Good, Thoughtful Hosts #106: Land Use with Keith Walzak, Part 1: Public Perception

No matter what part of the country you live in, you’ve likely seen previously untouched land be developed in the name of a new housing development, school, or shopping center. And while the demand for such facilities may exist, this type of sprawl can be problematic for the environment.

In the first of a three-part series on urban sprawl, we talk with Keith Walzak, Cushing Terrell’s Director of Planning and Landscape Architecture, about how public perceptions play a role in how we develop outward. As Walzak explains, it’s easier to imagine how a factory or other large business may be affecting climate change, but a lot harder for Americans to understand how a new subdivision can also do harm to the environment.

Interested in learning more? Read Keith’s post about compact, vertical, walkable urban neighborhoods: Reduce, Re-use, Re-imagine: How to Slow Climate Change by Slowing Urban Sprawl

About Our Guest

An urban planner and landscape architect, Keith engages community members and leaders, non-profit organizations, public agencies, and private developers to promote healthy and creative placemaking opportunities for communities of all sizes. He is passionate about addressing complex issues such as resiliency and climate change, equity, housing affordability, homelessness, neighborhood gentrification and community revitalization, and delivery systems affecting sustainable urban infrastructure. Keith has been affiliated with the Urban Land Institute (ULI), Congress For New Urbanism, Habitat For Humanity, and many other agencies.

Episode #106 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer 00:06
Like many other millennials, I loved the 2010 Arcade Fire album called “The Suburbs.” And in my opinion, the best tracks are “Sprawl I” and “Sprawl II.” Now, according to the co founder of the band Win Butler, the album is neither a love letter to nor an indictment of the suburbs. It’s just a letter from the suburbs. So that’s the perspective we’re taking today in our conversation about urban sprawl. I’m Sarah Steimer. And today we’re kicking off a three part series on land use. As I said, Today is all about perspective. Specifically, how public perceptions play a role in urban sprawl. What happens when we believe that more space is better, that the suburbs have better schools? How do all of these views shape the way we move into undeveloped spaces? And how can a change in perspective help us to protect our environment, while also creating a built environment that helps users feel happy and healthy?

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guests.

Keith Walzak 01:20
Hi, I’m Keith Walzak and I’m the Director of Planning and Landscape Architecture with Cushing Terrell, and I’m based out of our Denver office.

Sarah Steimer 01:29
Okay, So Keith, I know this is a very, very big question. But just to set up the conversation for our audience, can you give us a pretty general idea of what we’re talking about when we use phrases like urban sprawl and why that is maybe not such a good thing?

Keith Walzak 01:49
Well, urban sprawl is generally regarded as a phenomenon that’s related to how cities and towns grow over time. And you know, some cities are high demand, places where people want to live and work. Other places are slower growing, but those places that actually do have high demand tend to have a lot of pressures put on them to make sure that the infrastructure is in place to allow for population growth and jobs to occur, the economic development component, and along with that is, you know, any city would have a central core area, typically a downtown or older urban area. And then you’d have suburban ring road communities or suburban development around that core. And then you have development beyond and that development beyond is often thought of as urban sprawl, where growth pressures are so intense that developers or cities are looking to outlying areas, typically, undeveloped areas, like agricultural lands, so to speak, that are pinpointed as opportunity areas for growth and development for housing. And as a result, you see urban sprawl, it’s not happening in every community, but it’s certainly happening in a lot of communities throughout the United States.

Sarah Steimer 03:02
So build, build, build as people continue out. And so talking about the why this maybe isn’t such a great thing piece, you know, what, what is kind of the biggest issue when we are talking about urban sprawl? Why could that possibly be something that we maybe don’t want to do quite so much of anymore?

Keith Walzak 03:22
Yeah, and you know, there’s a lot of reasons, to be honest with you. Urban sprawl tends to put stress on cities’ ability to provide services, police, fire protection, and things of that nature, the urban form of development, as you go further away from the urban chord changes to a very low density, car-oriented type development, which then requires roads, you’re then requiring other amenities like parks, trails, all of these sort of compound upon themselves and just really become exasperated. And there’s a really interesting statistic that says, from 1960 to 2010, the United States urban growth area grew 1.7 times faster than the population growth itself. So it’s telling me is that we’re consuming more land, and the population growth isn’t really keeping up. So it’s lower and lower density type development that’s occurring in those outlying areas, and it’s very inefficient. And it really starts to affect things like climate. And that’s one of the things that we’ve been really interested in the last few years in our profession.

Sarah Steimer 04:26
Well, I want to pause on that real quick, because I think it’s worth noting the fact that today, so of course, we record all of these a couple of weeks ahead of when we actually release them or at least a week ahead. And today, Europe is looking at some of the hottest days they’ve ever had on record. So when we are talking about sprawl and how it relates to climate change, can you just kind of touch on that real quick before we get into the public perception of urban sprawl?

Keith Walzak 04:54
Yeah, I mean, it’s not just happening in Europe. I mean, we’re seeing it here in the United States. And of course, as well, we’re seeing weather patterns that are changing. There’s a lot of climate deniers still out there. But the statistics and the facts demonstrate that we’re definitely in a significant trend and it’s human-caused. The States is one of the largest, world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, even over the last, I don’t know, 10-15 years, when we’ve seen a reduction in something like 12 to 15% in greenhouse gas emissions. We’re still one of the leading contributors to greenhouse gas globally. There’s other countries, of course, India, China, and other places that are really struggling with this is as well, but we have some significant problems to address here in the United States. And again, focusing on everything from electrical vehicles to changing behaviors to land use consumption, and how we’re developing is all contributing to this greenhouse gas issue. For sure.

Sarah Steimer 05:52
Yeah, I know, I’m calling out Europe right now for the record-breaking temperatures, but it’s going to be like 94 degrees where I am today. So it’s being felt everywhere, for sure. Okay, so let’s start talking about the public perception piece of this because that’s really a very big deal. So, you know, one of the biggest barriers to you know, solving the issue of sprawl is changing the way we all think about it, we can think about just how we’ve romanticized even sort of suburban homes with their white picket fences, two car garage, that sort of thing. And, you know, I’m not I’m not trying to suburb bash here, by any means, but you know, how do you think this perception has sort of harmed any sort of efforts to reduce that sprawl?

Keith Walzak 06:32
I think that the public, the general public, has become acutely aware of climate and the issues associated with climate when it comes to big industries that are polluting the atmosphere or water quality that has been contaminated. And we’re trying to solve for those kinds of problems because of population growth and the impacts that we have, right? But I don’t think that there’s a lot of people that sit around thinking about my subdivision or that converting that 300-acre agricultural field into a subdivision, how that directly affects climate as well. I don’t think people process that as easily some people have the ability to make decisions about where they want to live and how they want to live, a lot of people — you have to remind yourself — don’t have that ability to make those decisions. Number one, I think that’s something really important for those folks that are saying I wanted to make the choice to live in suburbia, because of convenience, close to my job, the cost of housing and get more cost per square foot, and perceptions of safety and security, schools, things like that. They’re making those choices, but I don’t think they’re consciously making a connection that by doing so, and continually seeing more and more suburban development outward, beyond the urban area, what it’s actually doing to climate and it’s affecting climate, because of the trips, the car-dominated scenario that we built into it: You have to drive a car to go to the grocery store, you have to drive a car to drop the kids off to school, you have to drive a car to get to work. Light rail or transit services aren’t always servicing the suburban areas in an efficient way to actually get to have people have a choice to not use the car. So the car dominates everything when it comes to suburban development in suburban sprawl, urban form. And that’s a real big problem. And it’s consuming an amazing amount of land. And it’s creating more and more trips, which exasperates the problem when it comes to, you know, going to the fuel pump and the cost of gas. It’s a trend that somehow needs to be reversed. And I think looking at it from a climate standpoint might be a way to resonate with people.

Sarah Steimer 08:37
What would that look like? You know, what would that look like to tell people, hey, think about the fact that the farther away you’re moving from maybe city centers, the farther we’re moving away from the grocery store, the place where you work, the place where you need to drop your kids off at school? How do you have that conversation with them to really point out the fact that, oh, this is actually pretty rough for the environment?

Keith Walzak 08:59
It’s really hard, I can just relate it back to my own personal experiences. I come from a large family, I’ve got seven siblings, I’ve got nieces and nephews who are growing and having children, they’re going into their own homes, they’re making choices, and I have conversations with my siblings about this a lot. And a couple of siblings love the urban environment. And a couple of them have higher preferences towards suburban development. And the reality is, you’re not going to necessarily convince somebody that they’re doing the wrong thing they’re doing. They’re making choices for reasons, right? And it fits their lifestyle, and it’s comfortable and you can’t criticize them for that. I think what we might have to think about is analyzing suburban development in a way that when it starts to hit their pocketbook, right? How much does it cost you to go from your home to that job on a daily basis and watching the fuel pump prices go up? I mean, is that really a cost-benefit that is working in your favor? Because you’re not going to be able to make the argument that is it more safe or less safe in suburban development? It’s what It is what they believe is to be true, right? So it’s a really complicated conversation to have. And a lot of times people are making personal choices. So they’re not necessarily always thinking about the greater good, right? The community, there’s a lot of people that are writing really interesting research books about sociological aspects of this, people’s sense of happiness and living where they’re living. And it’s just really a very difficult subject, because people believe in what they believe. Right.

Sarah Steimer 10:28
And I do want to, you know, we’re talking a lot about individual decisions here. And I do want to eventually jump into the role that developers, architects, etc, play in urban sprawl and helping to maybe change that public perception. But since you brought up books and happiness, and so forth, you know, you and I talked previously about the book “Happy City” a little bit, and it’s something that I just recently read. And it really, the author takes a very academic look at how higher density truly does contribute to health, wellness, general levels of satisfaction. Can you talk a little bit about that, and maybe, you know, in addition to talking about people’s pocketbooks, when it comes to what happens when they’re moving farther away from cities, but how satisfaction plays a role in really maybe being drawn a bit more to more dense locations to live?

Keith Walzak 11:21
Yeah, Charles Montgomery wrote “Happy City,” as you know, and his hypothesis is that this isn’t really about the merger between what is urban design and the nexus between urban design, your choices of where you live, and where your job is, and overall happiness and your level of happiness, right. And it’s a really cool book in that regard, because he really questions, is dense urban living better or worse when it comes to happiness? And Charles is making the argument that, yeah, overall, you’re happier because you have choices, you can get to stores and libraries and civic activities much easier. And you don’t have to spend so much time in a car. On the other hand, Charles’s book was written before the pandemic. And we now know with the pandemic, that a lot of people — in particularly large cities like Seattle and Los Angeles — were making choices to actually try to get out of the big city because of that health-related crisis, right. And so I am a big proponent that cities will constantly change and will evolve. And we have to be aware of what the next trends are. But I think Charles Montgomery is really hitting on something really important that people are trying to find happiness in decisions that they’re making. And again, back to this, my sister who lives in suburbia, Denver, she’s very, very happy in her home and her three-bedroom, two-bath home, and she’s not going to make a choice otherwise. And I’m not going to judge her for that. There’s some great qualities to living there. But I’m not sure that everybody’s realizing that by making that choice, and the number of people that are making that choice, what it’s doing to our overall our society and our climate. So happiness is really important, sociological considerations of safety, and convenience, are all coming into play. And there’s a lot of trade offs and all these decisions that people were making.

Sarah Steimer 13:04
You know, when you first started to say, the fact that the book was written before the pandemic, and you mentioned the fact that a lot of people were trying to get out of the city a little bit more, which is absolutely true. You know, I went camping for the first time in I don’t know how long during the pandemic, but it’s one of the first things I actually thought of was I thought it actually made a stronger argument for what he was trying to say about more density, helping to reduce loneliness, because loneliness has become a disease in its own way in this country, you know, according to other research, but anyhow, you know, we can we can make the arguments for and against both of these locations, of course, but let’s talk about the development piece. Let’s talk about the role that maybe architects play, that designers play, that city planners play, you know, how can those folks — how can policymakers really think more about reducing the climate harms that come with urban sprawl?

Keith Walzak 14:04
Yeah, I think definitely, urban planners, policymakers, city leaders, elected officials clearly have a huge role in it. A group that you’re maybe leaving out are the financial lending institutions as well. They’re the ones that are lending developers money to develop those projects, right? And there’s lower risks, or perceptions of lower risk, because you’re building on a flat field that used to be corn, right? And it’s totally accessible. And yeah, I’m going to help fund that project. They’re contributing to the problem as well, if you ask me. So I think it goes from the financial lending institutions all the way through those different disciplines. You know, I’m an urban designer, urbanist trained in landscape architecture. And I love working with developers. There’s only so much I can do with the developer, to try to convince them to shift what their intentions might or might not be because I either believe in it or not right? Their market studies say there’s a huge demand for three-bedroom, two-bath homes. And that’s what we’re going to build. And as much as I might say, well have you thought about creating more of a mixed-use development that has higher density so people can actually walk to the coffee shop or the the store developers have a very clear mindset and their performer, their market performers are really driving what their decisions are all about, as well as the lending institution. So it starts from the lending institution, it has to do with the market drivers. And yeah, architects would like to sway the world the way we think. But we can’t always get what we want out of it.

Sarah Steimer 15:39
I want to I want to pause you real quick, because I do want to make sure that we’re set up for another conversation in the future about the lenders, because I think that’s a really important separate conversation. But it almost sounds a little bit like it could be like a chicken or the egg situation when it comes to, oh, our research shows that people want this. But is it a little bit of a if you build it, they will come? So which way, especially when we’re in this conversation of public perception, is it that, oh, well, if they keep building it this way, then that’s what people are going to want? Yeah, you know, how does public perception play into all of that?

Keith Walzak 16:12
We work for a lot of market developers, and they do do their homework in understanding demographics, household incomes, they understand what the market drivers are in that particular market area that they’re working in. And they’re very, very good at understanding that. But also, I think there’s a way that we can help influence that a little bit, I think policymakers. And again, financial folks can help set policies where we’re maybe even considering higher mortgage rates, or insurance premiums for areas of a community that are deemed sensitive and/or deemed as urban sprawl, and sort of tried to regulate it that way to de-incentivize where developers are going, and try to drive them in other areas of the community. I mean, that’s a really hard strategy to fulfill. But that’s one way that policymakers can actually step up and kind of make a difference. And they can connect the dots by saying, not only are these sensitive lands, like productive agricultural lands, but there’s this climate-related factor as well. And they can set policy in that regard to actually drive development where they think is best. I do think that we will have a lot of communities — we do a lot of comprehensive plans, master plans — and people in the community and the policymakers realize that we can’t keep annexing land, we can’t keep falling outward, we want our focus inward. But it’s still very difficult, because you have property owners on the fringes that simply want to develop their property, and there’s property rights. Some states are very pro property rights. So they’re going to still bring their proposal to the community for annexations and development. And the city leadership has to have very clear value judgments and standards as to whether or not they’re going to support that annexation, which is contributing to sprawl or not, and focus on infill development. So we do these comprehensive plans, we focus on what the vision and the goals and the strategies are in the vision and the goal is to focus development inward and go upward rather than outward, then the policymakers over time, not only the elected officials that are in place now, but their future policymakers have to respect that vision and those goals and strategies over time. Otherwise, the plan will become worthless over time. So it’s very complicated.

Sarah Steimer 18:27
Little bit, huh? Yeah, it’s but but this is this is all, you know, to really show how tied together so many different pieces of this puzzle are when it comes to kind of changing mindsets. And also giving different people involved in this the nudges that are going to be necessary to help reduce the sprawl that is having an effect on the climate. Keith, as always, it’s such a pleasure to chat with you. And I know that we will be talking again soon, because this is such a massive, massive conversation. But before I let you go, you know, I just wanted to know, is there anything to that seemed to be maybe like one or two or three key takeaways when it comes to really trying to change how people think about urban sprawl?

Keith Walzak 19:14
Yeah, I think there’s a couple of big takeaways. One is that every person has a role in this process. So we’re talking about financial lenders and policymakers, neighborhood advocates, architects, planners, every one of those elements has a role in how we shape cities, number one, and finding consensus and trying to really understand what those core values are in a community is the most important part. It’s the starting point. And then being super creative about how you actually sort of guide whatever those policies are, right, how you guide it and in a direction that meets the community’s desires, and really being tactful, trying to figure out what are the tools that we have available to us that we can apply. And then finally realizing that every decision that we’re making about development in the community truly does affect that bigger, broader issue, which to me is climate and resiliency planning. So, a lot of people are not connecting those dots, but I truly believe that every decision is affecting climate resiliency policy.

Sarah Steimer 20:16
Right. Well, Keith, once again, thank you so much for taking the time with us today. And we will be talking again soon.

Keith Walzak 20:23
Thanks, Sarah. It was great.

Producer 20:33
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold. And a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening

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