This set of planning goals -- actually how towns were built before the 1950s, but now called New Urbanism -- is what precipitated the Post Falls City Council along with Northwest Eco Building Guild and Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County to bring to the Inland Northwest a big gun in the field of conservation community design. Greg Ramsey, principal designer of Village Habitat, has been hired to help Post Falls deal with its rapid -- some say unsustainable -- growth.
Then they invited some key locals to roll up their sleeves and come up with some sort of vision for Post Falls so that it can not only accommodate a projected 20,000 new residents in the next decade, but also to preserve part of the ever-shrinking Rathdrum Prairie.
"When I first came out here, I saw no clear boundaries and a great loss of resources," says Ramsey, who facilitated the Aug. 12-14 event and will issue a report in the near future. "When we lose agriculture, we lose cultural and regional identity."
At the event, Ramsey and a Post Falls city planner agreed that the prairie is a key to giving Post Falls and surrounding communities a sense of history and identity.
When he was just 6 years old, Ramsey was already helping his dad George, also a planner, design villages. Greg eventually took his father's dream -- planning communities based on preserving agriculture and wildlife, making pedestrian movement a priority, reducing waste and reusing gray water, and integrating a New Urbanism design into an entire village scape -- and created his consulting business, Village Habitat. It's located in Atlanta, America's most sprawling, car-dependent, air-conditioned city.
The sustainable community concept is basically to stop subdivision sprawl, where large half-acre or one-acre lots per home leave a community homogenous, make it car-dependent and leave out senior citizens and children by isolating them from services and public spaces. Of course, accomplishing all that will be a tough transition for fast-growing Post Falls to make, if indeed it chooses to do so.
"What we want to see [in Post Falls] is neighborhoods, not subdivisions," says Collin Coles, a landscape architect and a Post Falls planner for 13 years. Coles has seen the population grow from 7,300 in 1990 to the current 23,000. Growth predictions for the next 10 years put the city at 50,000. This drive to move to Post Falls has pushed the city to annex 3,000 acres over the past decade.
"We must be subsidizing the asphalt shingle and vinyl siding industry," Coles says with a laugh.
Village Habitat's role in assisting Post Falls' potential population explosion into a smart-growth model was to bring together the participants to help work on three main issues: strategic growth for the entire city area (15 square miles) and beyond; a city core and traffic plan for commercial growth and automobile management; and to design a mixed-use, high-density anchor development for a four-acre site across from the yet-to-be built new city hall building.
So four groups of highly motivated people worked intensely for two days on developing plans to present to the Post Falls City Council, neighborhoods and developers. Of course, all of this was directed under the tutelage of Ramsey, who believes a city should not keep extending the urban growth boundaries and instead should look for in-fill inside city limits.
In one sense, the current growth and the character of development Post Falls has planned for -- large lot sizes, less than three or four homes per acre, and the lack of mixed zoning -- looks like a cancer. "If you know the definition of cancer, that's exactly what it is," Ramsey says while studying maps showing how Rathdrum, Hayden and Post Falls have jointly, with Kootenai County facilitating the process, built out onto the prairie.
The cancer is the mutation of not only the physical character -- clear skies, grass lands, working farms and areas to bike and walk with wildlife around -- but also it's the death of individual and community spirit through heavy car dependency (Idaho has a 1.2 car per person ratio, compared to 0.6 car per person ratio nationwide.)
Coles and all of the participants of the design workshop believe the goals of sustainable and conservation communities have real value. However, there is a character and mindset to many of the people in Post Falls that naturally opposes the idea of high-density neighborhoods.
"Everyone says they like the idea of preserving the prairie through these denser developments," says businessman and Post Falls councilman Todd Tondee. "However, when it comes to their own situations, they still want the large lot and big home and fenced yard and none of that density in their neighborhood."
When Ramsey initially broached the conservation village proposal -- calling for developers to build more housing units per acre, say, 10 homes per acre, within the defined town areas of 100 to 200 acres, with a village center, some businesses and public spaces, as well as community amenities like public gardens, and even encouraging community-supported farming around the town -- Tondee asks a prime question: "So what do you do with all of that open, unused space [the Rathdrum Prairie]?"
The answer's simple -- leave it for farms and landowners who, through a simple process of transferred development rights, get to build only at a ratio of one house per five acres and are taxed at lower percentage for their land than is the urban development area.
Coles wants to move the current Post Falls growth area into the higher-density model while leaving open space and designing connections to the mountains and river.
So our four teams, with Ramsey's prodding, found space for those 20,000 new residents, averaging 2.6 people per housing unit. Within the city core and the urban boundary, we easily identified areas for 5,000 new housing units through in-fill and retrofitting. The remaining 3,000 housing units would be designed in the hamlet and village system on the prairie.
The built-out footprint for those three compact, sustainable and actually highly desirable hamlets and villages would be less than 10 percent of the 10,000 acres in the area between Post Falls, Hayden and Rathdrum. Hence, a good chunk of the prairie would stay intact.
Ramsey has given the city and politicians like Tondee alternatives to the unsustainable model of sprawl. "Planning is your first and most important tool to stop sprawl and deal with growth," Ramsey tells them. "And protecting the aquifer seems to be one of your most important goals."
And who knows, perhaps Post Falls can spread its newfound wisdom. Bonnie Mager, a workshop participant and a member of the Spokane Neighborhood Alliance, says Ramsey's village model needs to be adopted by Spokane. She says she now sees more clearly how Spokane's decision makers and developers are facilitating the cancer of sprawl by not planning for the future -- a future that includes the end of cheap oil.
She's already working on having Ramsey return to the area for a Village Habitat design workshop involving planners, developers, politicians and neighborhood groups in Spokane.