IT's role in curbing urban sprawl
(IDG) -- Many of the nation's cities are enjoying the fruits of the best economy in decades, with the indicators of civic health-tax receipts, economic investment levels and employment rates-all pointing up.
Yet the good times have brought some negatives: an insatiable appetite on the part of consumers and developers for more space, choking transportation systems and service infrastructures. In short, urban sprawl.
These problems, which come with fairly toxic environmental side effects, have become so severe that the nation's mayors consider the containment of urban sprawl a top priority. The National League of Cities reported recently that nearly half of the 393 mayors surveyed believed development in their communities was poorly planned or "sprawling."
To sort through such problems, communities are rallying around "smart growth" policies that attempt to balance community life and economic development. Increasingly, those plans involve information technologies -- including geographic information systems (GIS), graphic modeling software and land-use systems -- that use population and demographic databases to project growth scenarios.
End users of those systems include elected officials, urban planners and citizens. "I think GIS -- now that it has been used as a tool for many, many years -- is past the early adoption stage and is viewed as an essential tool for helping make decisions in these areas," said Preetha Pulusani, executive vice president for mapping and GIS at Intergraph Corp., a large GIS developer.
The rise of the Internet also is enhancing the role of technology in urban planning and decision-making. "We are seeing more and more citizens, along with a growing number of departments within a local government, taking an interest in planning," Pulusani said. "That means they need access to information almost in a real-time manner. The convergence of the Internet and GIS technology is especially crucial in situations where a government wants to keep citizens involved and apprised of the progress they are making."
The Sierra Club -- which has declared sprawl its No. 1 issue for the year -- also has become a proponent of GIS after realizing that a map can be worth a thousand words. The group is making Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc.'s ArcView products available to citizens in several communities to encourage them to get involved in anti-sprawl campaigns. "We are trying to make available tools that visually show the effects of urban sprawl so that citizens can help stop sprawl in their areas," said Brett Hulsey, director of the environmental group's "Challenge to Sprawl" campaign.
Environmental lobbyists are urging state and local governments to map future urban growth electronically, emphasizing the need to model highway expansion. "There is massive highway building going on, and we are urging governments to use modeling technology to find the most efficient ways to move people from one place to another," Hulsey said.
But each community has a different urban sprawl crisis and, therefore, a different approach to reining in out-of-control development. To examine these approaches, civic.com looked at how three communities harnessed technology to curb sprawl.
The first city was Portland, Ore., which often has been held up as the epitome of smart urban planning since the 1970s, when the city set limits on development by establishing urban growth boundaries. Austin, Texas, is at the other end of the planning spectrum. There, city officials have to sell smart growth to a constituency that does not take kindly to growth management ideas of any sort. Finally, we looked Fairfax County, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., where the politics of development -- like the politics of everything else -- is notched way up.
Ultimately, technology will help find the course, but final decisions on sprawl will be political. "Technology helps you track things [and] assess things, but what it doesn't do is tell you what to do about those things. It takes initiative on the part of state and local governments to ask questions like, 'Do we have enough land, and is the land being used at the right intensity level?' " said Stuart Meck, senior researcher with the American Planning Association.
Portland is a pioneer in the smart growth movement, as the city 20 years ago visualized an integrated approach to urban development. In the 1970s, all Oregon cities established urban growth boundaries, cordoning off acres that will remain rural. New development within the urban boundaries is strictly apportioned.
Those early decisions have produced remarkable statistics: From 1970 to 1990, the Portland metropolitan population grew by 50 percent but used just 2 percent more land. To put that in context, the population of metropolitan Los Angeles grew 45 percent in the same period and gobbled up 200 percent more land. Chicago's population grew by only 4 percent, but developed land increased 46 percent.
Technology is entrenched in Portland officials' effort to manage the city's urban growth policies. For example, Portland uses an array of GIS tools. "We've relied very heavily on GIS. The GIS data allows us to be better managers because we have a lot more information available to us. We can measure more accurately just where the urban growth boundary is," said Mark Turpel, manager of long-range planning for Portland Metro, the elected body responsible for management of the metropolitan region.
GIS use in Portland replaced a laborious manual mapping effort that dates to 1980, when Portland Metro went to put the previous decade's land-use laws into action. The city had settled on urban growth boundaries by doing a vacant land inventory so that it could tell how much extra land it had and where that land was.
"We drew paper maps of land use by visiting the various jurisdictions, looking at their maps and coloring them in by hand," said Alan Holstead, Portland Metro's GIS supervisor.
The GIS department today has swelled to about 40 developers and users who work with ESRI's Arc/Info, ArcView and MapObjects software running on a mix of Hewlett-Packard 730 Unix workstations and 233 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium II PCs with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT.
Technology allows planners to model situations and try development approaches before any construction begins. The result is a coup in terms of the accuracy that planners can achieve, but it is an even bigger boost in terms of development options that they can contemplate -- ideas such as infilling and redevelopment -- all of which can equate to smart land use.
Because GIS is no longer an arcane science, policymakers on the Portland Metro council are often handed electronic mapping products that give better technical assessments of growth. Invaluable to those officials is the ability to tell regional authorities in a simple, visual manner how actions at the local level will affect the whole region's growth, Turpel said.
This kind of communication is crucial because Portland Metro only oversees planning on a regional level; the final say on planning and development rests with each city and county. Soon Portland Metro will delegate not only development decision-making but also the maintenance of the region's GIS assets. Metro is giving back to the local jurisdictions the responsibility of pulling together and maintaining the digital data for their own areas.
"Our job will be to aggregate all of that information and stitch it together in a regional layer," Holstead said. "For that we'll need to standardize some of the data structure formats so they will work better with each other." The GIS data resides on a two-CPU Compaq Computer Corp. AlphaServer with a Network Appliance Inc. file server supplying files to the Unix and Windows NT desktop systems as well as for World Wide Web pages that provide mapping information over the Internet.
Austin, Texas, is like many communities that are just starting to struggle with urban sprawl. But even if Austin officials admire Portland's uniform approach to planning, they lack the wherewithal and the political mindset to use it.
"That's a challenge," said George Adams, senior planner for Austin. "This is Texas, and the whole idea of growth management, let alone urban growth boundaries, is not looked on kindly here."
The city is confronting the Texas-size resistance using basic technology to convince citizens of the need for management, particularly in the downtown areas. For instance, city planners have scanned photographs of buildings and streets in Austin and manipulated the photos with Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop to show what the scenes would look like when the buildings and streets are remodeled. City planners have taken the refashioned pictures on a citywide "roadshow."
"The city has a bad history of development initiatives," said Leslie Oberholtzer, an urban designer and senior planner with Austin's Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Department. "So we need to show the neighborhoods what they will look like after the redevelopment.
"Growth in Austin really started after World War II, so we don't have examples of some of the traditional styles of buildings," Oberholtzer added. "Most of the downtown now has wide roads with set-back sidewalks and lots of parking lots. We want to show people what it will look like if we move buildings closer to the edge of the road, put a median in a five-lane highway that now uses the center lane as a turn lane, and so on."
The next few months will decide the eventual shape of Austin's smart growth initiative, Adams said. The city council seems to be supportive of smart growth, he said, but the trick will be in selling the idea to a suspicious community.
The city is a recent convert to smart growth, having launched in 1998 a full-blown initiative to take on sprawling development. The city council first appointed a group of civic leaders three years ago to look into the problem. Recommendations pointed to a two-pronged mission: Tackle urban sprawl and traffic congestion, and bring life back into a dilapidated downtown.
Like the effort to surmount sprawl, the technology tools the city will use also are new. But it helps that the city has enjoyed an enterprisewide GIS system since 1991 -- far ahead of most local governments, which still are deploying GIS to the desktop. Austin uses ESRI's software, including Arc/Info running on Unix for "heavy duty" creators and maintainers of the GIS data and ArcView running on Windows NT for casual users of the data. Both groups use Pentium II or Pentium III PCs with a standard 64M of RAM, 8M of video RAM and 21-inch monitors.
About 90 percent of the GIS data is housed on a server that acts as a central data repository, said Dean LaBonte, the city's GIS administrator. So workers in different city departments can take any data they need from the repository for their own applications. Each department also has a say in the kind of data it wants to be digitized and put into the repository. With this main server almost full, LaBonte said other city department servers are being linked with it to form a "virtual" data repository that will be the basis for expanding the GIS system.
GIS has proven itself in planning projects, but if the technology is to be used effectively in the smart growth initiative, it needs to be more widespread in government. "We have 10,000 city employees, and just 500 are using GIS now," LaBonte said. "We could easily have half the people in the government using GIS in one way or another."
This spring, headlines in Washington, D.C.-area newspapers shrieked about congestion and the sprawl of the suburbs. Particularly hammered was the Tysons Corner area of Fairfax County, Va., where new office buildings are going up in a small area already bursting at the seams.
For James Zook, director of planning and zoning for the county, these are some realities that planners along the Capital Beltway have learned to live with. Zook knows that Fairfax County will continue to grow. For him, it is not so much a question of how much but where that growth will occur. For political and other reasons, the idea is to encourage growth in urban areas and discourage it in environmentally sensitive ones.
"My take on smart growth is that it's not that different from what's been happening in Fairfax and other jurisdictions in Virginia anyway," he said. "We call it comprehensive planning, and that has been going on ever since we made a major revision to the county plan in 1975. We revisit the plan frequently, but its basic nature remains the same."
Zook's office uses a mix of GIS and computer-aided design to churn out options for each planning move, which, Zook said, "makes it much easier to put recommendations together for our policy-makers." Fairfax planners also rely on demographic and economic development estimates and population data produced by the county's Office of Management and Budget.
Larry Bizette, a demographer and computer analyst for Fairfax County, said his staff often works with the county's GIS division to build maps used in planning and executive decision-making. The staff produces information that is used by most county agencies, including the Department of Planning and Zoning, and the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, which uses the numbers to forecast sewage requirements.
Bizette also passes demographic and other information to the Washington Council of Governments, the area's regional agency for transportation planning. "They collect the forecasts of jurisdictions and model the numbers to decide which roadways are more problematic than others and what some of the solutions to some of those problems would be," Bizette said.
Resolved to booming population and urban development, Fairfax officials are counting on technology to help them make the best decisions. "I would suggest that a great deal of the development that has occurred has taken place in as orderly a fashion as any human being can make it," Bizette said. "Certainly there is congestion in some areas. But we are producing a lot of information and evolving our methods as technology changes to produce the best projections we can.... No one has a crystal ball, and no one can say for sure the best course development should take."
Brian Robinson is a free-lance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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