Lansing Hopes It Has the Cure for Sprawlitis

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No American city has missed the sprawl of development over the course of the past half century, though some urban centers seem to have been transformed more completely than others. I think mid-size American cities have suffered more than others. Look at Springfield, OH, Fort Wayne, IN or Lansing, MI.

As noted in “Curing Sprawlitis,” Lansing once had streetcars, cyclists, pedestrians and cars sharing the roadways. Mixed use buildings had apartments above retail and neighborhoods each had their own markets and other amenities. The authors note that zoning laws eliminated “traditional neighborhoods” by separating uses. Combine that with cheap mortgages, balloon-frame housing and an explosion of highway construction and voila, sprawl. And when you’re afflicted by sprawl you have sprawlitis.

The cure? Zoning and subsidies contributed greatly to our current condition and may be the only instruments strong enough to help us build our way out. According to the authors, Lansing is one place where changes in zoning could create change quickly. The city is engaged in creating its first serious revision to its master plan of 1958. Lansing has recently adopted a “complete streets” ordinance.

The article goes into some detail about the most afflicted parts of Lansing and quotes a “form-based code expert” who states that the top 10 factors that make a community walkable, in descending order, are: street trees, low traffic volumes, sidewalks, narrow streets, interconnected streets, onstreet parking, lower traffic speeds, mixed land-use, buildings fronted to the street, and small block size. Transportation design must be subordinate to urban design in walkable communities. For example, there may be a sidewalk connecting a resident from his house to the Kroger supermarket on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, but the rest of those nine factors are missing.”

Few of us could have said it better. What can Lansing and other cities do? It’s become a bit formulaic, but reducing lanes of traffic and replacing single-use code with a form-based code are the prescribed remedies. Lansing is pursuing the use of SmartCode developed by well-known New Urbanist Andres Duany. Without restating the standard criticisms of this approach it would seem that Lansing is heading in the right direction. It may very well be that mid-size cities are best positions to reinvent themselves.

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