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Wednesday, February 20 , 2019, 5:55 pm | Mostly Cloudy 51º


Urban Infill vs. Urban Sprawl

There can be surprising freedom and growth by staying inside the urban limit lines.

As people seek housing alternatives, projects are being proposed for construction outside the urban limit line, or ULL. While this may seem attractive to some, there are many reasons for keeping growth within the ULL. In general, most folks want to keep Santa Barbara County from morphing into the Los Angeles area, wall-to-wall development that we see today.

It’s hard to imagine now, but in the not so distant past, the cities in Los Angeles and Orange counties actually had hard edges, surrounded by green belts of farm fields and dairy farms or orange orchards. What turned them into wall-to-wall concrete wasn’t so much an explosion of population as it was really poor planning, the inability to see that leapfrog development outside the ULL leads to urban sprawl. The inevitable result is loss of productive agricultural lands, leading to nonstop development — mile after mile after mile. Pretty soon towns blend into one another, losing not only their distinct edges, but their individuality and unique characters.

Perhaps the most important reason for limiting development to inside the ULL is to protect productive agricultural lands. We can’t afford the loss of valuable agricultural lands, which are vital both to a diverse economy and to providing fresh products to urban residents. Producing fresh agricultural products within close proximity of urban areas also reduces the need and rising costs of long-distance shipping, reduces wear and tear on the roads, relieves traffic congestion and air pollution, conserves energy, and ensures fresher, healthier and less expensive products.

There are strong economic reasons for promoting urban infill rather than urban sprawl. Building within the ULL avoids the high costs of providing key services, such as sewage, water and electricity to areas distant from urban cores. It also reduces the cost of mass transit and alternative transportation for those who cannot afford or are unable to commute by car. In contrast, providing urban services outside the ULL places an undue burden on taxpayers.

Infill development also makes sense environmentally. It avoids creation of traffic congestion from people commuting long distances to and from the urban core for access to jobs, schools and services. Keeping commuting distances as short as possible protects the environment from excess air pollution from traffic, excessive runoff, and from loss of habitats for wildlife and insects that provide a multitude of benefits.

Keeping development within the ULL is also a public safety issue, in making sure that reasonable response times are available for services located in the urban core, such as police and fire. Supporting mass transit and alternative transportation reduces the cost of traffic and accident control.

And keeping development within the ULL has many social benefits. It helps to preserve communities and informal interaction among residents by promoting a pedestrian culture rather than a drive-in culture. By reducing commuting times, people have more time to spend with their families and community involvement. And by avoiding the loss of valuable open space, people in urban areas can also have a nonurban experience without having to travel far to a national park.

Promoting urban infill development does not, however, mean that every square inch of space within ULLs should be paved over in cement or parking lots. Good planning demands that open spaces are built into urban areas. City residents need recreational parks, bike trails, pedestrian walkways and courtyards, community gardens and other public spaces interspersed between taller buildings and commercial districts. We need areas that let the eye roam and the spirit soar, that facilitate a sense of community and public discourse.

Equally important is preserving the semi-rural areas that lie at the far edges of the ULLs, providing quiet nonurban neighborhoods punctuated by open fields and pastures, small ranchettes and larger estates. People need choices. Some prefer the hustle and bustle and bright lights of downtown areas, and others prefer the quieter neighborhood that sits at the edges of our cities.

Balanced planning is the key. We need to promote urban infill that protects against urban sprawl, while preserving the open spaces outside the ULL. And we need to preserve public spaces within business districts and residential neighborhoods that allow us to play together and stay connected to natural habitats that nourish us.

Deborah Brasket is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network  (SB CAN). She can be reached at 805.722.5094 or at [email protected]. This commentary originally appeared in the Santa Maria Times.

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