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Jack Zaleski, Published August 03 2013

Zaleski: The unintended benefits of leap-frog

Fargo city planners and policymakers use two terms to describe two ways to look at a city’s growth. One is “leap-frog,” the other is “in-fill.” Leap-frog development usually is the goat in the heady realm of urban planning, while in-fill building is the fair-haired boy. Of course, developers who put their money into housing and commercial districts go where market demand takes them, often without regard to planners’ esoteric notions of leap-frogging and in-filling. Reality gives fits to planners and city commissioners.

They should relax.

My wife and I did what so many baby boomers/empty nesters are doing: We downsized – sold our house of 26 years and moved into a comfortable, nearly work-free townhome on Fargo’s south side. It’s the first time in our lives we’ve lived in the city. To my surprise, it’s gone well.

One of the unexpected amenities of our new location is the hundreds of acres of open land near our building. Vast empty urban tracts have been “leap-frogged” by developers. Instead of packed-tight “in-fill,” the neighborhoods bordered by 45th Street South, 40th Avenue South, Interstate 29 and 52nd Avenue South comprise a quilt-like urban oasis of prairie, farmland, parks and private sector landscaping of uncommon beauty, along with housing and commercial strips. On the open lands, a lush cover of grasses and wildflowers is habitat for all sorts of critters, from cottontails and jack rabbits to nesting ducks and Canada geese, summer birds and (in old tree stands that haven’t been bulldozed) shy city deer and watching owls.

It’s a wonderful place for long urban walks, runs or bicycle rides. We’ve been in the townhome for nearly a year. We’ve trekked through the area in all seasons. It’s an extraordinary and unexpected pleasure to have around us a landscape its critics would unkindly dismiss as “sprawl” and leap-frog development.

I know the open land is slated for development of the “in-fill” variety that city planners favor. “Available” signs are everywhere. Under current economic mandates, the land is too valuable to remain undeveloped. City officials who are charged with managing taxpayer dollars spend more to extend streets, water, sewer and other utilities across leap-frogged tracts to get to new housing and commercial buildings. In-fill is cheaper than leap-frog.

But maybe the model is flawed. Maybe the idea of building cities more suited to sardines in cans and rats in walls than people in livable spaces needs a critical review. The value of a tract of urban land need not be exclusively defined by what it can return to a developer or to the tax collector. Other values attached to the land can have real value when assessed in a visionary context.

Utopian? Elitist? Impractical? Under the accepted models of urban development, sure is. It can’t work. But who’s to say the models can’t be improved?

’Cause I gotta tell ya, living in a city with expansive people-friendly open spaces is a lot nicer than negotiating the alleys of the in-fill.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.