Tuesday’s under-attended monthly luncheon of the Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce was an eye-opener. When you hear of groups like the “Coalition for Smarter Growth,” which provided the speaker for the event, and their partnerships with environmental groups, you think they’re all about keeping development to a minimum. Among other things, you might think they call for small buildings, no height, no density, and lots of open space.
The speaker Tuesday, Jessica Millman, certainly belied all that. The height of buildings is not an issue, not a problem, she said. Efficiency is more important and good design is also key. As for open space? Too much can be bad, she said. Large plazas outside federal buildings in many large cities are desolate and foreboding, she suggested. Small pocket parks and well designed public places, such as sidewalks that encouraged pedestrian use, are far more appropriate.
Why, you ask, should “smart growth” advocates favor tight and tall development to wide and short? The answer has to do with traffic and its impact on both quality of life and the environment. The data shows that since 1982, the region’s population has grown by 22%, but driving has grown by 70% and delays on the roads has grown by 225%.
In the context of this, it is surprising that population growth has accounted for only 14% of the increased use of the roads and highways. Most responsible has been the increase in length and number of trips and decrease in the average vehicle occupancy. All those factors are considerably more significant than population growth, alone.
Therefore, the key to smarter growth, she said, was to reduce the number and length of vehicle trips. That means that instead of having residences, schools, workplaces and retail centers all so far apart that the average person has to drive and park to school to drop off a kid, drive and park to work, drive and park back to school, drive and park to a playground, drive and park to a store and then drive and park to home, the ideal would be for that person to walk to all the above, or to take mass transit, or to drive and park only once.
It’s a simple concept, really, and depends on factors such as making a dense area pedestrian friendly and with a “sense of place” as a center. It was instructive to learn that she really didn’t know much about the City of Falls Church’s plans for a new city center, because everything she was talking about seemed to fit the model that Atlantic Realty and the City planners have been developing.
Her single greatest contribution to the City’s dialogue, however, had to do with the matter of building height. That’s an issue that people react to strongly, she conceded, but said “it’s really about the efficiency of space.” She said that good design is critical for taller buildings to create the right kind of look from the ground.