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D.C., Count Your Blessings
It's harder to stop sprawl here in New England. Photo by Matthew Midnight.

It's harder to stop sprawl here in New England. Photo by Matthew Midnight.

It’s very easy to forget just how lucky D.C. is with regards to its ability to create a sustainable, urbanist region. In fact, the region has a nearly ideal political structure to make real progress.

I realized this by spending the long weekend in New England. A friend, who is a selectman in a small Connecticut town, were talking about how to green the town. The town is very much a fringe exurb. Population around 6,000 people—almost all families, white, median household income around $80,000—and they live on around 92 square miles of land. In other words, this is the kind of place that is not good for the environment. You have to drive 10 miles just to get to the grocery store. In discussing how to help make the town more environmentally friendly, we quickly realized that the kinds of changes that would be necessary are completely beyond the powers of the town, given even wild assumptions about political feasibility. Simply put, small towns aren’t going to put themselves out of business.

But in Connecticut, there is no one else to do it. There are no counties, at all. This is true to greater or lesser extents across New England. Local government has extensive control over all land use issues and so everyone is stuck in prisoner’s dilemmas where no one is going to take any action to limit sprawl. In the D.C. region, at least jurisdictions have enough size to be able to think regionally.

The only other areas that have the governmental structure to think regionally are Sun Belt and Mountain states that generally don’t have the pre-automotive cities that lend themselves to any density at all. Generally, metro regions either are paralyzed by an overwhelming multitude of local governments or they don’t have the center to build around. South Florida might be another exception, but off the top of my head, the D.C. area seems uniquely well situated, structurally, to enact the kinds of reforms we want to see (with the exception of having to coordinate across state lines). Something to remember on days when the regional news seems bad.

Though if anyone has any suggestions for how to spend $40,000 to help green that small CT town, please do let me know and I’ll pass them along!

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  • She might look at the the Transition Towns model (www.transitiontowns.org) that we are starting to use. Communities we have worked with in Australia have gotten some momentum with it.

    We also did an extensive Placemaking process with a town in New Hampshire of 6,000 that we can share as an example.