Over the past three months, I’ve attended several webinars on messaging for smart growth. These presentations have an urgent feel to them given the growing, organized pressure on sustainability. One of key themes among slides hit particularly close to home: offer something to the suburbs and explain the return on investment.
The menu of offerings for suburbs typically comes in terms of retrofitting or fixing sprawl. While valuable, these solutions seem out of reach for several reasons:
- Investment for real estate is still largely absent. Even if the market began to pick up tomorrow, there are so many permitted, ready-to-go greenfield sites that pose a lucrative path of least resistance.
- The collective skill set in suburbs was built on single-owner projects – such as master planned communities or the redevelopment of an entire mall. Asking multiple owners to think of planning areas instead of individual corners of an intersection or parcels is uncharted territory. Yet our best corridors and intersections were subdivided long ago.
- As other great planning minds have pointed out, many denizens of suburbs would rather see a strip mall languish than face the agonizing decisions related to density, traffic, impact fees and incentives.
Enter Dan Sturges. Dan is a wildly creative inventor and thinker. He has faith in people’s desire to be a part of change, and created Wheelchange to help people visualize better transportation and quality of life. Most of all, he knows that land use changes will come, but are not likely to be the first catalyzing step. Instead, station cars, neighborhood electric vehicles, bike share and other technologies form the “first domino” for re-making suburbs. Check out this video (pay special attention at minute 3:30 and how the transformation takes place).
Based on our experience here in Sarasota, here are the main benefits of embracing Dan and his ideas:
- The first best changes will not be development-related. They will be vehicle+ technology changes that will happen sooner than waiting for the land development market to recognize retrofit.
- For whatever reason, new vehicle and transportation technology are extremely popular here in the ‘burbs. Perhaps new low impact vehicles are easier to relate to than bikes or transit. Perhaps transportation technology taps into deeply held beliefs related to promise and freedom.
- The costs are attainable. The Tea Party messages on how we don’t have the money are strong here, so reframing smart growth away from a land use driven movement to one that is centered on technology and market driven solutions is key.
- It’s about the suburbs. Articles on bike and car sharing are overwhelmingly set in cities like Washington and New York. Dan has the foresight to talk about these facilities as they appear in areas surrounded by cul-de-sacs and strip malls.
- He tells a story. All too often smart growth is presented in “menus” or best practices as if you pluck it off a list and run with it. But he knows how to make it fit together in a way people can relate to and even picture themselves in.
- Finally, he always starts with the pedestrian and the bike. His vision is not one of having everyone swap out a gas car for an electric one, but rather fundamental shifts to mobility-on-demand without the cost and burden of owning a car.
Dan’s work is on display at the Wheelchange website, or on Twitter at @DNAsturges.