Harold Henderson’s article on the “‘new urbanism” (“Come a Little Bit Closer,” July 7) contained a lot of interesting ideas–with one glaring omission. Citing planner Joel Stauber, Henderson wrote that neotraditional communities may not become popular until “more efficient economies, such as Japan and Europe, out-compete us because they don’t waste money building on the fringe while closing down their inner cities.”

The omission? Whether or not one agrees that the “new urbanism” is one of the best solutions to regional sprawl, why wait until disaster strikes to deal with the problem?

Unplanned, uncoordinated development looms as a major crisis. In the six-county Chicago region, between 1970 and 1990, population increased only 4 percent, while land developed for residential use grew 46 percent, and land developed for commercial/industrial use burgeoned a whopping 74 percent.

The problem? This sprawling development required new infrastructure, so almost the same number of people are paying for vastly increased roads, sewers, etc. What’s more, drivers do not pay nearly the full costs of all the new roadways; they are subsidized by other tax revenues to the tune of $600 million a year. Overall, traffic delays cost the region nearly $2 billion a year in lost employee productivity, late shipments, wasted fuel, etc.

Other regions have already taken measures to curb these huge, unnecessary expenses. Portland, Oregon, has set up an urban growth boundary, which keeps new development more compact and cuts infrastructure costs and taxes. The Chicago region probably isn’t ready for a similar boundary. But two facts are certain.

The good news is that many organizations–such as the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC)–are working on solutions to combat the problems of sprawl. Among MPC’s proposals: create a tax system with less reliance on the property tax so it enhances, rather than discourages, regional cooperation; strengthen public transit throughout the region; and enlist state government’s enabling powers to encourage local communities to make decisions that strengthen the entire region, rather than individual communities at the expense of others.

The bad news is that we are facing a huge problem, and these and other solutions need to be put in place–now, rather than later.

Laura Zuckert

Communications Director

Metropolitan Planning Council