Taming man

Taming man


Sprawl and car dependence go hand in hand. Communities that grow without bounds tether people to their cars. Efforts to link ever expanding populations through public transportation become fruitless. Benefits to the environment from improved auto fuel efficiency are negated by sprawl. Sprawl, by its very definition, pits man against nature, and to look the other way or accept a laissez faire attitude about land use is to choose sides. This is the fallacy of the single-minded focus on automobile technology. Improving fuel economy is not a sufficient objective, especially if higher fuel efficiency results in an increase in vehicle miles traveled. And if increased car use results in the conversion of even more open space into parking, which, as Katharine Mieszkowski so eloquently chronicles in Salon, fuels much of sprawl’s insatiable appetite for land, you could even argue that we’re better off leaving the car as is. Retaining the nasty, guilt-inducing qualities of the car may be just what we need to keep people from getting too comfortable living closer to the wilderness than civilization.

Density, the means by which we measure sprawl, matters a great deal in our relationship with nature. High density living does more than just curb our car use; it makes us more efficient in how we use all our resources. The San Francisco League of Conservation Voters has produced an ingenious website to illustrate this point. The examples are various San Francisco neighborhoods, all of which would be characterized as dense by the average American. The comparison with the typical suburban neighborhood (which happens to be in Portland), however, demonstrates the dramatic difference in land and water use between dense, urban neighborhoods and dispersed suburban ones, as well as the obvious suppression of our driving habits in dense neighborhoods. These calculations demonstrate conclusively that, if your goal is to reduce transportation related emissions, where you live matters much more than what you drive.

In Oregon, we are acutely aware of both the benefits and challenges of battling sprawl. The state’s restrictive land use laws have contributed to denser communities with lower car use than the rest of the nation. In 2004, those restrictions were overturned in one fell swoop with the passage of Measure 37, which gave property owners the right to ignore existing state and local zoning laws if those laws diminished the supposed value of a person’s property. Governments that had fought sprawl so successfully for decades were now powerless. The passage of Measure 37 caught many in the state by surprise and continues to befuddle policymakers trying to make sense of the blunt tool that now governs land use in Oregon. In November, voters in the state will get a chance to make amends for their mistake three years ago. Measure 49 on this fall’s ballot corrects many of the flaws of Measure 37 and, most importantly, will prevent the largest, most egregious developments from occurring. If passed, the measure will restore Oregon’s rightful place as the nation’s leader in progressive land use planning. You can learn more about supporting Measure 49 by clicking on the link in the left hand column of this site.

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