Compact Towns and Cities

As cities and towns sprawl into the countryside, it becomes more expensive and less equitable to provide services to outlying suburbs. Congestion increases, farmland is lost, and the stability of surrounding rural areas is threatened. The livability of both city and countryside is greatly diminished.

View of Portland from Vista Bridge.

As the Congress for the New Urbanism has argued, coherent urban regions are a fundamental social, economic, and ecological unit. Such regions are naturally bounded by topography, watersheds, greenbelts, and surrounding Agriculture and Connected Wildlands. They contain compact cities, towns, and villages held within a connected matrix of agricultural lands, forests, and open spaces. Each city, town, or village is woven from well-differentiated Human-Scale Neighborhoods and centers, and is bounded by clearly defined edges. Green Building techniques greatly reduce use of water, energy, and materials.

The advantages of compactness are significant: more efficient and less expensive infrastructure, utilities, and public services; more effective Transit Access; pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use neighborhoods; and better integrated regional economies. Compact cities, towns, and villages ease development pressures on forests and farms, helping to stabilize rural communities and maintain wildlands. Recent studies demonstrate that states with land-use laws favoring compact development patterns, including Oregon, lose farmland much less rapidly than states without such laws.

Urban Growth Boundaries help prevent development patterns from blurring or leapfrogging beyond the edges of a town, city, or metropolitan region. Infill development and new building that complement and heal existing centers and neighborhoods offer significant ecological, social, and economic advantages. In many cases, increasing density in a neighborhood creates a better palette of shopping, working, and transit choices. Gracefully integrating increased density requires the utmost respect of historical precedents and neighborhood character. Metropolitan regions can help direct regional growth patterns, and should create appropriate strategies to encourage infill development rather than sprawl. Large-scale new development, when necessary, should either extend organically from existing urban boundaries or be organized as new towns with their own urban edges. In all cases, vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods with a gradient of densities from park to commercial center form the basic building blocks of towns and cities.

Throughout the region, a local balance of jobs and housing, including a Shelter For All and costs should be maintained. Diverse Local Economies that offer opportunities for people of all income levels help to avoid concentrated pockets of poverty.

Historically, regional imbalances between where tax revenues are raised and where they are spent have emerged. Careful statistical analysis and mapping has demonstrated the dramatic extent of these imbalances, and the manifold ways in which they undermine Social Equity.

In particular, core urban areas and inner-ring suburbs typically have a high tax base (with high density offsetting lower average income) and the greatest needs for schools and other services. These areas are often splintered by transportation projects that do not benefit neighborhood residents, and face an unfair burden of pollution and contamination. Despite this, local governments typically spend a disproportionate amount on outer-ring suburbs, whose low density leads to expensive and inefficient services and infrastructure.

Regional approaches to tax revenue address issues of social equity by ensuring that taxes and fees are fairly assessed by towns, cities, and counties, and that the revenues raised are fairly shared. This requires careful coordination, which is best addressed by a layer of regional government like Portland's Metro. In addition, explicit formulas for the True Cost Pricing of new development, transportation projects, utilities, schools, policing, and other services must be worked out and agreed to on a regional basis. Minneapolis, Minnesota has pioneered the effective use of regional tax revenue sharing strategies, with promising results to date.

The organization of the metropolitan region into well-defined neighborhood centers translates into an effective physical framework for many different transportation modes: pedestrian, bike, bus, and light rail or commuter rail. With strong alternatives in place, dependence on automobiles and their attendant infrastructure of parking areas, roads, and highways decreases, which in turn frees more space for infill development and improves the effectiveness of the transit system. As the groundbreaking Land-Use, Transportation, Air Quality Connection (LUTRAQ) study for Portland demonstrated, increased density accommodated near transit nodes can actually decrease vehicle miles traveled.

Cities and towns can also make use of Ecological Infrastructure, enhancing existing urban Ecosystem Services like water purification and flood control rather than degrading them at enormous cost. In addition, effective Rural-Urban Linkages help to maintain both the livability of the city and the economic vitality of the countryside.

Metropolitan Regions should have towns and cities with well-defined edges and vibrant neighborhoods. They should be set in a matrix of open space, agricultural and forest land, and wildlife corridors extending outward to regional wildlands networks. Towns and cities should make use of efficient, ecological infrastructure, offer a range of transportation connections, and offer a mix and distribution of land-uses that supports diverse regional economies.