Tag Archives: Sprawl

Davenport Farmland: The Irony of Publicly Funded Projects

Iowa FarmThere is a nice stretch of farmland between my in-laws neighborhood and the highway just outside Davenport that will soon be gone. It is the type of farmland that you picture when people talk about Iowa. Like one of the scenes from a holiday movie, it was a beautiful snow covered vista yesterday morning. Soon the government funded sewer project will commence leaving this lands’ future uncertain. The trouble with this lovely stretch of farmland is that we, as in the collective wisdom of our society as prescribed within our zoning laws, have declared the agrarian character of this land obsolete and in waiting. It has been reduced to “developable acres”. The irony is that there is certainly many more acres of infill parcels and parking lots sprinkled throughout Davenport that could add up ten fold what this farmland would throw off in taxes as a Walmart Super Center. Why are we not investing in projects that support long term stability in our communities?

Davenport received $2,000,000 for the West Side Diversion Tunnel Project that will inevitably lead to the demise of this farmland and the new development of 20 square miles of property. But, at what additional cost? Certainly, the rural character found in this area of Davenport will be lost forever. Once the tunnel is completed the burden of this infrastructure’s upkeep will fall fully upon the city. This cost will most likely be far above estimates leading to higher taxes or unstable infrastructure. Neither being good for citizens. At first look, the blame for this environmental catastrophe could be pointed at the shovel ready requirements of government funding. This is not the case. The sprawling outcomes of the ARRA and other public programs is only the result of a much larger systemic problem.

Davenport as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of communities across the county need to grow a pair and pass legislation that is based on long term, common sense thinking. Where does a community grow its food? Can its citizens get around town inexpensively? Can the government afford to operate its infrastructure in its current form for long? Getting smart about Davenport’s zoning laws, growth boundaries and farmland preservation should not be a seen as a problem, but as an opportunity for future stability. With some smart zoning language attached to an aggressive city wide masterplan focused on sound economic growth the beautiful farmland that still surrounds the city will be saved. Couple this with some technical training for local builders on the practices of urban construction and Davenport could catapult itself into a citywide renaissance that, by the way, costs less to maintain, uses less energy, attracts young people and provides better community for all rather than the Super Centers and strip housing that will take the place of such iconic farmland.

Vote for the Urban Sprawl Repair Kit

UrbanSprawlRepairKITVote here today! Now that the sprawl development is over, have you ever wondered what will happen to all the strip centers, gas station and fast food buildings that fill the suburban landscape? Galina Tahchieva, a friend and colleague, at DPZ as some ideas for these outdated building types. Help these ideas win the ReBurbia competition being held by Dwell & Inhabit. Voting close on Monday.

Are the Suburbs Modern Frontier Settlements?

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Spending the holidays in Florida has left me wondering about the wild west. I realized the suburbs are the modern equivalent of the frontier town. Sprawling out across the landscape consuming resources as if they were kids in a candy store. They may not have been built as quickly as the gold rush town’s of the West, but the modern suburban development performs under strikingly similar principles.

First, profitable natural resources spark hysteria (after 1848 it was Gold, recently it was cheap land & gas). Second, the masses built as quickly as possible to consume and capitalize on the resource. Third, society turns a blind eye to the lack of civility present in these places (then it was gun fights in the streets, now it is half hour drives to buy milk). Fourth, the resource is consumed. Finally, no further financial growth occurs and investment into the infrastructure specifically design for harvesting the natural resource deteriorates. Ghost towns, prairie outposts and, luckily, San Francisco were left in the wake of the Gold Rush. What will we do with the suburbs now that the resource of cheap land and easy mortgages have come and gone?

Frontier development is inherit to American culture. By reframing our view of the suburbs as the modern equivalent of a typical America typology, frontier development, are we able to better forecast the proper course of action for the future of the suburban landscape now that the boom is over? How will the end of this cycle change the perceived permanence of sprawl development? This temporal manifestation of capitalism must be accepted as a frontier experiment. Will the deeply rooted opposition to change and growth that exists in the exurbs of America today be able to accept the urbanization of these places? The suburbs are either the first step for the establishment of a new settlement or the are the begin of the modern ghost town. 

I hope our governments current stimulus package takes into account the grand retrofit of suburbia that will have to occur in the coming decades. Instead of building bridges and highways, why not build parking structures and public transit systems that will support the compact development a sustainable future requires.

Children and Cities


My good friend Matt rang me up the other day with some great news. He and his wife are expecting their first child. I am thrilled for them. However, his next questions was “where should they move?” His main reason for moving from a nice street in San Francisco was the public schools are better in the suburbs. Matt has always been a big fan of city living which made this news even more puzzling. His search for the great walkable neighborhood in the ‘burbs has lead me to thinking about children and cities. This will be the first of several posts that I hope will persuade Matt to reconsider the value of living in a city with kids. 

Position 1: There are better schools in the suburbs.

I understand that schools are the primary reason for young parents to leave America’s cities. I have been able to learn about America’s public school system troubles by talking with my friend Damian Ewens at Big Picture Learning. I had the pleasure of hearing Dennis Littky, Big Picture’s co-founder, give this passionate talk at BIF-4. The Big Picture program clearly gives me hope that the American education system can be fixed. However, I fear not in time to keep my friend Matt from leaving San Francisco. 

Position 2: There are better extracurricular activities for kids in the city.

There are a great number of other opportunities for education in the city. The cultural institutions, museums, parks and historic sites can be an important addition to a young persons education. Here are the top three (1, 2, 3) from a Google search for “San Francisco kids education programs”. These institutions are in close proximity to kids in the city giving them better access. Keeping true to the single use nature of the suburbs, sprawl is often devoid of these institutions. The time a parent can safe on commuting to and from the suburbs can be used to frequent these institutions. I propose that it is far easier to give a child a well rounded educational experience in a city than the suburbs. 

Position 3: Do you want to put gas in the car or money in the college fund?

The cost of owning and driving a car must be considered when moving from a city to the suburbs. AAA calculates that it can cost between $5,514 and $9,095 a year to drive 10,000 miles. Let’s say my friend Matt goes from not owning a car to owning a minivan and an affordable sedan. Their auto expenses have now gone from a Zipcar membership and some car usage fees, that might average $2,780 a year, to $14,588 for the two cars. In addition to the Zipcar, I am sure there are some additional transportation costs that I have missed, such as a monthly BART pass, that living in the city demands. However, there is at least a $10,000 savings between living in the city and driving in the suburbs. If Matt put $10,000 in the bank for the first 6 years of his child’s life he would have a pretty good start to saving for their college education. 

As a disclaimer, I do not have any children. Stay tuned for the next post exploring children, cities and why my friends should reconsider a move to the suburbs.