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Sprawled out


When bigger isn’t better: City officials consider sprawl’s burden on municipal functions.

Clifton Adcock September 14th, 2011

Urban sprawl is one of the biggest challenges facing Oklahoma City, Ward 2 City Councilman Ed Shadid said at a Sept. 6 community meeting held on the issue.

Around 675 people showed up, according to event organizers, filling the Grand Ballroom of the Oklahoma City Marriott Hotel. Speakers included city officials — Shadid, City Manager Jim Couch, Police Chief Bill Citty, Fire Chief Keith Bryant, Planning Director Russell Claus, Public Works Director Eric Wenger, Public Transportation and Parking Director Rick Cain and Utilities Director Marsha Slaughter — and executive director of the University of Oklahoma Institute for Quality Communities Blair Humphreys.

“Seeing this crowd, there’s no question that we care about our community,” Shadid said.

right Blair Humphreys, executive director of the Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma, talks sprawl.

Shadid opened the event by explaining characteristics of sprawl: development on the city’s periphery; low-density housing; single-use zoning; low connectivity within neighborhoods; and high dependence on automobiles.

“It’s very much a political quagmire or minefield; that’s why I’m rushing right in to it,” Shadid said to laughs from the audience.

Couch said the city’s area is 621 square miles, making it one of the country’s largest.

Shadid emphasized three of the major problems that result from sprawl: the city’s climbing obesity rates, thanks to a lack of walkability, the taxpayer burden of providing infrastructure to outlying areas and rising energy costs.

“Oklahoma City has a lot going for it; public health is not one of them” Shadid said, stating that the obesity rate has climbed locally about 1 percent a year since 1990 to a rate of about 31 percent, and if that rate continues, it will result in health care costs of $1.1 billion.

“That will be devastating. Time is running out and every city, state and federal government basically are like ostriches with their head in the sand. No one has a good plan for how to stop this,” said Shadid, who is a doctor. “There is a disconnect between our business and civic leaders, and our physicians and health care providers and public health officials on this issue.”

In addition to the health costs, Shadid said taxpayers subsidize sprawl through infrastructure improvements and additions that enable low-density development and that rising energy costs fueling longer commutes pose a problem.

“What happens if you have all your eggs in one basket? What happens if you have a system that is dependent on the automobile and cheap fuel?” Shadid asked. “What happens to our citizens, our lower and middle class, if we have a disruption in oil, in energy, or we have a dramatic sustained price (increase) of that fuel? That segment of our population will be very vulnerable.”

The current situation, for the most part, is not accidental, Shadid said, but rather planned and engineered to be that way.

What happens if you have a system that is dependent on the automobile and cheap fuel?
—Ed Shadid

Humphreys said much of the current sprawl structure has been in the works since before World War II, when it was considered a good idea that would create jobs and improve the economy. However, the dynamics of the situation have changed, Humphreys said, and the issue is about creating better neighborhoods.

“It might have been a good idea at one time, but now the manufacturing jobs this is supposed to create — they’re overseas,” Humphreys said. “You take a look at the worn-out road surfaces. We’re having trouble keeping up with the roads we have, let alone building new ones that are demanded. And when it comes to consuming oil and gasoline, we don’t even need to get into what the costs are there.”

Couch said the expansion of the city limits really began in 1959 to 1960, when the city went from around 80 square miles to about 415 square miles. By the early ’60s, the city ballooned to 600 square miles. This expansion occurred to control zoning and land use, Couch said.

right Ward 2 councilman Ed Shadid addresses the crowd at the community meeting about urban sprawl.

Officials said OKC’s large area affects everything from waste and stormwater treatment, to emergency response times.

Many city services struggle to keep up with the large area, said Claus, and future growth could make the task more difficult. The city is currently working on PlanOKC, a comprehensive plan to guide priorities and decisions.

Shadid said he was impressed with the turnout, and planned to hold additional meetings in the future.

“Tonight wasn’t about solutions; it was about introducing to the public different concepts facing the city and the different strains on different departments,” Shadid said. “To get that data out to the public, let them draw on their own experiences and knowledge, be engaged with city government and give us ideas on how they think we should address these issues.”

Shadid said sprawl, by encouraging more reliance on automobiles, is one of the contributing factors to what he said was one of the biggest issues facing the city: public health.

“Public health is our Achilles’ heel,” Shadid said. “It’s an economic tsunami coming at us in terms of economic impact and cost over the next few years.”

 
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