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Thursday, March 18, 2010 01:02 am

Standing up against sprawl

In 1979 Springfield looked a lot different than it does today, a sleepy town that many agreed was a great place to raise a family. Outsiders referred to the city jokingly as “Springpatch” and to someone arriving here from Chicago there was not much that could be called “development.”

There was not much past Chatham Road except well-established subdivisions and many older affluent homes. There were great neighborhoods around Washington Park where renters mixed in with middle to upper income residents in beautiful stately homes. North of Sangamon Avenue was a bowling alley and lots of cornfields; south of Stevenson Drive more cornfields; east of 11th Street there were lots of older not-so-affluent homes, but there seemed to be the promise of change, especially with a new development called Pioneer Park that middle-class homeowners bought into, thinking that it was a new opportunity that would change the area and give people a reason to stay. Tall old trees lined neighborhood streets as a reminder of the commitment residents made to those neighborhoods.  

Some change occurs so slowly that you don’t really notice it until one day you look around and things are just different. On the other hand, change can happen so fast that you take a look and wonder when that happened. I’m concered about a disturbing change occuring both rapidly and slowly: Springfield is sprawling in some areas, decaying in others.

There are many who have been disappointed at what seems to be a preference by developers for the western portion of the city with much less preference for north and south, and practically none for the eastern part of Springfield. Take a drive along the major arterials that run though the city and the vast difference in the kind and amount of development in Springfield becomes apparent.

Just because new homes are built in record number, while strip malls and shopping centers dot the landscape, does not mean all is well. The effort to move the city further west has resulted in increased traffic congestion, public transportation access, the deterioration of core central neighborhoods, longer commutes and divisions among those desiring to live within the city and those who prefer the outskirts. Entities whose primary mission revolves around the city’s core residents are opting to move as far away as possible, with the blessing of the mayor and city council. District 186 desires to build a new multimillion-dollar high school that is so far from the center of the city that it comes precariously close to Pleasant Plains boundaries. While economic development is absolutely essential for the continued growth and prosperity of a city, that growth should be balanced, well-planned, beneficial to the great majority of its residents, not contribute to urban decay and should not result in urban sprawl.

The concept of urban sprawl is not unlike many other controversial issues: everyone has an opinion and there is always going to be disagreement. When unbalanced, unchecked, and ill-planned development leads to a city where conditions go from deterioration on one side to an almost overload of abundance on the other, there is a need for discussion and strategies to combat the problem. A city flourishes when government, business, private industry, schools and its citizens work together to ensure that one section of the city does not thrive at the expense of others.

Springfield is a city of polar opposites — sprawl and decay. We must seek a remedy that addresses both of these conditions. Whether decay or sprawl, neither provides the quality of life residents of this great city deserve. It is impossible to address these issues until, first, there is acknowledgement, and second, a willingness to go against established practices that have gotten us to this place.

We must, without condemnation, deal with these issues to ensure that this city reflects both its history and its future as a stellar place to live, work and visit.

Gail M. Simpson, who represents Ward 2 on the Springfield City Council, will speak on the topic “Standing up against sprawl,” at the Sangamon Valley Sierra Club, 6:30 p.m. March 23, at Lincoln Library. 
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