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Sprawled Out

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Most of us picture environmentalism as individuals conserving resources, or government cutting pollution and protecting endangered species. But another issue, typically taken for granted, looms just as large: the way our communities are designed.

Sustainable Pittsburgh addressed the matter at its eighth annual Southwestern Pennsylvania Smart Growth Conference. The day-long May 16 event at Downtown's Omni William Penn Hotel drew about 270 consultants and commercial real-estate types, community-development reps and municipal officials. But while regional planners agree we must reduce environmentally disastrous sprawl -- and along with it our dependence on the automobile -- attendees might be forgiven for experiencing some cognitive dissonance.

Jim Hassinger, executive director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, led off by discussing Project Region, the group's effort to chart its 10-county territory's preferred future. Over two years, with input from 3,000 citizens, Hassinger says the SPC discovered a public preference for more compact, higher-density development.

Thus, the SPC's long-range plan -- the region's blueprint for funding things like infrastructure and economic development -- leans toward revitalizing existing communities and preserving open space, in contrast to the low-density, bedroom-suburb-and-strip-mall model that has characterized growth in the region (and the country) for decades.

This was music to critics of the SPC's history of favoring highway-based development. Meanwhile, the conference's keynote speech by renowned metropolitan land-use strategist, author and real-estate developer Christopher Leinberger announced that communities designed to be more compact and walkable -- and hence more environmentally friendly -- are also the market's future. "The market basically is switching," he said, citing increases not only in fuel prices but in people who prefer urban living.

In between those speeches, however, attendees heard from Shelley Kimelberg, a Northeastern University urban-policy researcher, about how local governments can better attract business and industry. When she presented results from a national survey asking real-estate professionals how businesses choose locations, some sustainability advocates were nonplussed. Among the most important criteria the pros cited -- a skilled labor pool, for example -- most had nothing to do with environmental protection. Others -- especially a desire for on-site parking and easy highway access -- even seemed contrary to creating compact, walkable communities.

"The folks that [Kimelberg] was researching ... were businesses that were counter to the keynote speaker," said attendee Greg Boulos, western regional director for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. "It was a little bit paradoxical."

To those advocating more self-sufficient local economies, attracting new business isn't even a priority. "I would probably look toward fostering local businesses that are already there, rather than bringing in a large conglomerate that's gonna 'save the day,'" said Boulos, who's also an organic farmer. "The smaller the better."

One issue, of course, is how you define "sustainability" (and its cousin, "smart growth"). Environmentally, logging can be sustainable if you keep the forest healthy in perpetuity. Economic sustainability, meanwhile, suggests long-lived businesses. In the long run, a sick world can't indefinitely support healthy corporations; but in the short run, environmentalism and profitability often seem at odds. Big-box retailers, for instance, might thrive in sprawl -- but sprawl creates pollution and flooding (see: Millvale); destroys animal habitats and open spaces; requires more energy to transport people and goods; and bankrupts independent entrepreneurs.

Sustainable Pittsburgh's executive director Court Gould acknowledges such paradoxes. But he says that business models are changing: He cites Lucas Piatt, of Millcraft Industries, who at the conference offered a mea culpa for the sprawling Southpointe business park his firm built in Cecil Township. Piatt added that Millcraft's future was in projects like revitalizing downtown Washington, Pa. -- and resurrecting Downtown's Lazarus department-store building, which Millcraft is converting to an upscale retail/condo complex.

Similarly progressive supply-side attitudes might address another problem: that of prospective homeowners who say they want walkability, but keep buying in Subdivision Land. Leinberger says people seldom choose walkability now partly because it's seldom an option. The answer, he says, is to level the playing field, with fewer subsidies for highways and an overhaul of zoning laws that effectively prohibit mixed-use walkable development. Communities, including Cranberry Township (a veritable poster child for sprawl), have taken steps in that direction, Gould says.

Meanwhile, Gould adds, we can save green fields simply by preserving older, "core" communities: "Fix the places that exist first."

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