In May, by chance, I was invited to contribute to two events at opposite ends of the United States, both in the same week. At my first destination, Fort Lauderdale in Florida, the Broward County Cultural Division was celebrating the 30th anniversary of the County’s Public Art and Design Program with a series of public lectures examining sustainable futures for the county. The fact that it was the Cultural Division that was organising these events was interesting in itself, and perhaps sums up the problem. Namely, apart from a few committed individuals, issues of sustainable development seem to be no-one’s responsibility. The result, in an area with massive and continued growth pressures, is mile after mile of unchecked urban sprawl.
In fact, that is not entirely true. In a north-south direction the sprawl goes on and on and on, in the form of low-density housing and office parks, and continuous commercial strips along the major highways. In an east-west direction, development is hemmed in on one side by the ocean, and on the other by the everglades, a characteristic highly evident from the air. The reality on the ground is a 100 per cent car-reliant population, where, if you don’t have a car, you cannot survive. You may have read, for example, that in the context of the recent higher fuel prices, some American families are having to go hungry in order that they can continue to fill up their cars. My hosts assured me that these stories are real in this part of the US.
Yet, precisely because of the presence of the sea and the everglades, and the constraining effect on growth this is having, Broward County is now at an interesting juncture. Unlike almost anywhere else in the US, further sprawl is not an option. Instead, if they want to avoid destroying the everglades (something that has already happened in parts of South Florida around Miami) they have to fill in some of the endless gaps set aside for parking lots, and above all, build more densely.
In some respects the dilemma reminded me of the situation back home in London. Here, with the green belt constraining growth, and ever-increasing household projections, the solution (for good or ill) has been densification, now codified and co- ordinated through the London Plan. But in Broward County, no such plan exists, and in fact there is precious little strategic planning at all. Instead, the county is made up of around 30 so-called ‘cities’, each with their own planning powers, administrative systems and independence (something they fiercely protect). These range from Fort Lauderdale, the largest, to the city of Lazy Lakes, the smallest with just 12 homes and a population of not much more.
To my mind, there seemed to be a real opportunity here: the opportunity to use densification as a strategy to inject some real urban design into the county, retro-fitting real places into what is a currently a placeless sprawl. Yet the lack of any strategic direction means that every city is taking its own approach.
Some, like little Lazy Lakes, quite by chance are intensifying because the hurricanes of 2005 did so much damage to the existing homes that most need to be rebuilt. As a result, the mayor proudly showed me his back-of-the-envelope (literally) masterplan to double their population – to 33. Others, like Fort Lauderdale, have been successful in encouraging the development of blocks of condominiums in the city centre, although the lack of facilities and amenities for these new residents is proving a problem (most of the shops have long since moved out). Yet others are resisting any growth and wanting to retain their low-density character as it is, a strategy that is gradually being undermined as developers slowly pick off development opportunities one by one in an ad hoc manner.
The reality is that the cities are not talking to one another, no-one is planning (seriously) for public transport, and the result, if nothing changes, will be a lost opportunity. Yes, there will be sporadic intensification, but the result is even more pressure on a highways system that is already at capacity with bumper-to-bumper ‘supersized’ SUVs, with no improvement to the quality of the urban environment, and no public transit. In the end, perhaps this will provide an answer, of sorts, as the county will become so degraded and the population so frustrated with sitting in traffic that the growth pressures will simply subside as residents opt to move elsewhere – in the great American tradition, letting the market decide.
From Florida, I flew to Cleveland, Ohio, where Cleveland State University decided to host a gathering of the numerous grass-roots organisations with an interest in sustainable design, and wished to hear about the opportunities that an urban design approach might bring. My first impression of Cleveland was of a very ‘holey’ city. The city has suffered from two fates: first, a dramatic decline in the economic fortunes of this part of the country as industry has moved south or overseas; and second, the continued rejection by the middle classes of ‘urban’ Cleveland in favour of its suburbs (and more recently the rural hinterland), reducing the population within the city boundary by half in recent years.
But, like some cities in the UK, the city boundary is drawn very tightly indeed, and what is left is really just the urban core, while the suburbs are administered separately, each with their own systems of planning and local governance. The situation reminded me of my former home, Nottingham, where suburban boroughs such as Broxtowe and Rushmoor artificially divide a continuous urban expanse into arbitrary administrative units. There, however, unlike Cleveland, the layer of strategic planning ensures a level of co- operation, including, for example, the introduction of the city tram and a continued recognition of a hierarchy of retail centres.
In North East Ohio, by contrast, the suburban cities compete with each other (and with the city of Cleveland itself) to attract development (and the tax dollars that goes with it) in what amounts to an entirely un-co-ordinated and unplanned bun fight.
The result is that the city of Cleveland proper has hollowed out, has no meaningful system of public transport, and shows little prospect of reviving in the near future, despite on-going growth into the rural areas around. Again, the lack of any strategic planning means that the best endeavours of Cleveland’s planners are having very little impact in reversing the situation.
In both cases I was invited to talk about sustainable urban design, yet in both I had to conclude that sustainable urban design cannot exist in a vacuum without sustainable strategic planning. Just as successful spatial planning is inconceivable without good spatial design, so is spatial design wholly reliant on good spatial planning. To make a real difference to the quality of the environment on the ground, Florida and Ohio (like almost all of America’s states, with the notable exception of Washington) will have to consider the balance of power between their cities and counties, and between local and strategic planning. Unfortunately there seems little prospect of this happening in the near future.
Let’s hope we never lose sight of the value of strategic planning in the UK, and that the new regional spatial strategies are up to the task. Without it, we may as well not bother with urban design (and of course vice versa).
Professor of Planning & Urban Design
The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL