Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Land use: do we need new highways?

By John Sutter

I was struck by the degree to which environmental issues overlap and feed into each other at a panel of environmental journalists and activists I attended last night in Roanoke, Va.

Cat McCue, from the Southern Environmental Law Center, made the interesting and often-overlooked connection between paved surfaces and water quality. According to government studies, she said, a paved city block creates nine times the runoff the same area would if it were covered in trees. Sediment-laden runoff from cities and construction sites ends up in waterways, making them more prone to flooding and widening their banks, so that they're less hospitable to fish, especially those species that like to live in deep, cool water.

McCue said policy makers should set an "extremely high bar for proceeding with road projects," because of the impact paved surfaces have on the environment. This is particularly pressing in the southeastern United States, she said, because there are so many proposed highways. Atlanta, for example, plans to expand I-75 so that it's more than 20 lanes wide. Other roads are planned through the Appalachain Mountains, and environmentalists say those projects will harm species in the area and worsen water quality.

Behind the expansions, McCue said, is the fact that people are driving further to work, and require more land area per person to live. Those trends must change in favor of "smart growth," she said.

As you may know, Oklahoma City is one of the largest cities by land area in the county. Last I saw it ranked third. Much of the city isn't paved -- I used to see cows grazing from the parking lot of my first apartment complex here. But it will be interesting to find out from city leaders about the scope of new road projects, per capita, and the expansion of the suburbs around the city. Those issues doubtlessly have some affect beyond the state's pocketbook.

No comments: