April 15, 2004

Sprawl’s Impact on Maine

It's the classic problem of ever-expanding suburban development: More individuals get their "American dream" house and big yard, but "what for any individual family was better housing and an improved way of life was, for society as a whole, the loss of farmland and wildlife habitat, increased traffic congestion, increased pollution, an ever-growing demand for municipal services in formerly rural small towns and a growing struggle in our traditional urban centers to operate aging and underutilized schools and other capital facilities and equipment," according to a column in the Press Herald .

It's debatable whether sprawl really offers an "improved way of life." Most of us never got a choice of a well-designed, pedestrian friendly suburb that includes both breathing space and walkability. You can still have quarter- and half-acre lots designed differently, so neighborhood stores fit into the environment (Gerard Farms, for example) instead of being built as strip malls sitting back in an asphalt pond. Setback, street widths (not too wide! that discourages pedestrians), ample sidewalks, buffers between pedestrians and moving traffic, streets in grid patterns instead of all local traffic being forced into a few "traffic sewers" -- this doesn't detract from the American Dream experience, but adds to it.

"The lesson here is that we need to design our public policy to counteract undesirable market forces rather than to reinforce them. That requires three things: a solid understanding of what the underlying market forces actually are; a consensus about what we don't like about the consequences of those forces; and a set of subsidies, incentives and regulations carefully crafted to direct the market toward our overall goals," writes John Lawton in the Press Herald.

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