Infill, Sinfill & Sprawl

Have you ever wondered how truly livable cities become undesirable hell holes? Do the people who run these highly attractive areas into the ground merely fail to comprehend the distinction between <b

Have you ever wondered how truly livable cities become undesirable hell holes? Do the people who run these highly attractive areas into the ground merely fail to comprehend the distinction between <b

Have you ever wondered how truly livable cities become undesirable hell holes? Do the people who run these highly attractive areas into the ground merely fail to comprehend the distinction between infill, sinfill and sprawl? Are they simply mystified by the premise of Eben Fodor’s influential book Better, Not Bigger?

As local bureaucrats plunge into the population forecast and allocation process that will determine the fate of Whatcom County and its cities, I wonder if our own officials grasp that they are leading us down the same path that many formerly great places traveled before. Have we not seen this play out over-and-over again? How long before our own cherished quality of life is a thing of the past?

Perhaps a refresher course is in order.

What is infill, and how does it differ from sinfill and sprawl?

There are some in our community, including the Herald editorial board, who seem to believe that infill is simply development within urban areas, regardless of what might be destroyed in the process. Perhaps this belief explains why so many cities have destroyed the qualities that made them livable in the first place.

Experts in this field understand there are key distinctions between infill, sinfill and sprawl. The Northeast-Midwest Institute (NMI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to economic vitality and environmental quality. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is a nonprofit organization working with architects, developers, and planners to develop coherent regional planning, walkable neighborhoods, and attractive, accommodating civic spaces. Together, these professional organizations have studied these issues in depth and, in 2001, jointly published Strategies for Successful Infill Development.

In their publication, NMI and CNU make a clear distinction between successful infill and unsuccessful infill. Based on these distinctions – as well as those identified by the Washington Department of Community, Trade & Economic Development (CTED), PolicyLink (a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity), the Maryland Department of Planning, and the City of Sacramento, a clear picture emerges.

As it turns out, unsuccessful infill development (i.e. infill that sucks, aka sinfill) has virtually the same characteristics as sprawl. Both:
• Include poorly designed or located residential subdivisions in urban fringe or rural areas;
• Invade land important for environmental and natural resource protection;
• Destroy the intrinsic visual character of the landscape;
• Create traffic congestion; and
• Disrupt neighborhoods and erode a sense of community

On the other hand, successful infill:
• Includes development of vacant sites, or redevelopment and re-use of existing sites and buildings within built up areas where infrastructure and services are already in place;
• Is located downtown or on a transit corridor, near employment, schools, shopping, and recreational & cultural amenities;
• Preserves natural beauty, farmland, forest land, open space, parklands, public spaces, high value lands and critical environmental areas, including wetlands, fish & wildlife habitats of local importance, and geologically hazardous areas;
• Provides alternatives to driving;
• Preserves semi-rural areas that lie at the urban fringe;
• Considers long-term quality of life service levels; and
• Enjoys strong public participation and support.

In Washington state, the pressure to sprawl and to force sinfill on powerless neighborhoods is exacerbated by a population projection process that resembles a game of hot potato - with an imaginary potato!

For many years, as part of Bellingham’s bi-annual survey, city residents have made it clear: "The city is growing too fast and is losing its character." Neighborhoods who oppose unwanted growth are told that they must take their share of a phantom population forecast and end up fighting amongst themselves for the lowest number possible. No one wants the hot growth-potato.

County residents treat population growth the same way. Keep it inside city boundaries and away from us, they say.

No one admits that that the hot growth-potato is simply invented as part of a voodoo statistical game. The fact is, city and county residents can choose a much lower number than their elected officials are likely to adopt.

In the process that has already begun, the Whatcom County Growth Management Coordinating Council (GMCC) has informally adopted a growth forecast of 251,490. However, the county can meet state guidelines by adopting a forecast of 219,000, or 32,000 fewer people than recommended by the GMCC. This 32,000 invented hot potato is the population growth no one seems to want.

I’ll address how to deal with this imaginary hot potato in a future column. In the meantime, the key to preventing sinfill and sprawl is to understand how they differ from successful infill. Our local officials might need a refresher from time to time.

About Larry Horowitz

Commenting member • Member since Jan 16, 2008

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

Feb 12, 2009


An appropriate column for today as the City of Bellingham has just released its final draft of the infill toolkit, which, we are told by Tim Stewart, will not be applicable to “current” single family zoned areas.  One might think that this is an admission of the decades of neglect in enforcing the city’s zoning laws which has turned many neighborhoods into rooming house districts but to date nobody at City Hall would fess up to that being the intent.  Perhaps they know that they are virtually incapable or unwilling to effectively enforce certain codes having to do with single family zoning or with the current crop of ADUs for that matter.  To wit: There are only slightly more than 60 ADUs registered, as required, in the entire city (Is that not a risible number?),however, you have not seen any push at the planning office to register those which surely exist by the hundreds. 

The city’s problem now is to sell this toolkit to neighborhoods not yet invaded by clandestine infill in the way of rooming houses.  This will be a tough sell in that the citizenry knows full well that the chances of zoning codes being enforced after these infill toolkit thingies are built will be about as non-existent as the code enforcement has been over the last several decades on rentals and ADUs.  “Fool me once, shame on you; Fool me twice, shame on me.”  Shame on the city.


Marian Beddill

Feb 16, 2009

“...downtown or on a transit corridor, near…. amenities;”,
“....Provides alternatives to driving;....”.

I like these descriptors for good growth areas. Can someone furnish a City map which identifies such areas? I am aware of two such spots - downtown itself, and the Samish strip (“Motel Row”). What others?

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