportation, land-use, and air quality planners explore opportunities to reduce transportation demand through the restructuring of land-use patterns. We strongly endorse the creation of land-use strategies which reduce the demand for transportation and which provide mobility options designed to minimize the environmental damage associated with growth. The key question is how to determine which strategies are most likely to accomplish this, and how to identify them from among the smorgasbord of options proposed.

AQMP Fails on Density

The principal transportation-driven land-use strategy in the Southern California Air Quality Management Plan (AQMP) is a program to balance jobs and housing. The underlying assumption is that, by placing destinations in closer proximity to each other, the need to drive is reduced.

Having examined the land-use provisions of the AQMP, we join in the wide­spread skepticism that this approach is likely to accomplish its objectives. We believe that there are substitute strategies which can accomplish environmental goals more quickly and less painfully.

The most important missing element in the AQMP is any consideration of density. The blame for the failure of American cities to contain vehicular air pollution and fuel consumption can be laid squarely on the manner in which urban areas have grown in the past 50 years, with increasing suburbanization, decreasing densities, and the dispersal of commercial and job centers.

This pattern of development, related to public policy choices, has a direct effect on the demand for automobile transportation. NRDC has recently completed a pioneering study of the connections between land-use densities and automobile ownership and use within California cities.

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This research suggests that lower density development and sprawled job locations can increase travel demands by several times compared to more compact development. Even for otherwise similar upper middle-class suburban, post-World War II developments, differences in density coupled with differences in the provision of mass transit lead to significant variations in the need to drive. NRDC research suggests that variations in urban infrastructure can reduce the amount of driving per household by as much as five to ten times.

Additionally, the study explores the relationship between density and the availability of mass transit. Transportation planners have long known that higher urban densities are necessary to provide a solid economic rationale for mass transit. In fact, there are fairly well defined density thresholds below which certain types of mass transit become infeasible. Because sprawl also makes the provision of mass transit costly and difficult, higher density independent of any other rationale must be pursued as a land-use objective on the basis of its contribution to transit viability.

A Land-Use Policy for Density

While work needs to be done in this area to highlight the cause and effect relationship between density and infrastructure, a few policy directions are clear. Future urban growth should not follow the models of the past. An environmentally-driven land-use strategy must promote the development of higher densities in already developed urban areas.

None of the strategies can be expected to work under our current hodgepodge system of land use regulation. New mechanisms, and perhaps new regulatory entities, need to be developed to manage problems which cut across many jurisdictional boundaries.

The new mechanisms may need to incorporate land-use plans and ordinances which are regionally prescribed and reviewed, and which take a region-wide approach to planning and siting decisions. This would undoubtedly require the creation of a regional planning body with regulatory authority.

Zoning ordinances, as they are structured today, are inadequate to the job of intelligently shaping urban areas so that they optimize environmental criteria. Zoning and planning ordinances should be restructured to prescribe not only maximum densities, but also minimum densities and requirements for mixed-use development. Instead of isolating uses from each other, the goal should be to integrate uses to reduce the need to travel. Portland, Oregon is already experimenting with revolutionary new zoning structures.

Additionally, we must revamp the system in which transportation plans and the approval of transportation infrastructure need only to be determined to be in some sort of vague “conformity” with air and energy plans. Conformity must be better defined, and review procedures must be made stronger and more effective.

The ultimate goal should be to develop policy models which are the most effective, and least costly, in guiding the development of environmentally appropriate land-use patterns. The fears and resistance of neighborhood groups to growth and change must be recognized and accommodated. But the historical Southern California pattern of low-density urban sprawl must be stopped if we are to save either our remaining open space lands for our children’s lungs.

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© 2022 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.