Chapel Hill: Opinion

Molly DeMarco and Travis Crayton: Are we designing for 2017 or 2070?

Travis Crayton and Molly De Marco
Travis Crayton and Molly De Marco

The reality we live in presents numerous challenges and long-term threats. Scientists have been documenting these trends for decades. We know, for example, that climate change is a pressing problem that requires action today (yesterday, really) to mitigate existing damage and prevent further environmental degradation. We also know that rates of obesity in the United States, and in other nations, have risen rapidly, leading to a decline in life expectancy for the first time in modern history.

These two examples highlight the importance of modifying patterns and behaviors today to shape a better future. Local action can be important in setting a positive path forward, especially when state and federal action is insufficient. How can local action help address these major issues? For one thing, we can change how we develop our community.

For several decades, the predominant mode of new commercial development in the United States has included, among other things, vast asphalt parking lots separating buildings from the street and separating retail tenants from one another. This typical suburban approach to development favors motor vehicles over other modes of transportation, leading to more driving and less walking, which leads to further environmental harm through pollution and greater obesity rates because people are less active in their everyday lives.

As research shows, including the research summarized in Charles Montgomery’s “Happy City,” this type of development isn’t working. It is failing us today, and allowing such development to continue will only exacerbate the problems it has created.

In the urban cores that are Carrboro and Chapel Hill, we can no longer afford to develop in a suburban pattern. If we truly value reducing our impacts on the environment and promoting public health – even as the population continues to grow – we cannot accept suburban-style development. If we want to preserve the rural buffer and prevent the sprawl prevalent in other communities, we need dense, compact retail and housing projects that encourage active transportation within the urban services boundary.

Yet, suburban-style development continues to dominate. Established commercial centers like Eastgate, Rams Plaza, and Timberlyne Plaza in Chapel Hill, and Willow Creek Shopping Center and Carrboro Plaza in Carrboro, offer examples of features to avoid when development and redevelopment opportunities arise. Likewise, new projects like the recently approved Edge in Chapel Hill and the proposed Lloyd property project in Carrboro feature large swaths of surface parking separating the buildings, include drive-through businesses, and, in the case of the Edge, fail to integrate with nearby public transit infrastructure. This type of development demands the use of a car, even encouraging shoppers to drive from one business to another within the development. As for the “mixed-use” character of these projects, the residential elements are adjacent to, but not integrated into, the overall development. That may be, by definition, “multi-use,” but it is certainly not mixed.

Development such as this might be OK today, as many of us still rely on our cars to get around. It might provide some benefits to the community today, like increased tax revenues and new places to shop and live. But how will such development shape the future? Do we want more suburban-style shopping centers that most people will drive to because that’s what the design encourages? Do we want a future in which most people travel alone in their cars from destination to destination?

Our communities need to answer these questions and grapple with the future we are creating by designing our environment in specific ways. We believe the right way forward is development designed to make active transportation like walking and biking the clearly preferred mode of transportation and to make getting into a car the last choice people make. That means placing retail on the street, providing adequate bicycle parking, reducing or eliminating surface parking lots and placing it behind buildings, and discouraging other car-centric uses.

To us, that sounds like a more sustainable, enjoyable future to live in. So, are we designing for 2017 or 2070?

Molly De Marco and Travis Crayton are editors of the blog and live in Chapel Hill.