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Planning for a 'super region' in central Florida's future

University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Barnett says the state needs to start planning now for growth in the Tampa area.

Special to the Times

University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Barnett says the state needs to start planning now for growth in the Tampa area.

Floridians wince at the seemingly endless sprawl of development in the Sunshine State. But regional planner and University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Barnett thinks Florida is well ahead of most states in smart regional planning.

Barnett's Penn Design, the graduate school for arts and architecture, has done multiple regional planning projects in the state. The latest? A sweeping assessment of how Tampa and Orlando, using smart growth management, could eventually merge into one "super region."

The goal, says Barnett, 73, is not to rubber-stamp Penn Design's ideas. Instead, he's urging officials to use them as a starting point for Central Florida to devise its own smart growth strategy to handle a doubling of the area's population by 2050 or so. High on Barnett's must-have list for Florida: a statewide high-speed rail system.

We caught up with Barnett just before he headed to China to discuss sustainability in a country faced with much greater growth pressures and far less land available to handle it.

So how important is smart growth management for Florida's future?

For Florida? Your face is your future, and that includes the environment that makes Florida attractive. There are places like Charleston, S.C., which understand that what kind of place they are is important for economic health. That's not so true in, say, a coal mining region, but it is in Florida where you want to preserve what brings people to the state.

Since you started regional consulting for Central Florida, we've been awarded a federal grant for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. How does that change things?

We could tell you needed it, recommended it in a 2005 study and in a 2007 study designed an entire high-speed rail plan for the whole state. High-speed rail is an absolute essential for regional growth. The state of Florida has a lot of destinations and having the choice of going by air or driving is not enough.

But high-speed rail in Florida does not mean much if it does not get to Miami. Otherwise, with a Tampa-Orlando link, you are more like a Minneapolis-St. Paul or a Dallas-Forth Worth. But the major economic effect eventually will be connecting to Miami and, later to Jacksonville, Tallahassee and down to Fort Myers.

Are other areas of the country preparing as we are for super region status?

There are probably nine to 11 super regions emerging where most of the nation's population will increase. They include the broad region of Birmingham to Atlanta to Charlotte to Richmond, or San Francisco to San Diego. Or Eugene, Ore., stretching north to Vancouver, a super region dubbed Cascadia. Florida's super region will look like an "H" with density along each coast and I-4 as the connector.

This may sound parochial, you being in Philadelphia, but is the gulf oil spill a potential danger to Florida's long-term growth?

If you tell me the spill will be contained, even though it is taking a long time, and lessons will be learned and other offshore rigs will be handled with more understanding of safety factors, then I do not think it is a major planning issue. But there are other issues Florida should be anticipating.

What would they be?

Rising sea levels. You have to be careful how you talk about this because it varies a lot by location. If we're talking about a 3- or 4-foot increase in sea level, it is manageable. The bigger issue is it amplifies storm surges and hurricanes and can mean seawater intrusion into fresh water aquifers. It's not too soon to talk about it. The question is: Do you wait for a disaster or do you anticipate it?

The other issues for Florida are energy and water as you plan for your population doubling. If everyone adopted water-saving techniques starting now, you probably could handle twice the population with the amount of water used today. We will look back in 2050 at the use of purified water for watering plants and lawns or washing cars, and we will be astonished.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Planning for a 'super region' in central Florida's future 06/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 2, 2010 10:53am]
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