San Diego Business Journal and Use: Transportation, Land Use Must Be Linked, Says Architectural Expert

San Diego and other California cities will have to make fundamental changes to transportation planning and land use to survive the challenges of the 21st century.

So said Mike Stepner, dean of the San Diego-based Newschool of Architecture and former city architect for San Diego.

Stepner addressed about 150 state and federal planners from throughout the West when they met in San Diego for the Intermodal Planning Group conference Nov. 6.

Stepner focused on "smart growth" and the challenges California faces. The state will absorb 18 million new people in the next 20 years, with 1 million of those people headed for San Diego, he said.

"That kind of growth is not new to California. However, it is different this time because, as a citizenry, we are unwilling or perhaps unable to pay the cost of accommodating it," Stepner said.

Cities also don't have the room to grow outward anymore. Already, residents see the effects of that growth in increased road congestion, he said.

But there are many other problems, both big and small. The spreading out of suburbs from the urban core has resulted in a loss of investment there and in the older "first ring" of suburban developments, which have changed and fallen victim to shifting demographics, Stepner said.

Urban sprawl affects people as well. More Americans are becoming obese, in part, because it is so difficult to walk anywhere, forcing everyone to drive, he said.

Sprawl Leads To Isolation

Meanwhile, senior citizens who have lost the ability to drive become increasingly isolated due to neighborhoods not designed to promote neighborliness or accessibility, Stepner said.

Using more land takes its toll on the environment, while police are concerned about the link between suburban living and social dysfunction, he said.

Stepner cited the massacre at Littleton, Colo., where the design of the suburban community may have played a part. As a suburb, parents commute long distances to work, with the increased drive times resulting in less parental supervision.

Meanwhile, the houses are separated by car-friendly, but not people-friendly intervals, increasing the isolation and alienation among the suburb's teens, he said.

The solution lies in "smart growth" , a more comprehensive approach to housing and implementation. People need to stop thinking solely in terms of being a city planner, or an architect, or a traffic engineer, because that reinforces a narrow focus, he said.

"Rather, we are all community builders , which implies a much more comprehensive approach to addressing the issues," he said. "This is especially critical because housing patterns, land utilization, employment and retail areas are all shaped by transportation," Stepner said.

Dynamic Communities

Transportation, land use and urban design need to be linked in order to develop dynamic communities, he said.

Planners should consider a number of factors above and beyond the usual considerations in building. These include increasing the number of mixed-use structures within walking distance of one another, and considering the time of day, as a city's needs vary from day to evening, and from season to season, he said.

Other factors are maintaining the city's historic character and providing access to open space, Stepner said.

Stepner conceded that some of these changes would not be easy to achieve, since it calls for increasing density , anathema to most California residents.

"Sprawl is the American dream," he said. "Those that champion the current patterns (do so because) they feel it has provided us with the largest and cheapest homes in the developed world. It is the lifestyle that Americans and indeed people in other countries want."

Another factor are "NIMBY"-minded homeowners. The "Not In My Back Yard" mentality leads them to oppose density for fear of the increased housing and traffic congestion it may bring, Stepner said.

But there is a diverse coalition of groups supporting smart growth. These include environmentalists, youth and senior advocates, health authorities, public safety officials and even some designers and builders, he said.