May 17, 2008

Getting to Nodal Development in Dryden

[Update: I no longer think this is a good idea. See the category listing for more information on why. This piece in particular is a concise summary.]

[This is long - it's a complex subject and a couple of years of thought on it.]

Nodal development is a popular phrase with planners, as it promises more efficient use of resources, a less-stressful pedestrian way of life, more community, and even lower taxes.

Unfortunately, that warm fuzzy glow tends to vanish as soon as people start looking at what's involved in creating nodal development. The maps especially tend to make people gasp, wondering "You're going to do that in my neighborhood?" or "I want to live out here - who are you to say I can't?"

Overall, nodal development has many benefits, including:

  • Much greater pedestrian-friendliness, as distances are small enough to walk.

  • Where distances are too long to walk, it's still easy enough to build mass transit, even mass transit that breaks even or turns a profit.

  • People living close together can make much better - and cheaper - use of expensive infrastructure like water and sewer systems.

  • Fewer roads mean less paving means less cost.

  • Schools can be in neighborhoods, reducing the amount of busing needed.

  • Smaller stores have a chance to be an integral part of walking neighborhoods.

  • Less need to drive means less gasoline consumed.

  • And much more...

Is there a way to get to these benefits without the uproar?

Probably, though I don't think the path I suggest here will make either planners or libertarians happy.

First: Let Fresh Experiments Happen

For some percentage of the population, life in a dense node already makes a lot more sense than life on a half-acre lot. Senior citizens often downsize and move into smaller places once their children grow up and they retire. Ecovillage enthusiasts and similar groups sometimes want to build denser and more efficient housing. Some parents with children seek walkable neighborhoods where they don't have to drive their kids everywhere.

Building places that suit these groups can be difficult, however, in places where zoning or subdivision requires minimum lot sizes, setbacks, or other limitations that make it hard to put buildings close to each other.

These rules often are there for a reason, of course. Septic systems require a lot of space and the right soil type, and municipalities are smart to insist that houses on septic systems have enough room for a second septic system after a failure. On a different level, but just as important, existing neighborhoods see these rules as a protective wall against sudden changes to their community's character.

The rules, though, can be an unnecessary barrier in situations where, for example, multiple houses in new development could share a common sewer (or water) system. It doesn't have to be a full-scale municipal sewer system, though it should have some structure, but there are certainly ways to create neighborhoods even in far-flung corners without spacing houses one hundred yards apart.

Setback requirements can cause similar problems. While it is frequently possible to get variances on setbacks, they can make it especially difficult for denser neighborhoods to emerge. They also often lead to long expanses of commercial areas whose parking lots dominate the view, putting them far from possible pedestrians and making them feel unwelcome.

I'm not suggesting that planners get out of the business of planning, but it does seem reasonable to examine existing planning and zoning for issues that make it difficult for nodes to emerge and consider changing them. If someone wanted to build an EcoVillage along Route 13 in Dryden, or turn the NYSEG building into apartments, for instance, why should the Town stop that?

Establishing rules for conservation (or cluster) subdivisions is one option. In these, much of a land area is left untouched while denser housing goes into a smaller space. Changing setback rules for particular districts where nodes are close to existing anyway might be another possibility. It might also make sense to examine where lots of variances have been granted - or neighborhoods built earlier don't match the rules - and consider adjusting rules in those areas to reflect the reality of those neighborhoods.

Second: Remember the Past

Nodal development peaked long before planning and zoning became common. Before the 20th century, people lived in cities, villages, hamlets, and farmhouses. They usually lived there because they were doing something there - working, farming, trading. It made sense for people to congregate around intersections, in cities, near workplaces. It also made sense for people to be dispersed in the countryside growing food. There wasn't however, the constant daily traffic between these places, because that would have taken a lot of energy and effort. The city didn't start growing into the countryside until transportation costs fell, first thanks to the railroads and then to the car.

In areas that haven't been entirely swamped by sprawl (or by city growth), these old patterns are often still evident, though sometimes changed by later development. Old villages often remain commercial centers; hamlets develop into suburbia; farmland may still be productive, gone to forest, or swallowed up by earlier growth. Cities may lose their way entirely and decay, but they rarely vanish.

These older patterns and their modern remnants generally reflect a pattern that can be woven into the current desire for nodes, though it won't necessarily fulfill the ambitions of planners who want high-density development. Even if these older nodes have disappeared, the reasons for their earlier existence - transportation, water, industry - may still exist. Those advantages may be dormant in the face of lowered energy costs that have let people live across the landscape, but they can return if the situation changes.

(It's also good to look around at large-scale change to those historic patterns. Massive infrastructure, like blasting large roads through difficult areas, or aqueducts, or the addition of water and sewer pipes to an area can change the old equations.)

Preserving places with a long sense of their own history offers a story that may be more compelling than building new places which fit a theme popular among planners.

In Dryden, the key past nodes were the Villages of Dryden and Freeville, along with the well-defined hamlets of Varna, Etna, McLean. Bethel Grove and Ellis Hollow were more neighborhoods than hamlets, but certainly existed. West Dryden (with its church) and Malloryville (with its water-powered industry) were also important places on the Dryden landscape. Schoolhouses created a sense of community in smaller areas all over the town.

The re-routing of Route 13 on the western side created a new industrial and commercial node where it overlaps with Route 366, and as-yet unrealized potential for more development at Hanshaw and Lower Creek Road.

Third: Improve What You Have

The old nodes were built for 19th-century traffic patterns, narrow roads lightly traveled. Houses and businesses were often built close to the road, and parking wasn't an issue. Intersections were important because they connected different places, not because they created a pause in the flow of fast-moving traffic.

The 19th-century nodes suffered in the 20th century, as the automobile changed both infrastructure and expectations of what a place should be. Traffic that stops in a place is still a benefit, just as it was before, but traffic that just passes through imposes costs on communities that no one actually pays for.

The Villages of Dryden and Freeville have perhaps done the best, but both have large traffic flows cutting right through their heart. Dryden's "four corners" in particular is a difficult place to cross the street, and parallel parking on West Main Street (Route 13) is a challenging experience. There's plenty of parking in the area, but it's not obvious from 13 that this is a pedestrian-friendly area. Freeville is better in this respect, though 38 creates some similar difficulties.

Among the hamlets, Etna is cut in half by Route 366, and McLean has steady traffic along Fall Creek Road and Peruville Road. Varna is probably the hardest-hit by traffic of the old hamlets, as most of it was built right along what was a narrow and quiet - though important - road. Varna's proximity to Cornell has made it attractive for renters and landlords, reducing the investment made in buildings already challenged by the nearness of the road and further accelerating its physical decay. While Varna has done well with auto repair, the grocery, pharmacy, and other neighborhood businesses have disappeared as larger stores appeared at East Hill Plaza.

Traffic will also be a challenge for the possible new nodes. The existing businesses on the 13/366 overlap are there largely because of the traffic, true - but 17,000 vehicles passing daily makes it hard to imagine coherent development on both sides of the highway.

How can communities address this, to make sure these densest areas of the Town are popular? Freeville and Dryden already have the largest advantage, because they are incorporated as villages and therefore have much more control over their own destiny than the hamlets, which rely on the Town for government, including planning.

The ingredients for making nodes attractive are already there, in some cases, though they can pretty much always use improvement. All of them cost money, of course.

Dryden and Freeville have the sidewalks necessary to give pedestrians a comfortable area to walk. Varna has been asking for them for a long time, however, and it's not clear if Etna or McLean want them.

Trails are another amenity that can make living in these places more fun. Dryden has the Jim Schug trail, though in its current configuration it's mostly good for recreational use. When it connects to Freeville and then Freeville connects to Varna and Ithaca, then the trail might have some use in giving people a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly connection between nodes.

One feature that most of the old nodes and some of the neighborhoods have is community centers. Varna, Etna, Ellis Hollow, and Bethel Grove have long had community centers, and a new Community Center Cafe recently sprouted in the Village of Dryden. Freeville's church, school, and fire company provide centers of activity, and other churches, fire departments, and schools help bring people together. The Town is already supporting the community centers and fire departments, two key aspects of Town policy that already support nodes.

The importance of schools as centers of community helps explain the concerted resistance to closing down the Freeville and Cassavant [McLean] elementary schools, despite the cost of keeping them open. This might serve as an important reminder that the meaning of 'improvement' isn't just up to planners - it's up to the residents of the actual nodes as well. Forcing unwanted change on the places a plan supposedly supports is not a good way to write plans.

Fourth: Change the Conversation

A lot of nodal development conversation reminds residents who already live in nodes of that classically awful phrase, "We had to destroy this village to save it." Planning vocabulary isn't entirely comforting. Zoning vocabulary is by its very nature constraining. Perhaps worst of all, the use of even advisory plans as ammunition for criticizing other projects makes a lot of people deeply suspicious of any planning.

Yes, change is almost always uncomfortable, and discussing change is scary. Discussing proposed changes in where people live is especially terrifying, whether the listeners are those told they're in the wrong place or those told their neighborhood should be growing rapidly.

Still, there are better ways to hold the conversation. The basic idea behind all of this is simple:

Live close to where you work, and the places you usually go.

Planners at a variety of Dryden-related projects have talked about this, gotten general approval for the idea, and then come back with plans that implement it which don't always go over very well.

In part, that's because the planning toolkit often runs to maps and drawings, showing people suggested end results rather than letting the people figure out how that result might develop over time. There's little connection between the broad motivations behind the plans and the way that plays out over the typically 20-year timeframe that long-range planning explores.

It takes a lot longer to ask people about various scenarios and walk through what might happen in a neighborhood, but the sitting down and listening makes a big difference. For short-term projects, it might even make sense simply to ask what residents want, collecting things that would make their neighborhood stronger. Outlining paths to get there will likely require both planners and residents to accept some pieces that might not be their favorite approach if they could have everything the way they want it. Listening and compromising does make it easier to build agreement, over time.

In planning, everyone's an expert - or at least everyone thinks so. It's not hard for people to imagine what change in a place might look like, or what effects it might have on the surrounding area. If there's a field where the separation between "expert" and "non-expert" can cause problems, it's planning.

None of these conversations will be easy, and some of them will be unproductive or counterproductive. Given what's at stake in these conversations, however, they're necessary.

Fifth: Be Patient

This one is hard. Patience is nearly always hard - easy counsel to give, difficult counsel to accept.

Yes, the world has lots of problems, many of them caused by our love for the automobile. Even beyond climate change, energy prices are likely to keep climbing, and residents of sprawling neighborhoods are eventually going to suffer for their choices. Yes, we are going to end up with a good deal of wasted infrastructure, and yes, there's a lot of harm that could be avoided if only we could start making drastic changes today.

It's not that easy, though. Impatience generates its own resistance. The problem here isn't the automobile, sprawl, or greenhouse gases - it's people. People change more slowly than may seem good for them, and telling them to change doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to change faster. Even with a shared sense of mission, change is difficult.

Perhaps the place people want to change most slowly is their home. We've become accustomed to changing jobs and changing schools over the past few centuries, and there are even some people who migrate from home to home regularly. However, once people have made the effort to settle into a home on what they hope is a permanent basis, many forms of change are unwelcome.

It's not just about "lowering property values" or "not in my backyard" - it's about the quality of life people found when they arrived and the quality of life they expect o continue. If that quality of life changes, then resistance to a lot of these options (and even resistance to moving) may fade.

There are two ways to shift that quality of life in ways that encourage nodal development, and both pose problems for government

  • The first, more positive approach, is to improve the quality of life within the nodes. Adding features can make the nodes more attractive, whether sidewalks, trails, activities, or places where community can develop. Unfortunately, that often costs a substantial amount of money, and can leave taxpayers outside of the nodes resentful about why they're investing in a place they don't actually live.

  • The second, more negative approach, is to reduce the quality of life outside of the nodes. Most of the things that government could do to achieve this are pretty much guaranteed to be considered poison in the Town of Dryden. While it may be acceptable to create zoning that leaves certain areas lightly developed, zoning that would abolish sprawl by itself is not even remotely politically palatable.

As far as governmental options are concerned, democracy makes the first option appealing but limited, and pretty much bars the second option. Patience, in practice, may be the only choice here.

So is it hopeless? Will more and more sprawl devastate the environment ever more severely?

No. For better or worse, there are other factors at work. The most visible of them is the steady increase in energy prices, which is already making it much more expensive to live far away from work and school. Transportation costs have already doubled in the past few years, and there's little sign that gasoline in particular will be coming down any time soon.

For people already living far from population centers, this continuous drain on their pocketbooks is not very attractive. More efficient vehicles will ease the impact of this over time, but those also come with their own investment costs. Change will be slow, though. Current prices aren't likely to make a lot of homeowners move into denser housing elsewhere, and that flow will be slowed by the increasing likelihood of taking a loss on the house price.

Perhaps there's reason to hope, however, for people looking to find new homes. When people are still in the decision-making phase, and haven't yet made the investment of moving and settling in, it's a lot easier to examine all of these costs. While the appeal of lots of property and possible self-reliance will guarantee some people keep moving to the distant corners of the town, a lot of others are going to seek cheaper and more convenient paths - making nodal development a much more appealing prospect.

In many ways, the challenges here are about timing. Outside of a few activist communities, there isn't a tremendous call for government to clamp down on development outside of the nodes and to encourage development inside the nodes. At the same time, though, there hasn't been a building boom in the nodes, and even if people find the nodes attractive, they can't live in them if there isn't housing.

So what might the path forward look like?

  • Emphasizing the advantages of life in the villages and hamlets

  • Making the hamlets and villages as attractive to people seeking places to live as possible, while being cautious not to generate resentment from those outside of them.

  • Offering tools that allow new development outside of the existing nodes to take on as nodal a character as possible.

  • Listening to residents carefully to know what affect increasing energy prices are having on opinions about how they want to live.

  • Preparing to offer infrastructure that will support more efficient ways of life.

  • Working to develop community that can help these nodes flourish for both current communities and future residents.

Yes, that's a limited approach, one many activists doubtless will consider far too passive. Unfortunately, it rarely pays off for government to get too far ahead of what citizens actually want today. Presenting scenarios and telling people they should want something isn't going to make them want it, or make them accept the change needed to implement it.

These issues go to the heart of how we choose to live, work, raise our children, and interact with our neighbors. That makes questions about the nature of our neighborhoods likely the most contentious subject local government addresses. There is a path forward through that minefield, but it's a path that requires letting people learn for themselves why changing their ways is a good idea.

Posted by simon at May 17, 2008 4:32 PM in , , , , , , , , , ,
Note on photos


Katie said:

Thanks for an interesting and well-considered post Simon, but as all discussions I've seen recently on planning, it's heavy on the appeal of social networking and light on the nuts and bolts of where more basic necessities (like our food, water & energy) are going to come from and how we intend to treat all that collective sewage given the future's limited resources.

Planners typically disempower families and that's why they inspire such resistance. People, increasingly, are seeking to provide for their own households themselves, because they can see the road (and the brick wall at the end of it) that our culture is on. A significant number of people are moving away from complex structures (like cities) and into more self-directed and simpler solutions on a few acres of land, because they've lost confidence in the ability of concentrated areas to provide for basic services. Also, they see the necessity of shifting away from their urban lifestyles to contribute more directly to the cultural transition underway. It doesn't take a planner to see that we're going to need more farmers and tradespeople.

A population packed into high density living needs more than "walking paths" and "a stimulating and safe place for children to play." This is a very '90's recreational view of the world. The challenges ahead are going to demand more of a focus on assuring people they won't starve or go thirsty or freeze in their highly efficient "nodes" as our culture adapts to energy descent, climate disruption and a economic decline. Until this core concern of personal well-being is addressed planners of every ilk should all expect more, not less, resistance to "planning."

NYCO said:

Very interesting post, Simon. I think I live by an old "node" but note that it doesn't have a community center (but apparently the mall used to double as a community center back in the '60s).

As for what Katie posted about trends, you might find this NYT article of interest:

Mary Ann said:

Simon, thanks for this thoughtful piece. If you haven't seen the residential and commercial design guidelines the planning board has been working on, take a look at Comprehensive Plan Implementation Project." One of the most impresive parts is a map showing houses existing in 1850 with an overlay for each succeeding decade. It looks pretty good through 1870, 1900, 1940. Then it starts to explode in the 50's and you can just imagine what a projection into the next 50 years would look like.

The guidelines introduce some important concepts in preserving open space, improving traffic safety on route 13 and such. What it doesn't show yet is integration of commercial and residential areas. We're about to embark on phase two of the project which will address that.

The guidelines under consideration have been presented in a meeting of a group of developers, one public meeting and a town board meeting. We'll be scheduling more public meetingsin the next few weeks.

Perhaps the most important point you make is "Be patient." This isn't Sim City. We're not starting with a blank slate. It's going to take time to make a difference. But we'll be moving in the right direction.

KAZ said:

As someone who is currently car-less on a non-nodal, rural, multi-acre property, I suddenly sense a personal need for public transportation if not walkable grocery stores. Our self-sufficiency does not extend as far as Katie suggests it should, but neither am I ready to give up my very private life on the mountain for something that sounds too much like Levittown for my liking. I can see that nodal living makes sense if you're starting from scratch, but imposing such a model on existing neighborhoods seems problematic. Robert Moses was a genius, but he ran roughshod over the way people lived on the way to imposing the way they live now.

Katie said:

Isn't it possible to end up with both the high density housing and the sprawl? Is there any evidence to support the assumption that attractive high density housing/nodal dev't decreases sprawl? Or does it simply attract more people into the area?

Ben said:

Well-reasoned and exquisitely detailed as I should expect from you. But I wonder if you're taking into account the human engineering really necessary here.

Nodal development reeks of urbanism--smaller homes closer together and closer to commercial centers. Americans by and large do not trust cities. That's where poor and/or nonwhite people live. I don't think trails or walking paths will really help overcome these fears.

For every Dryden where you might find people to make it work, there are 10 Springfields where you probably can't.



Robinia said:

Interesting post and comments. I think that one-size-fits-all lifestyle assumptions are always a mistake in planning. Carbon footprints can be reduced in more than one way.

If an individual lives on South Hill in Ithaca, but drives 1.5 miles to Wegmans to buy food for dinner 3 times a week, while I live 4 miles out of town, but only shop every other week, I'll be using less energy. Similarly with work commuting-- if one person lives in a node within walking distance of work, but flies to a distant city for meetings every six weeks, their carbon footprint is FAR larger than the person who drives 8 miles daily with no work-related air travel. Telecommuting some of the time can make non-nodal life very environmentally appropriate.

Urbanists always seem to assume that everyone wants to spend much of their time after work with people other than family and neighbors, in urbanized areas. Not everyone does. If I had to out-commute from a node to the countryside to do the forestry, large-scale gardening and landscape planting, and recreational walking and swimming that I prefer, I would be driving a lot. If somebody who wanted to go to movies and bars 4 nights a week lived at my house, they would be driving a lot.