Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Evansville Is Killing Itself With Urban Sprawl

Well, I finally have gotten around to the post I've been wanting to do for some time now: The effects of urban sprawl on the city of Evansville.

I really want to hit this topic hard because I believe this issue is the root of all of our problems. If we can ever solve the problem of urban sprawl, we will solve just about all of our problems, whether it be health, finances, jobs, the environment, and safety.

Wikipedia gives us a general outline of what urban sprawl is...


Urban sprawl, also known as suburban sprawl, is a multifaceted concept, which includes the spreading outwards of a city and its suburbs to its outskirts to low-density and auto-dependent development on rural land, high segregation of uses (e.g. stores and residential), and various design features that encourage car dependency.
Already, most of you can see just how easy Evansville fits into this description. The pall of 50 + years over Evansville is largely due to our failure to plan. Most people don't plan to fail, they just fail to plan. Let's take a look at some of the effects of urban sprawl from wikipedia...

High car dependence
Inadequate facilities, e.g.: cultural, emergency, health, and so forth
Low public support for sprawl
High per-person infrastructure costs
Inefficient street layouts
Inflated costs for public transportation
Lost time and productivity for commuting
High levels of racial and socioeconomic segregation
Low diversity of housing and business types
High rates of obesity
Less space for conservation and parks
High per-capita use of energy, land, and water
If you didn't believe that Evansville was a victim of urban sprawl before, this list definitely should convince you. Let's break down each of these effects...

High Car Dependence

Quite possibly the worst effect on Evansville. Currently, we have no light rail and a very basic METS system. We are told that mass transit is too expensive, but we just watched the most expensive road project in Vanderburgh County history with the $25 million Green River Road expansion. We're also seeing our local planners willing to waste money on I-69 and then complain that INDOT doesn't have enough funds left over for the US 41/ Lloyd Expressway renovation. We need drastic change here in Evansville. We need a new city hall and a change of community goals if we're ever going to stop wasting massive amounts of money on roads and the automobile.

Inadequate facilities, e.g.: cultural, emergency, health, and so forth

In the past decade or so, we just watched our downtown Welborn Hospital close its doors with a new Deaconess Gateway Hospital opening way out on the I-164 Bypass. This puts our downtown residents, who are abiding by good smart growth principles, at a higher risk to their health and wellness. It also puts those who live on the west side at a high risk as well. Yes, we have Deaconess Hospital, but it can not handle both Deaconess and old Welborn's amount of patients.

Although we have the Pagoda, Angel Mounds, and the museum, we are sorely lacking in the cultural department. I'll ask you this simple question: How big of an uproar do you think this community would be in if there was a China Town established in Evansville? Simply put, it would never happen. Unfortunately, most cultural events here quickly turn into drinking events.

In regards to facilities in general, how many facilities of any kind can you mention that are state-of-the-art? Just about all of Evansville's facilities could use a major upgrade. The new arena sticks out like a sore thumb in downtown Evansville.

Low public support for sprawl

Just about all development projects on the east and west sides of town have faced stiff opposition. For example, Pearl Drive and the new development across from USI faced off against many neighborhood groups who did not want the developments (One group was called Wake Up West Side). The USI development failed while Pearl Drive managed to win approval.

On the east side, the current Target complex received such high opposition from neighbors that a fence taller than most houses in the area was constructed.

High per-person infrastructure costs

Like I said earlier, the Green River Road project was the costliest road project in Vanderburgh County history. We're also seeing massive problems with our sewer system which has gotten so bad that the EPA has had to step in and force Evansville to come up with a solution to its sewer problem. We have built sewer line after sewer line out to the east and west sides but have not updated most of our sewers in the downtown core. Our sewer problem is estimated to be in the $500 million range!

Inefficient street layouts

If you've ever been to Pearl Drive, Burkhardt Road, the Lloyd Expressway, or even the newly renovated Green River Road, you will see just how inefficient the street layouts are here in Evansville. Urban planning is severely lacking in Evansville, and it has cost us most of our urban forests.

Inflated costs for public transportation

Some say METS is affordable, some say it's way too expensive. One thing we do know: Our mass transit system cannot compete with those in smart growth cities such as Portland, Seattle, and Austin. You can't really have inflated costs when you have no costs for rail at all. Meanwhile, the bill to renovate the Lloyd Expressway, Green River Road, and build a whole new I-69 is increasing by the day due to the expanding of our city with the decreasing of our population in the city.

Lost time and productivity for commuting

There use to be a bumper sticker "Of course I'm late I took the Lloyd." Very few, if any, locals walk or ride their bike to their job due to the fact that they live on one side of town and have to commute to the other side of town. As a result, high road construction costs, long road construction delays, and a fair amount of wrecks have resulted in both high costs and lost productivity for Evansville residents.

High levels of racial and socioeconomic segregation

How many African-Americans, Chinese, Europeans, or any other non-Caucasian residents can you name that live on the far west side or in the affluent east side neighborhoods? How many rich or even working class Caucasians can you name that live on the southeast side? While we celebrated a huge milestone in abolishing segregation many years ago, Evansville still hasn't gotten the message. Our urban sprawl has brought both racial segregation as well as socioeconomic segregation where our rich elitists only live in privileged subdivisions.

Low diversity of housing and business types

I was thinking about this just yesterday. It seems like every house we have here looks exactly like the house on Roseanne. It doesn't help that our Front Door Pride program will be rebuilding houses that look just like it as well. If you drive between Burkhardt and Green River Roads, you will notice few differences between the buildings.

Before urban sprawl took over, we had great architects such as Ralph Legeman who designed his house to replicate his design for Roberts Stadium. Now, every house in every subdivision is cookie-cutter. We have become Whoville from the Dr. Seuss cartoon.

High rates of obesity

Now THIS is Evansville. Recently, we were just named the most obese city in America which also happened to be mentioned on Jay Leno's Tonight Show. Evansville is becoming obese at an alarming rate and we must convert from an automobile friendly community to a walkable and mass transit friendly community.

For those who don't believe obesity is connected to urban sprawl, think again...


Less space for conservation and parks

The parks we do have in Evansville have been neglected for many, many years largely due to the fact that many residents haven't cared enough to demand change from our Parks Department.

As more of our development moves out to the northeast side, more of our forests, open space, and environment is lost. Why would we want to expand to an area we know is going to have these negative consequences?

High per-capita use of energy, land, and water

Think about how much cheaper our sewer problem would be if we would have taken care of our downtown and then branched out as each section was completed. Think about how low our taxes would be if we would have only built sewers in high density areas. Just like in the categories above, our politicians, business community, and even some of our residential community have turned a blind eye to the urban sprawl problem we have built up. Now, our environment, our health, our wallets, and our future are all paying dearly for it now.

Thankfully, there is a solution. We have to adopt the beliefs of a philosophy called Smart Growth. Here are the ten basic principles of Smart Growth...


1.Mix land uses
2.Take advantage of compact building design
3.Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
4.Create walkable neighborhoods
5.Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
6.Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
7.Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
8.Provide a variety of transportation choices
9.Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective
10.Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions

That right there is what we MUST DO if we are going to turn our town around. We need to get serious about smart urban planning and we need to do it fast. Here are a few things we need to fix.

1. Stop building in the county. Expanding Green River Road and building the new EVSC high school were terrible decisions. People follow development. Follow through with the downtown master plan and then expand out.

2. Build up before we build out. We currently only have three decent sized buildings in Evansville, the old Old National Bank building, the 5/3rd building, and the Old Courthouse. That is completely unacceptable. Instead of building one and two story building after building, let's build some nice high rises. It will give us a great skyline with a cheaper infrastructure system around it.

3. Merge the city and county. If we are ever going to rebuild our downtown, we have to prevent residents from taking advantage of downtown while not contributing to downtown. Our city should be improved for good quality urban life while our county should be kept rural and free of out of control development.

4. Build efficient transportation. We cannot keep wasting dollar after dollar on the automobile road system. All we end up getting is lost land, grid lock, fatalities, and wasted gas that damages our environment. Rail, whether it be light rail, high speed rail, commuter rail, or street car rail is cleaner, greener, faster, cheaper, safer, and smarter.

5. Change city hall. Let's be honest, our current crop of political leaders as a whole (certainly not everyone!) aren't concerned about urban sprawl. They just look at the bottom line which is blind of the negative effects of urban sprawl.

6. Improve our parks. With an improved park system, we can have both the joys of urban life with the peace of rural life which will bring residents back into our city limits. Our parks should be the pride of the region, not another hassle we have to maintain.

While urban sprawl has left a pall over Evansville that is easily twice my age, things can and will get better. But, we have to commit to change. We cannot complain about urban sprawl without willing to change ourselves. We must demand our city follow the 10 basic rules of Smart Growth.

Is Evansville ready for Smart Growth? Honestly, I do not know. But I do know one thing for sure: Let's build a smart Evansville of tomorrow!

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