FM Frequency: Suburban Facilities Need Love Too

By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP
Published in the April 2009 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

For decades, urban planners and smart growth advocates sought to lure the masses away from popular suburban communities. When chic metropolitan marketing failed to attract enough private investors into the post-modern enlightenment of a smart (or “vertical”) lifestyle, more sophisticated techniques evolved. These advocates—let’s call them “Concrete Jungle Jims” (CJJ)—are passionate in their beliefs and have steadily escalated their influence in politics, higher education, and the facility management (FM) profession.

The CJJ recognized long ago that the marketplace can be more inviting when tax policies and building codes favor their “smarter” facilities initiatives. According to the CJJ, urban sprawl rests atop the list of “deadly facilities sins.” Striving to protect and improve the environment, the CJJ often advances taxpayer funded schemes like monorails and “green belts.” But while public funds directed toward specific parts of town might spark private facilities investment, these projects also drive up land prices and property taxes (and fees for well connected CJJ).

Another consequence is that a significant population of taxpaying suburbanites must cope with substandard municipal services (such as police and fire protection) along with endless delays with road improvements in their non-CJJ-compliant communities. “If you don’t like sitting in traffic, you can either pay higher taxes or move to the city,” the CJJ might suggest to an overburdened and underserved taxpayer. Folks preferring to live, work, or play in places not CJJ-compliant are sometimes even criticized as ignorant or selfish by the most radical elements of the CJJ.

Now before taking this conversation further, please be assured that I appreciate the value in diverse facilities initiatives, especially when related to abandoned and neglected buildings, industrial sites, and brownfields. But should generous incentives for worthy urban or “smart” projects also require the demonization or neglect of suburban facilities? And is it fair (or smart) when projects serving very small percentages of a community require disproportionate levels of public funding? Many communities are debating these questions today, especially as tax revenue streams contract to a trickle.

Let’s take a moment and weigh the assertion that high density facilities are environmentally preferable to facilities built on previously undeveloped land. According to Wikipedia, Manhattan Island (NY) had a 2007 population of 1,620,867 with a land area of 22.96 square miles (14,694 acres). This population density is approximately 70,595 residents per square mile (or 110 people per acre). Combining these stats with abundant mass transit, would Manhattan qualify as CJJ Utopia?

Yet, would anyone consider Manhattan an “ecologically sensitive” community? Could Central Park possibly absorb the carbon dioxide (CO2) exhaled by almost two million people and countless vehicles each day? What about energy, water, sewer, storm water, trash, and recycling?

Should Manhattan’s carbon emissions be taxed and regulated under the cap and trade scheme being proposed? [For a recent discussion of CO2 regulations, please see “A New Regulatory ‘Environment?’” by Jeff Crane, February 2009, page 12.] With dazzling lights, a symphony of noise, a smorgasbord of smell, an enormous thermal halo, and relentless hustle and bustle, “The City That Never Sleeps” isn’t exactly Walden Pond.

So if Manhattan is the pinnacle of urban planning or smart growth, we should wonder: Could we master plan and build another Manhattan? Does anyone know how many acres of wetlands were drained when planting the seeds of the Big Apple? How long might it take to conduct an environmental impact study for a comprehensive subway of this magnitude? These questions aren’t unique to New York City; the same would be asked if modeling other urban nirvanas such as Boston, Chicago, or Miami.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s now think about urban sprawl in a larger context. According to Wikipedia, the U.S. consists of 3.79 million square miles. With 640 acres per square mile, there are 2,425,600,000 acres in the U.S. That’s more than 2.4 billion acres. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are almost 306 million residents in the country.

Hypothetically, if we subtracted 20% of the country’s acreage for industrial purposes and another 20% for uninhabitable places, that would leave about 1.6 billion acres. Now if we theoretically divided our country’s population by 1.6 billion acres, there would be more than five acres per person available—20 acres for a family of four. When adjusting calculations for folks who prefer urban and higher density communities, the acreage available per person would grow accordingly.

What’s the point? Well, our industry seems to be accepting as common knowledge the notion that smart growth and urban facilities are inherently good while suburban projects are inferior. While I think everyone might agree that urban renewal and investment can improve a community, perhaps we should challenge the suggestion that suburban facilities are not as desirable. As we all know, common knowledge only a year ago told us the financial sector of our economy was structurally sound.

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.