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Monday, March 1, 2010

Better Know A Sustainability Plan: Part I

Huntsville's sustainability plan is now online and available for public viewing, so today I'll begin the first of a two (maybe three) part series, "Better Know A Sustainability Plan." First, we'll look at the "Built Environment" section; I'll discuss the ideas in the report and give some of my own.

We all know that Huntsville is not an "urban" city. In most areas, we are very "suburban," and the urban area's average density is one of the lowest in the nation. Living on a cul-de-sac 45 minutes from the city isn't very sustainable. But we all can't live in tiny condos in super-urban areas either. We must find a "happy medium" that increases density while preserving and enhancing the quality of life that we enjoy in this region.

The sustainability plan puts forward several recommendations for solving this "density dilemma." Here are some of them: 

Preserve and set aside green space. The cities of Huntsville and Madison, in cooperation of the Land Trust, have done a fairly good job preserving greenspace through land preserves, parks, and greenways. The plan discusses creating buffer zones between urban development and greenspace, and setting aside open space within urban development.

Idea: Let's start preserving greenspace by making part or all of the 1500 acres Huntsville plans to buy in Limestone County into parkland and recreational facilities, instead of developing it into another Research Park, which will only enhance sprawl in an area that doesn't need it.  

Better mixed-use zoning using Smart Growth principles. The plan calls for more walkable live/work/play neighborhoods, which reduce car dependency (such as the need for parking) by placing parks, schools, and everyday commercial (grocery stores, banks, etc.) inside the neighborhood. This, in turn, reduces the cost for more infrastructure, especially roads. Along with walkable suburbs, the plan discusses identifying lots in the city center and surrounding neighborhoods that can be used for "infill" development (surface parking lots, abandoned buildings). The plan also talks about implementing/requiring Smart Growth, a somewhat controversial planning code that encourages walkable neighborhoods with denser housing based on the location of the neighborhood (urban, suburban, rural), among other things. I wrote about it in a post in December, and you can read more about it in The Smart Growth Manual, co-written by renowned planner Andres Duany.

Idea: I would like to see the planning departments in the region to introduce Smart Growth first as an "incentivized alternative"; for example, giving priority approval for large commercial and residential developments that implement relevant Smart Growth practices. Eventually, when most developers and citizens realize that Smart Growth isn't some "far-left social engineering" ploy, it can be adopted as the standard.

It should be noted that Seaside, Florida, designed in part by Duany and the poster child of the New Urbanist/Smart Growth movement, was developed in an area that was originally without zoning regulations. Goes to show if developers got smart, they could take advantage of unincorporated Madison County's lack of zoning and use it for something good, instead of being a good place to put Dollar Generals, fireworks stores, and strip clubs.

Green Building Practices. The sustainability plan recommends giving incentives to developments that are LEED-certified or have some kind of environmentally-friendly feature (green roofs, porous paving in parking lots, etc.).

Minimize impact of parking lots. The plan emphasizes "shared parking" between businesses and accommodating transit and bicyclists.

Idea:  Parking is a necessary evil of any commercial development. But why does it always have to be in front of stores, which discourages walking? Why can't parking be behind a shopping center (with the exception of handicapped spaces)? In the central city, we should continue to expand throughout the General Business C-3 District, the zoning used for the central business district, which has no parking requirements. When the need arises for parking garages in an area, design it to "blend in" to the surrounding district along with street level retail and restaurants, like Parking Garage D, which will begin construction later this year.

Wednesday: Transportation, including "Complete Streets," public transit, and why HOV lanes aren't a good idea for Huntsville.

1 comment:

[something witty] said...

My Idea: Get rid of the zoning regulations or severely limit them like Houston has done. The result would be more culturally diverse, walkable, and serve the citizens better. Also, instead of the cookie cutter homogeneity we get with top down planning we would have a heterogeneous vibrant place to live.