The Columbus Conundrum
It is no secret that the city of Columbus is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the Midwest. According to the Wall Street Journal, Columbus gained 10,000 residents and the average value of real estate increased by 5.6 percent over the past year. Trendy neighborhoods like Short North and German Village have become attractive areas for young families and empty-nesters alike. Moreover, the city’s initiative to keep Ohio State graduates from leaving Columbus appears largely successful, with nearly 40 percent of graduates saying they plan to live in Columbus. City officials estimate that the Columbus region will add one million residents by 2050. This marked increase is exciting and represents an opportunity for economic and cultural prosperity.
There is no doubt that Columbus is growing, but city planners and developers ought to reflect seriously on the manner in which it does so. Communities oriented around public transportation, biking and walking should replace the suburban sprawl of the 50s and 60s. Denser urban communities allow for easier access to amenities without the need of a car. There is also more potential for small, local businesses, rather than sprawling strip malls and Mega Center Wal-Marts. Financing the vehicle infrastructure required by urban sprawl is an expensive burden on taxpayers and leads to more congestion. Houston found this out when it expanded the Katy Expressway, ultimately encompassing 23 lanes of traffic. Rather than cutting commute times, the $2.3 billion project increased commute times by up to 55 percent.
Smart Growth America, an organization dedicated to facilitating smart development by state and local governments, ranked Columbus the 138th densest city of the 221 cities measured. An organization called Walk Score measures the ability for residents of cities to walk, bike, and use public transport. The walkable and bike friendly New York City received a walk score of 89.2 and a bike score of 70. Columbus, on the other hand, scored just 41 (out of 100) and 50 respectively. These metrics are relevant because they suggest that Columbus is developing in a sprawling manner bringing more dependency on cars and car infrastructure, which increases greenhouse emissions, traffic, and accidents. Naturally, urban sprawl also means the conversion of surrounding farmland and forest-land into subdivided suburbs.
This dependence on cars means there is no impetus to conserve space. Rather than condense housing, subdivisions become sprawling thousand-acre mazes of cul-de-sacs and twisty roads to nowhere. Bucolic farmland and native forests are transformed in a way that threatens the natural aesthetic and environmental richness of rural Ohio. A recent development in nearby Delaware County promises 1400 new homes and a “world-class” golf course over 1900 acres. The march of subdivisions further and further from Columbus and toward Gambier continues; whether the city and state will curb this rapid and grotesque practice and implement higher density centers closer to Columbus has yet to be seen.