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Community uniting to reverse sprawl trend in Winston-Salem

by Eric Ginsburg

Mayor Allen Joines and others  gathered last week to discuss how to tackle urban sprawl. (photo by Alexandria Stewart)

If development continues at the current projected rate, city planner Kelly Bennett says Forsyth County will run out of land to develop in the next 22 years. What’s more, the Twin City is expected to gain 120,000 residents and 66,000 jobs by 2030, which could greatly contribute to suburban sprawl.

“High Point’s moving here,” Bennett said to illustrate his point, because High Point’s approximate population is 120,000. (The official 2010 Census count for High Point is 104,371.) Bennett and others see the projections as an opportunity to promote smart growth, a different development approach which some would say Winston-Salem desperately needs.

When Mayor Allen Joines was asked to name the city’s most pressing environmental concern, he cited urban sprawl. He said Winston-Salem was rated No. 3 for sprawl in the nation, adding that he hopes the city can reverse the trend.

On June 2, around 75 people attended Smart Growth vs. Urban Sprawl, an event at Temple Emanuel designed to highlight both the negative aspects of sprawl and a number of alternatives through video, guest speakers and song. Joines and Bennett were two of the guest speakers, along with Rabbi Mark Strauss-Cohn of the temple, Russ Dubois of the Creative Corridors Coalition and Judy Hunt, one of the city’s principal planners.

Temple Emanuel’s Environmental Movement organized the event, a part of its regular environmental movie series and awareness initiatives. The group, which is part of the temple’s social action committee, received a national award for the series last month.

Event organizers distributed a handout that provided a number of definitions of sprawl. The definitions all described sprawl as low-density development that encourages auto dependency and segregated uses, dividing residential areas from commercial and public ones. Sprawl is often associated with longer commutes, environmental degradation, increased private and public costs, and a loss of community.

After speaking about how the Bible and Torah teach their followers to protect the environment and to avoid wastefulness and destruction, Strauss-Cohn led the initially reluctant crowd in a sing-a-long while he accompanied on guitar.

“Now Winston-Salem’s growing in a lot of different ways… it raises lots of questions ’bout parks and roads and land. It’s time to update Legacy — our comprehensive plan,” they sang.

Legacy Development Guide is the city and county’s current plan for general policies around physical development and growth of the community. It was designed in 2001 with the core principles of sustainable growth, livable design and fiscal responsibility. More information is available at legacy2030.com.

Event organizers showed two short videos, the first of which focused on how sprawl affected public transportation and commuting in Atlanta. The second was a Technology, Enertainment and Design Talk, commonly referred to as a TED Talk, entitled “Retrofitting Suburbia” articulating how various communities nationwide have worked to refit empty stores and offices, reconstruct wetlands, increase walkability, and “re-green.”

In the TED Talk, architect and new urbanism advocate Ellen Dunham- Jones explained multiple reasons retrofitting was favorable to continued sprawl, including public health and affordability. She contended urban dwellers average a carbon footprint a third the size of their suburban counterparts. Dunham-Jones shared multiple development successes, including an empty St. Louis mall turned into artist spaces and others that have become nursing homes or university buildings. In one case, the shell of a Food Lion became a library.

Part of the goal, as Dunham-Jones outlined it, is to create what sociologists call “the third place,” or community space where people congregate besides the home and work. Walkability, mixed-use development, urban infill, and other approaches are all hallmarks of such a development strategy.

Bennett told the audience that it costs the city more to run a sprawling city because more fire stations are required, road costs and traffic congestion increase, and the city has to extend sewer and water services. Extending public transportation to residents also becomes harder, he said, because people are more spread out from each other and where they seek to travel.

Joines said the city is encouraging more mixed development and would like to increase public transit. The city could face resistance from residents around plans to increase mass transit because it could potentially require tax increases, Joines said, and some developers and residents might not support moving away from sprawl.

“We are firmly committed to reducing our carbon footprint,” Joines said. “We need your help. It’s going to take a little while and everybody’s commitment to it.”

Part of the cause of sprawl in the first place was people’s desire for the American Dream of a single-family home with a white picket fence along with an increased availability of motor vehicles, Joines said. Part of the shift now will require changing mindsets around housing.

Judy Hunt, one of the city’s principal planners, elaborated, saying when some people think of increasing downtown or centralized housing they picture high rises, which is not the only approach. She suggested “gentle density” which would incorporate a variety of housing types including quadraplexes.

“We have to make that type of leap into all different types of living situations,” Hunt said.

Speaking from the audience, Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership president Jason Thiel said part of what people desire is a sense of place and community that is often lost with sprawl but could be regained through the methods discussed at the event.

Other attendees voiced their support or posed proposals related to smart growth during a question-and-answer session at the end of the event. One speaker offered words of encouragement based on her experience organizing in New Jersey, while another advocated putting bike lanes between parallel parking spots and sidewalks — rather than the reverse — to protect cyclists.

Dubois talked about how the Creative Corridors Coalition aims to improve and beautify four of the city’s major throughways with pedestrian bridges, landscaping and public art, but his presentation received the most audience criticism.

More than one speaker suggested the prioritization of improving the major roads, including Business 40 and US Highway 52, was backwards. One woman said it didn’t make sense to beautify highways where people drove at higher speeds instead of other areas where people would be able to look at and appreciate the scenery more.

Another audience member said if current construction plans for Business 40 would allow it to close for two years, the city needed to close it entirely to fight sprawl and protect the environment. Thiel and Joines contested this proposal, saying that there were other steps the city should take instead to promote retrofitting and growth.

Joines said a number of retrofitting projects are already underway or completed in Winston- Salem, including an office building that was turned into apartments, and a handful of sites with potential near BB&T Ballpark.

A speaker said the city would need to promote smart growth for the idea to take hold, and said the people in the room couldn’t expect the idea to take hold on its own but that attendees would all need to push it forward.

Understandably, everyone in the room did not agree on how best to tackle sprawl but seemed unified in their commitment to create any number of the alternatives proposed in the videos, presenters or audience members.

Attendees seemed to agree it was important to prioritize protecting remaining farmland and habitats in the county while simultaneously promoting urban infill through design principles such as new urbanism. While some approached sprawl from an economic standpoint and others seemed more concerned about the environmental impacts, the discussion focused not on whether the city should pursue smart growth or not, but how.

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