The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Cool Thesis of the Week: “Suburban Paradise or ‘Sprawlsville, Washington’?”

Walking through the city, it is easy to look at stores and people, taking in their individual character. What many people do not consider, however, is the larger layout of the city.

For Alex Walker ’12, however, the broader organization of a city is of utmost interest. His History thesis, “Suburban Paradise or ‘Sprawlsville, Washington’?: The Growth of Vancouver, Washington, 1970-1994,” which he worked on last semester with Professor Michael Breen and this semester with Professor Tamara Venit-Shelton, details the expansion of Vancouver, Washington, guided by a battery of urban planning policies. Alex, of Sebastopol, California, has written over 100 pages on the history of these policies in Vancouver, which range from the minimum size of a property that can be sold to the optimal angle of a curb.

In the 1970′s and 80′s, says Alex, “tons of people” were moving to Vancouver, which is in Clark County, just North of Portland. This occurred as part of the Portland’s own urban growth; commuters moved to the suburb for its cheaper housing prices. As Alex says, “Clark County acted as a sort of escape valve for a lot of Portland’s growth.”

At the same time, the United States saw a “movement of urban planners” called “New Urbanism,” which sought to reduce urban sprawl, the phenomenon of areas of cities developing for a homogenous purpose, like large residence areas or expansive strip malls. Instead, they sought to encourage an organization in which cities develop with buildings of multiple purposes together in neighborhoods of tightly knit city blocks and grids. This is preferable, Alex says, “both for aesthetic reasons, and for issues of energy consumption and land consumption.” Widespread sprawl requires significantly longer drives and less sharing of transportation than the alternative “neotraditional” method, which seeks to mimic the way cities used to develop with intentional city organization.

In one of the first examples, developers in the outskirts of the city would install septic tanks for houses that contaminated groundwater, in some cases leaving “raw sewage in the streets.” The Clark County government responded by drawing a boundary around Vancouver, within which developers would be required to build into the sewer system. Outside of the boundary, land was not allowed to be parceled into areas smaller than one acre, to discourage developers from creating sprawling housing developments. Because it prevented them from investing in development, this policy “pissed a lot of developers off,” Alex says, “but it made a lot of sense in terms of preventing those things from happening again.” Alex says this was an innovation at the time, and it “might be one the most far-sighted things they did.” “That actually put them ahead of the oregon counties at the time,” he continues, but Clark County was eventually overtaken by Oregonian counties aided by Oregon’s more favorable state laws. Nonetheless, Clark County’s land laws have continued to become stronger as Vancouver has grown.

“It’s a really major environmental issue, but it’s a place with a lot more shades of gray.”

Land use laws are not only focused on the large-scale elements of a city. Alex says that there are also regulations such as those that say that in residential neighborhoods, curbs should be harder angles, making a shorter and easier crosswalk for pedestrians, and slowing down drivers. The width of streets can also be used to control the way walkers and drivers move through a city.

Though municipal and county governments have tried to listen to these complaints and encourage citizen involvement, Alex says, not many people are informed about land use planning; many involved citizens “looked at it in the short term.” It is hard to become informed about these issues, he says, because “unless you go up in an airplane, you couldn’t really see how Clark County was developing. That makes it a lot harder to make it into a political issue.” While he says he admires efforts to democratize the process, he asks, “how can you have this whole public process of building something as complex as a land-use plan?”

Alex says that city planning is an issue that contains a surprising amount of subtleties. “It’s a really major environmental issue, but it’s a place with a lot more shades of gray,” he says. “Land use planning has to do with balancing people’s needs with the environment,” and while “you can make developers into evil figures if they’re destroying wildlife habitat, but they’re also building houses for people to live in.” Though it is a complicated issue, Alex says, “it’s something that we really have to do and that matters a lot for the environment.”

Do you have or know of a thesis that compels attention? Just want to see your face in The Quest? Email with “Cool Thesis” in the subject line.

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