by Al Wurth
The Lehigh Valley, like so many other regions, is at a crossroads. In choosing which path to take in regional planning, our choice is between business-as-usual, 20th century approaches, a path often characterized as “New Jersification”, and an alternative path that combines the best of the original and stable assets of the Valley with 21st century ideas and directions, a path perhaps passably described as “Europeanization”.
“The challenge is to decide what measures will enable us to stop subsidizing antiquated and costly 20th‑century models and instead move in the directions needed for the 21st century.”
Decisions made now will have lasting impact, since development activities and patterns are literally cemented in place.
The Lehigh Valley has assets that many sprawl-generation communities built up after World War II can only dream of: its boroughs and cities chock-full of neighborhoods and communities. The legacy of pre-sprawl traditional urbanism, they are thriving or, at worst, need only to be adapted and updated for the 21st-century.
Alas, these assets are not only being neglected, but are also imperiled. What should be the Valley’s advantages look more like Pogo’s “insurmountable opportunities”.
Special interests and governmental structures both undermine the recognition of the enormous value of the existing capital in the Lehigh Valley and instead continue a rat race into the surrounding countryside with industrial, office, warehouse, or corporate “parks”—where, despite the name, nobody ever goes for fun or the ambience—and endless sprawling housing developments, suburban shopping centers, and other “projects” paving over agricultural land and open space.
This relocation of capital is even more unsettling in light of the massive investments sunk in critical regional assets like medical facilities and nationally-recognized higher education institutions in all three major cities.
Meanwhile, in the older, denser areas of the Lehigh Valley, many people still leave their homes and do things without getting in their cars, demonstrating patterns of everyday life that are cheaper, cleaner, safer, quieter, environmentally-and-climate-change sustainable, not subject to parking hysteria, age restrictions, and “convenience”.
The devaluation and neglect of the Valley’s true long-term legacy assets is no accident; it is due to the profit-driven logic of converting farmland into settlements. However mad in a system sense, extending “Generica” into the countryside is lucrative for developers, at least in the short run.
Still, for everyone who is not a “developer,” it is not difficult to identify the real distinguishing character of the Lehigh Valley. Lehigh Valley quality-of-life (for a small remaining but shrinking window of time) is primarily found in the capacity to have both proximity to the countryside and the potential to live in a comfortable, walkable urban neighborhood. Having both of those options available to dwellers of both our medium-sized cities and our boroughs is what constitutes the differentiating character of Lehigh Valley as a regional community, one that is not yet completely “New Jersified”.
The correct, sustainable choice at the crossroads is a “no-brainer”. It’s also pretty much inevitable. The challenge, however, is to decide what measures will enable us to stop subsidizing antiquated and costly 20th-century models, and instead recognize the real value and move in the directions needed for the 21st century.
Two types of measures are possible: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down measures could be enormously helpful, but “Pennsylvania planning” qualifies as an oxymoron.
Obvious simple measures—such as percentage targets for development and for farmland and open space preservation—and exchangeable development credits or rights based on those targets would change incentives for speculators. So would infrastructure limits (water, sewer, utilities and roads) that would redirect new development toward using existing capacity. Other areas have had success with urban growth boundaries (see Europe). Most important, beyond proactive efforts, would simply be the prevention of “flank attacks” on existing commercial centers by new large-scale “regional” developers often aided by infrastructure support from the communities under attack.
Still, because top-down planning and shifts in priorities seem rather unlikely, given the existing array of interests, speculation, and leadership in Pennsylvania and the Valley, it is much more realistic to find consolation in the bottom-up measures that will probably take much longer, but will eventually drag the Lehigh Valley into the 21st century (hopefully before it is over).
Emerging trends and patterns that support this urbanist “European” 21st-century model include the reduction of automobile drivers among the young, the attractiveness of urban living and diverse neighborhoods among home buyers and business startups, the growing number of baby-boomer empty-nesters downsizing to avoid maintaining large houses and yards, the attractiveness for retirement of human scale walkable configurations of services and activities available in the built housing stock of the older communities, the declining population growth rate and household size, and many others, including chain-store fatigue.
These trends will likely shape the future; how readily and quickly we adapt to them will permanently affect the Valley’s future.
Al teaches political science at Lehigh University, specializing in environmental politics and policy and political economy. He serves on the boards and advisory committees of several environmental groups and has worked with them on a number of Lehigh Valley environmental issues since 1985.
(Published in the 2013 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley)
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)
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