Large Lots Gobble Up Land in Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, the chief drivers of sprawl include larger home sizes and lots. The Daily Item reports (3/8/04):

Despite its gradual land protection progress, Massachusetts still lost more than 202,000 acres of forest, farmland and open space between 1985 and 1999, nearly 90 percent of those 40 acres a day taken for residential construction, while a relatively slow growth rate for single-family houses has been outweighed by a trend toward bigger home sizes and lots, according to the milestone ”Losing Ground” study by the Massachusetts Audubon Society…

The study also shows that the average single-family house square footage and lot footage increased by 44 and 47 percent, respectively, from 1970 to 2002. This type of development ”is bad for wildlife habitat and bad for people who want affordable housing,” said Mass Audubon president Laura Johnson, adding, ”It is proof that we can’t simply put land protection on the back burner while we wait for an economic recovery.’
In this context, we’d like to revisit the ideas of J. Terrence Farris, an Associate Professor in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture at Clemson University. His vision of Smart Growth does not call for a dramatic increase in the density of already built-up areas. Instead, he recommends focusing attention on the open space on the periphery of these areas:

…smart growth advocates should be realistic about the amount of development that will occur in built-up areas versus outlying open land as various stakeholders consider future policies. The U.S. population is expected to double in this century. It is hard to imagine that a large percentage of that growth will occur in existing built-up areas.

Smart growth advocates should focus especially on encouraging higher-density quality development on open peripheral land. The discussion in this article suggests that this is where most development will occur. Perhaps up to 20 percent can be infill in cities and the older suburbs (this would be a big increase from present patterns). The density of most cities is 5 to 10 times that of their suburbs (Downs 1994)…

Perhaps Downs (1994) best describes the scale of infill development necessary to accommodate growth when he shows that

to raise overall density from 3,500 to 7,500 persons a square mile,[7] 47.1 percent of all housing land would have to be redeveloped with new housing at fifteen units per acre, 24.2 percent at twenty-five units an acre, or 14.0 percent at forty units an acre. Clearly, any substantial increase in the residential density of built-up areas that is to be achieved through redevelopment would require major clearance and rebuilding. This would be a major disruption to existing neighborhoods… It is hard to believe that residents where such upzoning is planned would permit it, considering the pressures they have exerted in the past…
Many suburbs today are built to accommodate between 1,000 and 3,000 people per square mile, typically based on markets and land cost (Downs 1994). While infill will continue in selected submarkets, smart growth advocates should aggressively pursue higher-density, quality development at the periphery rather than the typical low-density suburban sprawl of the past 50 years (Danielsen, Lang, and Fulton 1999). (p.26-27)

(J. Terrence Farris, “The Barriers to Using Urban Infill Development to Achieve Smart Growth”, 2001, PDF)

See also:

Tailoring Infill and the New Urbanism to Northampton
[James Kunstler:] “Houses may be freestanding in the new urbanism, but their lots are smaller than those in sprawling subdivisions. Streets of connected row houses are also deemed desirable… The new urbanism compensates for this loss by providing squares, parks, greens, and other useful, high-quality civic amenities. The new urbanism also creates streets of beauty and character. This model does not suffer from congestion. Occupancy laws remain in force…”

The Atlantic Monthly: “A Good Place to Live”

Pictures of Northampton Streets at Various Densities

The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences
The Plan calls for high and medium density housing in downtown and the “more densely developed areas”, 12-65 units per acre. (p.13) If zoning rules are changed to facilitate this, it could mean that a parcel of land that represented one buildable lot could come to represent two lots or more. When land can be developed more intensely, its assessed value might rise. If you want to sell, you might be thrilled. If you don’t, however, the main impact on you might be a larger real estate tax bill. As the Plan acknowledges, “increased property values are desirable but not the increased property tax and decreased affordability that comes with increased value.” (p.17)

EPA: Urban Heat Islands

Northampton Redoubt: Urban Ecology, Planting Trees, and the Long-Term View
If we remove all of our in-town forested areas and wetlands they will likely be gone forever or at least a very long time. We would do well for posterity to err on the side of caution.