June 13, 2011

'Rural node' planning won't work in Tompkins

The Ithaca Journal published a Guest Viewpoint piece of mine about nodal development. Unfortunately I was away and minimizing web contact, so I'm a little late, er, reporting on my own writing.

Squeezing that piece into 500 words was extremely difficult. It sums up about seven years of previous thought and writing, and relies on lots of sources there wasn't room to cite. In case anyone wants to follow this trail further, here's a version with hyperlinks to supporting conversation.

Tompkins County's developing plans for "rural nodes" are a disaster in the making, taking ideas that worked in urban settings and dropping them into new contexts where they can't work.

The 2004 Tompkins County Comprehensive Plan [16MB PDF] described an approach to nodal development attempting to ensure that "future development would shift away from suburban and rural areas, and into the city, villages, and hamlets," [page 69] reviving our rural hamlets and villages, encouraging walkable neighborhoods full of things to do while saving energy and improving our lives.

But the 2007 Route 13/366 Corridor Plan revealed that even if Dryden implemented all of its not-entirely-popular ideas, gasoline consumption would fall just 10%.

The more recent Route 96 Corridor Study [106KB PDF, page 2] offered a warning flag for "rural node" development: "Studies have indicated that a population of about 2,000 to 2,500 is required to support the most basic neighborhood-scale commercial services." Only Tompkins County's largest rural village, Groton, has more than 2000 residents - but it lost population over the last decade. [2010 Census data.]

The mostly Pacific Northwest studies behind nodal development explain a key issue: critical mass. Yes, an average household might meet 55% of its retail needs from businesses operating within walking distances, but a neighborhood of 1000 households can only support businesses for about 20% of its needs. Residents will have to drive for the other 80%, especially when neighborhoods lack jobs, schools, churches, or entertainment. Without the focus train stations provided railroad suburbs, mass transit won't help much either.

Northwestern cities have created much larger critical mass by specifying mandatory minimum densities for new construction [4.2MB PDF], and by locating new nodes within or near existing city life instead of out in the country. People seeking these features will look for them where they make sense - in a thriving city setting.

Designating land outside of a city as "mixed use" in the hope that walkable mixtures of residents, jobs, and retail will appear won't work at the scales possible in rural Tompkins County. They function differently: all of our villages and hamlets arose and thrived because they served markets beyond their core population. Business came from the road, or from the railroad.

Jane Jacobs' classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities warned of "in-between densities" that lack both the liveliness of a city and the quiet privacy of a suburb. They are "a bad long-term bet, destined to become a gray area".

Unless Tompkins County's population explodes, rural nodes will create more problems than they solve. If gas prices stay at current levels or below, nodes will generate traffic on two-lane highways where it is least wanted. If gas prices climb, rural nodes will be expensively isolated places to live.

There are many better ways to strengthen our rural villages and hamlets than to pour in housing and sprinkle in a bit of mixed use. We should not attempt to save our villages and hamlets by demanding that they behave like cities.

Comments so far seem stuck in politics - not unusual in newspaper comments, but I do wish that sometimes we could actually talk about these things rather than evaluating their usefulness as weapons.

Update: There's a response guest viewpoint. I'd love for someone to stand up and say my math is wrong, but it doesn't go anywhere near that.

Posted by simon at June 13, 2011 8:53 PM in , ,
Note on photos