Smart growth, clean air

For the past several years, environmental groups, the medical community and the tourism-and-travel industry have worked hard to address Western North Carolina’s degraded air quality by pushing for the cleanup of the largest pollution sources in our state — the 14 coal-fired utility plants. Mountain residents should be proud that our citizens and legislators led the charge to pass the Clean Smokestacks Act, approved by the General Assembly last summer. Efforts are now under way to require other states to clean up their power plants as well. But while progress has been made, the job of reversing our decades-long decline in air quality is far from finished.

Now that we can expect big emissions reductions from North Carolina’s power plants, emissions from cars, trucks and other mobile sources will be our largest local source of air pollution in the years to come. Mobile sources already emit about half of the nitrogen oxides in our air (the cause of our ground-level ozone problem). High ozone levels, in turn, cause asthma in children, as well as other respiratory illness and reduced lung function in both children and adults. During the summer months, warnings about unhealthy air are posted in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park nearly every day.

The good news is that cars built today emit much less pollution than cars built two decades ago. The bad news is that Americans drive so much more than we used to that our air quality still suffers. Over the past decade, Buncombe County’s population has grown by about 1.5 percent per year. But the total vehicle miles traveled by that population has grown by about 4 percent per year — nearly three times as fast. The primary reason that the VMT is increasing so much faster than population is that almost all our growth occurs in outlying areas of the county, where people must drive much farther each day to work, shop and meet other needs.

Therefore, we propose that our community commit to ensuring that the growth in local traffic occurs no faster than the actual rate of population growth — about 15 percent over the next decade. If we can achieve this goal, our air will get cleaner. Older, dirtier cars will gradually be phased out and replaced by newer, cleaner models. At the same time, coal-fired power plants will be retrofitted to reduce their emissions. But if VMT growth continues to so dramatically outpace population growth, we will still be breathing unhealthy air in the years to come.

Some people think that all you have to do to be a good environmentalist is oppose developers. But it’s not that simple. We must recognize that people aren’t going to stop moving to Asheville. On average, however, people who live in downtown neighborhoods drive half as much as those who live in suburban-type developments. We need a vision for Asheville’s future that encourages community redevelopment within the city limits. Here are several principles we think are essential to that vision:

Infill development is good. There are many empty or under-utilized areas within the Asheville city limits that can appropriately support infill development. Redirecting growth to these areas will help ensure that vehicle miles traveled do not increase faster than the rate of population growth. Infill development works best when it’s focused in areas that are (or can be) well served by mass transit and other public services. In this way, a larger percentage of our population can meet some of their daily needs without using their cars.

Infrastructure is key. Good infrastructure — including sidewalks, well-maintained streets, high-quality transit service, public parks and greenways — is essential for community redevelopment. With proper infrastructure, communities can support higher population densities without lowering the quality of life. Redevelopment helps improve the tax base, which generates greater revenues for investment in infrastructure.

What does community redevelopment look like? Sometimes it will be single-family homes located on individual lots in neighborhoods. Another example would be the new Merritt Park condos on Clingman Avenue. These 16 attractive, affordable units, located on a bus stop near downtown, demonstrate how well high-density redevelopment can fit into the fabric of our community. If we are going to meaningfully change the pattern of development in our community from sprawl to redevelopment, we need a lot more efforts like Merritt Park.

Some people may still worry that redevelopment could harm neighborhoods. Yet there’s every reason to fear that sprawl will hurt neighborhoods even more. For example, the push to build an eight-lane highway (the future I-26) through the heart of West Asheville is driven by the growth of development in outlying areas of Buncombe County. If more of the region’s growth took the form of infill redevelopment, a smaller, less-destructive project could easily work. We have to make a choice between having some higher-density redevelopments within the city or having our neighborhoods torn up by big highways to facilitate people commuting in for work. If you don’t believe us, just take a trip to Greensboro or Charlotte.

Asheville has been blessed with a citizenry and political leadership that have recognized the fundamental challenge that air pollution presents to our community. The passage of the Clean Smokestacks Act demonstrates that we can develop policies that help resolve this complex issue in a way that is good for our economy and our environment. Let’s apply that same creative, proactive approach to tackling the challenge of sprawl.

Our air will get cleaner. And if we do it right, we can address other critical challenges facing our community along the way.

[Brownie Newman is executive coordinator of the Western North Carolina Alliance. Andrew Goldberg is the coordinator of Western North Carolina Tomorrow’s Mountain Air Quality Coalition, based at Western Carolina University’s Center for Regional Development.]

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