Now is the time to rethink how we regulate development

Those who read this column regularly know that I frequently expound upon the 70 years of suburban zoning and development that now finds us nose-to-nose with sprawl, traffic congestion, subdivisions of McMansions, where one must drive everywhere, in lieu of walkable neighborhoods. Setting a new course for our built environment will take time. Did you know that last year Americans consumed over 300 billion gallons of gas just to go shopping?!!

At this spring’s Five Colleges Book Sale in Lebanon, I purchased a copy of Philip Langdon’s “A Better Place to Live — Reshaping the American Suburb.” Here are some excerpts that concisely describe our situation and highlight the land use and transportation connection:

• “The streets of old communities are appealing because they manage to serve many different interests and purposes. They encourage such activities as walking and biking. They facilitate access to mass transit. They foster community social life and neighborhood-oriented businesses. They generally produce more attractive and engaging surroundings than modern street systems do. Traffic engineers and their colleagues in development and community planning have made streets and roads into limited-purpose instruments, and for this we all pay a price.”

• “The marketers’ use of the ‘village’ motif misrepresents what villages are really like. Genuine villages throughout most of history have not been homogeneous. They have been whole or nearly whole societies containing old, middle-aged and young; poor, middling and sometimes rich; people of differing talents and interests. The village of the past thrived by having individuals who were able and willing to fill many varied functions. While in a modern society with automobiles each little community no longer needs its own butcher, baker, clergyman, and so on, it is still beneficial to have people of all ages and abilities. A neighborhood of people too much alike will lack many things.”

• “Neighborhood size receives careful consideration. The goal of many traditionalists is to design neighborhoods on a quarter-mile radius, so that in five minutes a person can walk from the neighborhood’s edge to its center. This is an old idea, used in the 1929 Regional Plan for New York and elsewhere. If amenities such as a convenience store, a child care center, a meeting hall, and a bus stop are placed in the neighborhood’s center, five minutes of walking at an average pace will take a person from home to basic everyday services.”

• “A single word sums up the traditionalist approach to planning: connection. Most traditionalists attempt to make several kinds of connections. First, they try to connect the streets into a network so that people can readily reach other sections of their neighborhood or town. Second, they try to connect residents to shops and services by encouraging retail and institutional development within walking distance of where people live. Third, they try to connect individuals to one another by insisting that walkways be sociable — usually running alongside narrow streets, rows of trees, picket fences, and front porches, balconies, terraces, or other inviting exterior elements of houses. Fourth, they try to bridge the divide of age, household size, and economic status by mixing together houses and apartments of assorted sizes and prices. Fifth, they try to connect the new developments to mass transit. Sixth, they try to connect individuals to civic ideals and public responsibilities.”

While the housing boom has eased off and the economy is still OK, it is time to rethink how we vision, plan and regulate development. We need to move from pure regulation (thou shall and thou shall not) to visionary planning — cooperative efforts between public officials and earnest developers looking to create affordable homes, walkable neighborhoods and vibrant mixed uses. “Carrots” in the form of incentives will achieve better development and redevelopment than all of the “sticks” of tight regulations on the books now. If we don’t start today, it will soon be too late.

Bill Norton, president of Norton Asset Management, is a Counselor of Real Estate (CRE), a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (FRICS) and a member of the board of The Initiative for a 2020 Vision for Concord. He can be reached at

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