Publisher’s Note: The Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce and the City of S. Pasadena hosted a community advocacy meeting about the environmental future of Pinellas County as it relates to development, sewer and water infrastructure and renewable energy. This article is the first in a series of articles based on that meeting.
Members of the Pinellas County staff have to worry about keeping things running smoothly on a daily basis for almost a million residents while simultaneously planning for the future. For Blake Lyon, Pinellas County’s Development Review Services director, that means planning for a lot more people in what is already–by far–the most densely populated county in the state.
“The population of the U.S. is projected to grow by 125 million by 2050,” he says. That’s 34 million more people than in the previous 30-plus years.
And only 50 percent of what will be needed (built environment) to support that population, is actually in place today. “That is a national average,” stresses Lyon after asking participants to con- sider what they experience in the county today and needing to double that.
In addition to just housing people, studies show that the VMT (vehicle miles travelled) increases by 3 – 5 times faster than population growth. How the land is developed or redeveloped will have a tremendous influence over how much energy we consume, the cost of maintaining services, and even safety.
From an economic standpoint, it costs more than twice as much to maintain a suburban community ($3462 per household annually) vs. an urban community ($1416 per household.) That accounts for costs like police and fire services, governance, development and maintenance of road- ways, sidewalks, sewers, prisons and libraries.
And then there’s the land. “When we look at Pinellas County…we don’t’ have a lot of available land left to do what’s referred to as green field development. There are no open, raw tracts of land,” says Lyon. “We have a saying in our office that if it’s undeveloped, there’s a reason why…”
He gives good marks for the development of the waterfront and downtown areas along with preserves and parkland, but has identified “critical areas of concern.”
Those include aging buildings, industrial or manufacturing areas that are underserving and underutilized, and, showing a nice manufactured home park, he notes, “A lot of the area’s affordable housing is tied up in a system that cannot be rebuilt or sustained over a long period of time.
“We have a lot of inefficient land use where we continue to spread things out, and the amount of infrastructure costs that goes into the roadways, the sidewalks, the pipes, and the energy consumption that goes into that type of development is one that is going to challenge us in years to come.”
He shows a photo of a woman pushing a baby carriage on the shoulder of a busy street. “We’ve got unsafe situations where people aren’t able to easily walk around. Relying on an auto-dependent culture forces us to make choices we might not otherwise make. We are chasing infrastructure dollars to keep those roadway services. It is not just creating fiscal irresponsible approaches, but safety concerns.”
People need to consider the benefits of compact, walkable environments, but understanding sensitivity when it comest to over development, he cautions against going to extremes and thinking of places like New York and Tokyo.
“There are cities that have done it very respon- sibly like Paris, Barcelona, San Francisco and Amsterdam where you can get scale and urbanity at a much lower density…we’re talking 3 to 5 stories, not 30 or 50 or 100 stories.”
With land an issue here, he shows how much space it would take to house the world’s almost 7 billion people in communities built more com- pactly like Paris vs. sprawling suburban areas like Houston. A Paris comparison requires the space of Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi; a Houston comparison spans from Arizona to Alabama in the south and Colorado to Ohio in the north.
He says Pinellas County is missing the middle and needs to fill in the gap between single family detached homes and skyscrapers. “That gap allows us to be flexible and adaptable, and look at the range of housing options that better respond to the change in our demographics.”