The 'Urban and Rural' plan

Going Green
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  April 15, 2010

How’s this for a sobering statistic: by 2035, Mainers will be spending 50 percent more time in our cars, primarily driving to and from work, but also to the supermarket and to transit hubs (such as bus or train stations). Here’s few more rays of sunshine: by that same year, our intersections will be three times more congested, and our fuel use will double. Meanwhile, as many as 35,000 new houses will be built in York and Cumberland counties. In fact, a full 70 percent of the growth in Maine over the next two decades will be in these two counties. All this wake-up-call-worthy info is courtesy of the Gorham East-West Corridor Study, which is a very boring name for a very interesting and important investigation into what Southern Maine will look like in the near future.

The study team (whose steering committee is comprised of representatives from the Maine Turnpike Authority, the state Department of Transportation, PACTS, and the municipalities of South Portland, Westbrook, Gorham, and Scarborough) will evaluate how to accommodate regional growth in the most efficient way, minimizing sprawl, reducing travel time, and optimizing public-transit options, all while retaining the rural or semi-rural quality of life that many Maine residents value. It’s a complicated equation, requiring regional planners to rethink status-quo land-use patterns, transit routes, and community development.

At a meeting last week at the Greater Portland Council of Governments office on Marginal Way, study team leaders presented a potential new framework for considering future development: the “Urban and Rural” plan. (Another dull name for an interesting concept.) Paul Godfrey, an engineer with the HNTB engineering and consulting firm, describes the “Urban and Rural” model broadly as “different from the way communities are developing today.”

The plan considers three distinct zones — an Urban one comprised of Portland, South Portland, and Westbrook; a broader Inner one that centers on Scarborough and Gorham; and a wider Rural ring that encompasses Windham, Buxton, Standish, and beyond. Over the past several decades, both housing and jobs have crept into the Inner zone — specifically, to Gorham and Scarborough, where development has doubled since the 1980s. Simply put, it’s sprawl. “Urban and Rural” stems that progression westward, by encouraging residential development in the city and hub-oriented development within the suburban areas. For example: currently, approximately 72,000 Southern Maine residents live within a quarter-mile of public transit. Under do-nothing projections — if we allow the population influx without planning appropriately — 74,700 people will live within that radius in 2035. But under “Urban and Rural,” that number would jump to 102,000, meaning that new growth will be focused in urban areas or suburban “growth centers.”

Basically, the Corridor study acknowledges that growth is coming — that it’s happening already — and rather than pushing people (and houses and jobs) farther away, planners want to keep them clustered in areas where transit options (such as rapid bus or light rail) are accessible. Doing so would decrease vehicle hours, fuel use, and miles traveled.

One meeting attendee made the astute observation that this model seems neither Urban nor Rural. One of its primary goals, after all, is to create suburban nodes around which transit routes can be developed. Indeed, the paradigm shift is subtle, and it takes into account potential objections from the public. People who choose to live in less urban areas don’t want to be told that their space is about to get more crowded. Planners have to strike a balance between smart-development and quality-of-life concerns, and sell that to a diverse crowd that includes politicians, home- and land-owners, and businesses.

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