Sprawling development threatens everything people say about East Tennessee, but nobody's doing much to stop it.
By Jack Neely
MARCH 6, 2000: Try this, next time you're in any group of people, young or old, educated or uneducated, conservative or liberal, dining in a restaurant on Kingston Pike. Gesture out the window at the traffic and parking lots and plastic signs and say, "When I was a child, this was all green farmland. Isn't it awful?" See if anyone disagrees. See if anyone speaks up for the asphalt.
People don't like sprawl. They do like big yards, the freedom to drive anywhere they want, the convenience of a big discount hardware store or grocery store with plenty of adjacent parking. And every day, they vote for more sprawl with their credit cards.
Sprawl's a vague term for several related phenomena, but it may be best defined as unplanned low-density suburban development.
Knoxville's not the most sprawled city in the country, a fact well known to everyone who's been to Atlanta recently. Once an ideal for Knoxville leaders, our great big sister to the south has recently gotten unwelcome national attention for its one-hour-plus commutes; the average Atlantan, they say, drives over 36 miles every day just to get to work. Across the country, when people discuss the horrors of how bad uncontrolled growth can get, they point at Atlanta.
Some say Nashville's getting almost as bad as Atlanta. And that Knoxville's following Nashville's lead. It seems clear that, without a massive change of heart and a stomach for unusual levels of cooperation between government entities, it's likely to get much worse.
"Every place has the problem," says Annette Anderson, former head of the Community Design Center, who now teaches urban planning at UT. "If anything, we haven't messed up things as badly, but it seems we're going at it more vigorously than other places." East Tennesseans' stated love of natural beauty is coming to seem a very moveable object in the way of the irresistible force of development money.
"We're a typical Southeastern metro area," says Norm Whitaker, chief of the Metropolitan Planning Commission. "The Southeast and Southwest are characterized by sprawl development. Our natural environment has influenced our development patterns in a way you don't see in Midwestern-style gridded communities." Whitaker gestures out his window to the green ridges of South Knoxville. "The pattern lends itself to sprawl" along the valleys. That comes into play in Knoxville's most conspicuous example of sprawl, Kingston Pike, which gushes between the twin attractions of the river and the interstate.
Christine Kreyling writes about urban-design issues for the Nashville Scene. In Nashville, she says Knoxville's long finger-annexation of Kingston Pike has become sort of an inside joke among urban-design professionals. "But Knoxville has the advantage," she says. "You're just starting to do the same stuff now that we did 10 years ago. You could stop."
Or could we? Though there's a great deal of agreement among citizens and politicians that something's going wrong, real hope of preventing it from getting much, much worse seems elusive. As TDOT surveys North Knox County for a new ring roadsuch bypasses have been notorious for metastasizing sprawl in many other citieswe don't seem left with much in the way of brakes.
The visual and environmental consequences of sprawl are obvious and well known. The loss of wetlands, the beauty of a forest or field. The loss of the ability to walk to the store to buy a new pair of shoes and maybe run into a dozen people you know and, along the way, encounter the notion that you're part of a community. The air pollution generated by half a million automobiles roaring through Knox County daily. The loss of a sense of place that's different from other places; one of the chief complaints about West Knoxville, both the commercial areas and the residential neighborhoods, is that it looks like anywhere else in the United States.
Befitting its name, sprawl is a big subject, and seems to grow as you look at it. In recent years, a surprising array of other problems have been blamed on sprawl, some of them with more than probable cause. Among them:
* Flooding. Nature gets a little bit of revenge on developers through flooding, which is much more common in overdeveloped areas with lots of surface parking lots. Asphalt lots allow no room for the natural safety valve of seepage into the ground, so nearly 100 percent of the rain runs off into culverts and the few remaining green spots. Rainstorms which would have had no noticeable effect on cow pastures can cause serious problems in a commercially overdeveloped area, and have done so in recent years, especially in the Cedar Bluff area.
* Apathy. Authors have cited anecdotal cases to postulate that sprawl leads to political disaffection at a local level. While it's impossible to prove sprawl is a primary causal factor of apathy in Knoxville, which just logged a 20 percent turnout in an important mayoral election last year, the Knoxville example seems to fall right in line. As Knoxvillians have moved farther apart from each other, voter turnout in city and county elections has dwindled.
* Obesity. Last year, the Centers For Disease Control in Atlanta found that, despite the proliferation of health clubs and diet fads, obesity is on the increase nationwide, and is one of America's chief health risks. The study showed that obesity had grown by the greatest rate in the CDC's own home state of Georgia. Why? One leading theory targets the fact that about half of all Georgians live in metro Atlanta, where everyone spends a big part of their week driving.
The suburban lifestyle contributes to obesity in two ways: first, by demanding that suburbanites spend an hour or more each day sitting in a car. Driving is, after all, a sedentary activity. Second, sprawl promotes drive-through meals, almost all of which are high-fat propositions. By some studies, the average American spends one of every eight waking hours, or three full years of an average American life, sitting in a car.
Other health risks specifically concerning children have been blamed on sprawl. Some have to do with air pollution and asthma; others have to do with obesity and lack of fitness. Children don't run down the sidewalk anymore because there's nowhere safe and practical to run to, not to mention no sidewalk.
Sprawl presents a pageant of ironies. One reason for sprawl is the demand for yards "for the children," although fewer than one-quarter of Knoxville's households include minor childrenand although in this day of other distractions, including computer games and car trips to distant soccer games, children don't seem to play in their yards nearly as much as they did a generation or two ago. They can email their friends, but they can't walk to their houses.
* Antisocial behavior. Traditionally, violent crime has been most strongly linked to poverty. Though the crime rate is down, America has lately witnessed a chain of seemingly senseless shootings, especially in affluent suburban areas. A recent PBS documentary studied the spread of syphilis via extreme promiscuity among middle-class teenagers in a ring suburb of Atlanta, blaming the disaffection of suburban life. While they were filming the documentary, another shooting occurred at a local high school.
Apathy, obesity, and antisocial behavior remain theoretical consequences of suburbanism. One consequence is not so theoretical, as a new breed of conservative is learning. That's ever-rising taxes. The farther people live from the hubs of water, sewer, police, and fire-protection services, the more expensive those services are to the taxpayer. According to a study by the Urban Land Institute, residential subdivisions built in sprawl areas cost local government and utilities from 40 percent to 400 percent more than comparable neighborhoods built closer to the source of those services. In Knoxville, these costs are never borne by the developers or the residents of those areas specifically, but evenly by all the taxpayers and ratepayers across the city and county. Thus, those who live closer to fire, police, and water supplies are effectively subsidizing those who live farther away. Residents of outlying areas are to some extent freeloading on inner city folks, as all of them pay higher local taxes and utility rates than they would have to in a more concentrated city.
The same phenomenon applies to commercial developments, of course, which likewise get a free ride on the backs of urban businesses. As Annette Anderson says, "Wal-Mart is subsidized."
In Chattanooga, maverick City Councilman David Crockett has led a conservative-Republican charge against sprawl and the higher taxes it seems to engender. At this writing, there doesn't seem to be any movement of comparable passion among Knoxville Republicans, but some in the administration of Mayor Victor Ashe do see the problem and are seeking ways to address it.
Among the most outspoken is Director of Development Doug Berry. "It's generally safe to say that sprawl, uncontrolled construction, is bad," he says. "It's bad on two fronts: it's degrading the natural environment, and it's discouraging sound interaction between people. We're not encouraging interaction in our community.
"The primary reason that I pursued planning is that I grew up in Blount County. I was in Scouts, and we'd hike once a week to Look Rock Tower. We'd look at the Smokies, which were always dark at night. Then we'd turn and see this ever-largening field of light in the Tennessee Valley." The illumination of development grew markedly even during Berry's career as a Boy Scout.
Later, Berry lived for a decade in Loudon County, at first enjoying its traditional rural beauty. "I watched it quickly lose its agrarian roots, start becoming a suburban community to Knoxville. It was a dynamic you just couldn't overcome.
"I started wondering, what's that going to do to our way of life in East Tennessee? At times, you feel like you're losing the core of your culture."
Berry admits that part of that culture is part of what's destroying it: a pioneer belief in "the inherent right to have a freedom of living and moving and without any recognition of the consequences, of what effect that will have."
Berry's career is such that you hardly notice the segue when he shifts from philosophical musings to concrete culverts. "Sprawl is an inefficient use of resources," he says. "With people building on the edge, you have to keep adding piping to the end of the system." For some of this, he blames inequities on the federal level. "It's easier to get money to add extremities to sewer or water lines that to maintain what you've got in the ground," he says.
Others have equally personal reasons to change the way we live. One of Knoxville's premiere New Urbanists, Mark Schimmenti is a tenured professor of architecture at UT. He lives in a condominium on Gay Street and teaches most of his classes at the Urban Design Studio on Market Square, hardly two blocks away.
The study of architecture leads many to consider the benefits of life on a pedestrian scale. Schimmenti says seeing other cities in his years with the U.S. Navy, as well as studying with several of the country's leading urban theorists, led him to his chosen career and his still-unusual way of life. "Sprawl eats up our resources, our time, and leads us into a one-dimensional existence," he says. He adds a cautionary tale that's uncomfortably close to home.
Schimmenti's father, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, lived much of his latter years in suburban Albuquerque. His mind was sharp; he could walk and talk and generally take care of himself. He just couldn't drive a car. So he spent his days trapped in his house in the suburbs, waiting for someone with the time and inclination to deliver him somewhere. Perhaps thousands of Knoxvillians live in similar situations; many of the rest of us will someday.
"The perfect place for elderly people is downtown," Schimmenti says. "You don't have to go a long distance to do things. You can shop, you can see your friends, you can have dinner, you can go to a show." He regrets that his father never had those options.
He adds that children and teenagers too young to drive are in a very similar situation, unable to visit their friends, unable to see much of their community. "Children cannot have a life of their own," in sprawl, Schimmenti says. "It's hard on Mom, hard on the kids. Schools are out in the middle of nowhere. You can't hang out with your friends."
John Nolt, the UT philosophy professor and co-author of What Have We Done, an environmental-impact study of East Tennessee, agrees. "Sprawl compels us to drive in order to obtain the simplest necessities," says Nolt. "Parents of non-driving children know this well; because almost nothing in the sprawl can be reached by bicycle or by foot, they have no choice but to run day-and-night shuttle services for their kids. Such limitations on freedom also limit the quality of our lives."
Schimmenti doesn't insist that everyone join him in living downtown. "We have a tradition in the U.S. of living in single-family houses, and there's no reason to give that up," he says. "Suburban densities are not a problem." It's all a matter of planning, he says. Suburban life, if well supplied with bike trails, public transportation, and urban hubs, could combat sprawl very well. They just don't.
"The problem is that sprawl never stops and makes a center," he says, bringing up the most obvious example. "You could have a series of small towns along Kingston Pike that function just perfectly." He mentions the Bearden area, which offers appealing qualities: a diversity of small businesses not far away from each other, cafes and other gathering places, and many residences nearby. "It has the right ingredients," Schimmenti says. "But the wrong recipe." Bearden is still chiefly strip malls, with little provision for pedestrians. "Sprawl is designed for an automobile scale," he says. "A pedestrian never feels comfortable in it."
Unlike some fiercer New Urbanists, Schimmenti owns an automobile. "We don't want to get rid of the car," he says. "We want to get rid of 40 percent of the car, get rid of the extra lane maybe you don't need," he says. Most families would call an automobile a necessity. But in better planned city, a second automobile might not be a necessity.
"It's costly to government, but it's also costly to ordinary citizens," even beyond the extra taxes, says Whitaker. "It costs $7,000 a year to use a car. You could put that into housing, or the stock market." One researcher compared some numbers and found Americans could pay a 30-year mortgage on a $125,000 house for what they pay for one extra automobile.
Solutions are elusive. The one that's been most prominent in the local news is the Growth Policy Plan mandated by Public Chapter 1101, the Tennessee growth management law. It got positive national attention when it was passed in 1998; it seemed to put Tennessee on the national forefront of sprawl management.
A Growth Policy Coordinating Committee, which included both Mayor Ashe and County Executive Tommy Schumpert, released a draft of a tentative Growth Policy Plan on Jan. 12. To go into effect, it has to be approved by City Council, County Commission, and the town of Farragut, none of which have yet passed it (some lawmakers say they haven't even seen it).
The draft includes some interesting statistics, especially from a fiscal impact study by Tischler and Associates which assumes various levels and varieties of growth. In most of them, the county government ends up losing out on all projected growth propositions; added tax revenues won't be enough to pay for the new services the county will have to provide. "Based on the analysis, the county is not in a position to provide current levels of service to new development under the present revenue structure without finding new revenue sources or raising existing rates," goes the report. "Otherwise, the existing development base will have to subsidize new growth, or existing levels of service will have to be decreased."
In other words, take your pick: stricter sprawl control or higher taxes. Though the plan makes several reasonable recommendations, including suburban "activity centers" akin to the hubs Schimmenti foresees, the policy's teeth seem limited to what the state legislation mandates.
That's the part that many local leaders question. The plan limits the corporate growth of Knoxville to a prescribed urban-growth boundary not far beyond the present city limits. It prescribes a suburban development zone beyond the city limits, which could be developed, but not as part of corporate Knoxville. Finally, it designates rural areas of Knox County which are to remain rural. These green patches are only on the fringes of the map, thickest in the northern and southeastern borders of the county, but they're said to comprise about 40 percent of the county's total area.
"It's a tragedy that they're referring to it as a 'growth management act'...'" says Doug Berry, who has several objections to the whole idea of the state legislation, including its emphasis on limiting a city's corporate limits. "Corporate limits have nothing to do with growth management and sprawl," he says.
"The growth plan is generally a bad piece of legislation," says Tom Ingram, chief of the Chamber Partnership. "Growth should be a local issue. I don't think that kind of intrusion on the state level should occur. To think Nashville should know what's best is preposterous."
"By the growth plan, only the county can set aside rural areas," says City Councilwoman Carlene Malone, "and they seem not to want to do that. The thinking seems to be that everyone's got the right to develop their property."
"Some find the rural designation within that law is too restrictive for individual property owners' rights, and there's some validity to that," says County Commissioner Dave Collins. "But if you look at the good of the county as a whole, it may be worthwhile."
Mary English of UT's Energy, Environment, and Resources Center, who studies growth policy on a national level, says the plan is "beginning to be headed in the right direction," then adds what might strike many as an understatement. "It's highly political."
While some think it doesn't go far enough to be effective, County Commission seems to be of the opinion it goes far too far. A few months ago, the commission voted to join with Hamilton County in allotting up to $100,000 to fund a legal challenge to the law. So far, the "challenge" has gone no farther than that, and several are skeptical about whether there are legal grounds for the lawsuit to begin with.
With Knox County's leadership so far on opposite sides of the fence, effective action might seem unlikely.
Among the recommendations mentioned within the text of the growth plan draft are a few common-sense proposals that have worked in some other cities. One's a carrot, and the other looks something like a stick.
The carrot is encouraging infill development through recruitment and tax incentives: moving residential development back into currently underused residential areas of the city, and moving factories back into abandoned industrial areas of the city.
"Infill development makes sense," says Whitaker, "because we already have roads and utilities and public buildings that are underutilized." The gentrification trend and the idea of New Urbanisma mixed-use approach to downtown that has drawn scores of new residents downtown in recent yearsmay be helping, but probably in a very small way. Some successful neighborhoods, like Fourth and Gill, may have more residents today than they did 20 years ago. But Whitaker suspects the net change in the center city's population in the last decade or two has been a negative one.
He has reason to hope. "The Baby Boom generation's getting older, and that creates an expanded market for urban living," he says. "Once they're finished in the public school system, they start wanting to be closer to the fun stuff." Only about a quarter of Knox County households have minor children at home, and that fraction is shrinking.
That's a real demographic phenomenon, but another one may be stronger. With many prosperous singles delaying parenthood, plus divorcees and empty-nesters, the average household size is shrinking. What was once a family of four living in one house might now be two ex-spouses and two grown children, now living in four houses with four yards. That's sprawl.
The challenge of bringing residents back to town is mirrored in inner-city industrial recruitment. "The easy spaces are taken," says Tom Ingram. "The Coster Shops, the old mill sitesthey're difficult properties, but it's not acceptable to let them sit there as shells with broken windows forever."
Abandoned factories form a northern arc across Knoxville, from the textile mills on the east side, through the Coster shop on the north, to the Lonsdale/Mechanicsville area. "A couple thousand acres of real estate that we can spottingly develop," Berry says.
It obviously makes more sense to site industry in places where industry has already existed than to pave over never-developed land in the country, turning greenfields into more brownfields. Berry's now working on several infill brownfield projects, among the largest of which is the Coster Shops. It's an uphill battle. "The Coster Shop's competing against greenfield pressure. It might be a couple-hundred thousand an acre to develop in the center city. But you can get land in Loudon County for $25,000 an acre."
"Sprawl is all about economics," agrees County Commissioner Collins. "It's cheaper to develop in pristine farmland that it would be to develop 50 acres in the urban core. Part of that's the cost of the land, but part of it's the cost of codes compliance."
"The city is going to have to subsidize the development of the mindset," says Berry. "The city is going to have to shoulder the cost.
"We can energize infill development," he adds in a comment apparently directed at the county, "if you will help equalize the playing field.
"It's tough," Berry admits. "It's scary to me."
There's general agreement that most kinds of remote development are more costly to taxpayers than more consolidated development. That realization has led several communities around the nation to consider what might seem an obvious solution: the impact fee.
The idea has several champions in high places. Doug Berry says, "The impact fee, I think, is one of the most effective tools that have been developed today."
Tom Ingram, who's from the Nashville area, talks about Williamson County, which has used impact fees effectively to combat sprawl. "We don't have anything like that," Ingram says. "Everything comes back to the city or the county, and everything comes back to them in a disorderly fashion." He strongly favors impact fees.
The group that needs to favor impact fees, however, is County Commission, and the current commission seems unlikely to consider the idea. Commissioner Collins, who supports sprawl-control initiatives more than most on County Commission, and voted against the legal-challenge effort, is skeptical about impact fees. "I would rather look at offering incentives to developing closer in than disincentives to develop farther out." He mentions the possibility of tax credits for more efficient developments, like infills.
"We're developing strategies," says Ingram. "I won't tell you we have them in place yet."
Several of the leaders we spoke with seem discouraged about what they can do themselves in the current political climate. They look hopefully to the Nine Counties, One Vision initiative to address problems of sprawl.
"Real growth management is going to have to be regional in scale," says Berry. "Can all the government entities get together on this? That's going to be tough, if not impossible."
Lynn Fugate, of Nine Counties, isn't ready to release results of the public meetings held by the initiative so far. That report will come later this spring, after the "visioning" meetings are over. She does say the issue of sprawl has come up in some meetings, though not necessarily as one of the region's top two or three concerns.
"We're real interested" in Nine Counties, Whitaker says, adding a caveat: "We have a metro area without that much of a sense of connection. We'll have to do an end run around the local factionalism."
"Whenever you've got a very divisive political environment, it's hard to do anything very cohesive," says Ingram. "We need the same kind of thought going out into the whole community, but there's not always the willingness or the spirit of cooperation to do that."
"We hate sprawl," says Annette Anderson, "but we also hate high density. You can have moderate density without eating up the countryside."
A fear of high density may be pathological; Knoxville has a long way to go before we have anything approaching the density of many other cities. If Knoxville quadrupled in population without annexing another acre, it would be a little bigger than, say, Bostonwhich, incidentally, is actually smaller in land area than city-limits Knoxville. But even then, Knoxville still wouldn't have the population density we had 100 years ago, during the time historians regard as our most dynamic period. And Knoxville's circa-1900 density was only half as dense as modern San Francisco, which is regarded by many as a fairly nice place to live.
"If there's anything we hate more than sprawl and high density," adds Anderson, "it's telling us what we can do with our land."
"In Portland (Oregon), the government has said, 'Here's how you're gonna live, people,'" says Whitaker of the nation's strictest and most effective anti-sprawl experiment. "It's a top-down approach. I don't believe that approach is consistent with the culture of East Tennessee. It's unlikely in East Tennessee you're gonna see heavy-handed tactics by local governments to restrict the way people live."
In speaking with several folks who've been studying local sprawl for several years, you might detect a certain amount of fatalism. Because we're in the South, and specifically because we're in the Southern Appalachian region, there's a fierce mindset euphemized as independencewhich less politically correct types might call selfishnesswhich is said to characterize the Scots-Irish who settled the Southern Appalachian. People in this region, the thinking goes, just aren't willing to cooperate for the greater good.
However, we have two handy regional exceptions; they're our two closest neighbors up and down I-75. Chattanooga has developed a reputation in recent years for combating sprawl by protecting and enhancing its downtown in ways that have earned it an international reputation as the Sustainable City. Lexington, Ky., has combated sprawl by protecting its countryside. They have an urban-growth boundary plan much stricter than the one Knox County politicians are fretting about. They passed it 42 years ago.
Drive into Lexington and you'll see mainly large, green horse farms. In Lexington, the country outside its 1958 "urban service boundary" is for farming. Though Portland, Ore., has gained the world's attention through its strict UGB's, Lexington pioneered the idea.
There are other solutions, some of which are already being tried elsewhere in the country. Portland has stopped coddling the automobile with public subsidies. Whereas the typical solution to traffic jams in America has been to add more lanesa solution which Mark Schimmenti equates with combating obesity by buying a longer beltPortland has in recent years refused to widen streets. In some high-traffic-jam areas, in fact, they have actually removed lanes of automobile traffic. It forces drivers to consider other options, including bicycling and public transportation. And in the end, it saves the taxpayers money.
"One thing that we need to do that would help sprawl is to begin to treat the car like the machine it is, not like a status symbol or love object," says Anderson. "And stop, just stop building highways. And stop widening streets. There's no demand for public transportation, and there's no demand for it because we keep making it easier to build roads."
Though Portland's radical approach might seem unlikely here, Chattanooga politicians have considered turning down state and federal road money because they think it's not good for the city.
"We're eating up land at accelerated rates," says Carlene Malone. "It's pretty depressing, brings up all the things people hate: air pollution, traffic, overwhelmed schools. If people want to live on five acres, away from an area where we would anticipate people, they've got to assume the responsibility of poorer roads, longer commutes to school. These are life choices. You can't have it all.
"We want urban convenience all over the place, even though we're sprawled out," says Malone. "And we can't afford it! Are we doing anything about it? The answer is no."
Anderson quotes Benton McKaye, the planner famous for proposing the Appalachian Trail. "McKaye said everyone should live so they have access to the city and to the countryside and to the forest. We've arranged it so none of us have easy access to any of those. We live in West Hills, and it's not easy for us to get into the city. It's even harder to get to the countryside."
Some want to protect the countryside from the city. Some want to protect the city from non-urban dissipation. The suburban trend has been to homogenize both into each other.
The best thing that several respondents had to say about Knoxville's sprawl is that it's not nearly as bad as it could be. But without the sort of decisive action that seems so unlikely today, we might just as well say it's not nearly as bad as it will be.
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