Has our city planning gone mad, or is it just behind the times? One of the basic principles of smart growth is new urbanism. The goal of new urbanism is to plan for a compact urban form utilizing high density and mixed (residential and commercial) land uses to create a more sustainable community and prevent sprawl. It is an example of the old becoming new again. This historic settlement pattern of concentrating density, which saves rural, agricultural and open lands, was supplanted in Florida by the use automobiles that facilitated suburban sprawl.
The foundation that allows for high density is adequate infrastructure, which is less costly when concentrated in one area rather than spread out. The basic components of these more “walkable” new urbanism communities is mixed-use and something now called TOD, or transit oriented development. We used to call it mass transit. This is basically planning for growth by incorporating transportations means that reduce the reliance on the automobile and encourages walking. Except for the small-scale example of our historic settlement layout in Old Bonita, most all of Bonita Springs is a suburban layout, the antithesis of new urbanism. We do have a railroad (not currently used for passenger travel) and including the interstate, we have four road corridors with four lanes or more, so there are possibilities in the future to plan with TOD in mind.
Oddly enough (this is the “mad” part), our city’s major planning initiatives of late are the nearly opposite of modern new urbanism. Our focus has been to increase density in Old Bonita and in the Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource area (DR/GR). The first is a built area with historic resources restricted by two-lane roads and lacking stormwater management. The second is a low density area (mostly rural) lacking any major road corridors and which has unique environmental concerns. Yes, I know Old Bonita has a railroad through it, but it also has limited road access, as opposed to the north end of Old 41 along the same railroad where vast acres are vacant and near a six-lane highway. And yes, I know about the proposed expansion of the billion (yes, that is billion with a B) dollar CR-951 road into the DR/GR, but this seems to have been pushed back for consideration to the year 2035 and is just a developers dream at this point.
The rationale for increasing density in these two areas of limited infrastructure escapes me. It seems especially inappropriate considering we have vacant lands along our major roads that have dead shopping centers and stalled housing developments. As opposed to sprawling outward or redeveloping established neighborhoods, many cities are adding their new density in and around existing commercial centers which are usually already along major transit corridors. They are literally converting old shopping centers into vibrant mixed-use communities. Goodness knows our shopping centers already have an expansive concrete footprint.
We however, are planning to transform a historic area (with the centerpiece of planning being to sell off five acres of public land to a private developer) and sprawl into our only remaining low density lands (where we should be removing density because of water concerns) — go figure. Some say this strategy stems from greed. Others say we don’t know any better. Others think it is needed to add affordable housing, or that it will improve the city. I don’t know the reasons. I do know that Comprehensive Plan changes increasing density are theoretically based on a needs assessment. Governments are required to plan for projected population increases (as if they are desired or inevitable). Most of our planning is based on population estimates made in 2005 when the growth rate of Florida was at a peak. Now, our population may actually be shrinking. The local Metropolitan Planning Organization is already moving their population targets back five years or more. How are we justifying increasing even more density anywhere?
Would not the first step in a holistic approach to city planning be to analyze how much additional density we have already allocated?
Then, evaluate where it is placed geographically according to our Future Land Use Map (FLUM) in relation to the infrastructure we already have? According to guesstimate from our FLUM, we have entitled roughly 125,900 residential units and countless millions of commercial square feet. Assuming two people per household, that is a current overlay for a city population of 251,800.
My other question is how big of a city do we want to be. Do we want to give up our bedroom community feel and become a true urban area? In addition to how much more density do we want or need, I think the even bigger issue is where are we placing additional density. I believe that a reallocation of FLUM density overlays are in order and we need to establish an aggressive transfer of density (TDR) program to preserve our remaining culturally and environmentally significant resources by placing higher densities where more appropriate. This is at the heart of New Urbanism smart growth and can help bring our acres of existing concrete “back to life.”
We will soon have city council elections. I am hopeful a new consensus will take the helm and change the tack of our planning course.
Charlie Strader lives in Bonita Springs and writes occasional opinion pieces for The Banner.