Suburban Development: Consequences For Central Florida

written by trevor conley

Typical single-family suburban development and storm water pond. (Trevor Conley)

Three major theme park resorts, one of the nation’s largest universities, and over 2.5 million people call Central Florida home. At the cultural and commercial epicenter of this four-county region is the City of Orlando, which in recent years has doubled down on efforts to become one of the most sustainable and livable cities in the country. Emission-reducing garbage trucks, front yard gardening, and experimental 'road diets' represent the city’s shift to prioritize sustainability. Regionally, however, highway expansions and low-density housing developments are at odds with these efforts, adding cars to roads and encroaching on sensitive lands. Auto-dependent suburban development, with its single-family homes and strip malls, is occurring in the region at pre-Great Recession rates. In fact, metro Orlando was ranked the fourth most suburban area in 2017 in the country by Wendell Cox (a notorious advocate of suburban sprawl). As the City of Orlando strives for a sustainable future, much of the rest of Central Florida pursues a homogenous suburban landscape that is resource-consumptive and automobile-dependent. Consumer demand, profitable land developers, and acquiescent municipalities are three formidable forces that advance the suburban lifestyle of Central Florida.


Consumer Demand & Planning for Cars

In many ways, the appeal of suburban development makes sense. It offers homeowners never-before occupied homes, backyards, garages, privacy, and often, pools, playgrounds, basketball courts, and other amenities. In Central Florida, it often does so at a seductively-low price, so long as bargain homeowners are willing to live on the farthest reaches of development to be able to find a place within their budget. According to Zillow, Central Florida homes have seen property values increase six to ten percent in the last year, further supporting the argument that suburban development offers consumers a convenient method to accrue wealth: home ownership. The manicured lawns and gated entrances buttress the notion that these suburban enclaves are safer and cleaner than their urban and rural counterparts, even if some statistics suggest otherwise.

And the prevalence of cars and roadways mean that most Central Floridians will drive to get where they want to go, using private, personalized transportation at their beck and call even if they have to sit in traffic and spend thousands of dollars a year to own something that spends most of its time parked. Because most of Central Florida was developed with the coming of Walt Disney World in the 1960s, the auto-dependent lifestyle that flourished in post-WWII years meant that as Central Florida grew, little concern was given to mass transit or dense development. The consequences of the development ethos of that era are now compounding because most new construction relies on highways and expansions that accommodate continued outward growth.

What is unfortunate about many new planned developments in Central Florida, such as Horizon West in Orange County, is that even though they offer consumers village centers, walkability, and greenspaces, cars and freeways are still an undeniable requisite for regional mobility. (In the case of Horizon West, a master-planned community meant to encapsulate the county’s efforts at sustainable development, no bus routes service any part of the development. Considering the community is over 20 miles from downtown Orlando and over 7 miles from Disney World, residents traveling to either job hub are left to use carpooling as their only eco-friendly commuting choice for that distance.) Planned developments of regional impact in southeast Orlando like Sunbridge, Starwood, or Deseret Ranch offer consumers with the same urbanist teases but their respective locations mean that new highways will need to be built because there is not a sufficient existing mass transit system to act as an alternative to the automobile.

Worse are the segregated new developments not part of a more encompassing planned development. Even more reliant on cars for mobility than planned developments, neighborhoods are often separated from adjacent neighborhoods by walls. Because the sole purpose in these subdivisions is housing, little regard is given to livability, or factors that improve the quality of life for residents. The consequence of this profit-driven mindset means small parcels of land are designed for the maximum number of houses with minimal consideration for creating healthy, diverse, or viable places to live. The lack of architectural expression in the houses and neighborhood equates to a cheaper construction cost, satisfying consumer demand for price points at or below the median housing price of an area. As affordable housing is pushed further away from the urban core to places like Leesburg, Kissimmee, and St. Cloud, car use becomes more imperative for mobility.


Bringing the Product to Market

Hundreds of thousands of acres of upland habitat remain suitable for or are slated for suburban development in Central Florida. Ironically, the names of these new neighborhoods typically bestow a name reflective of the habitat or species that was altered or destroyed by the new development. To transform a cattle ranch into a 100-house gated community in as little as 18 months, suburban development is implemented through a two-pronged approach: site development and building construction.

Much of Florida was not developed until the 20th century; the state was built on agriculture and ranching—two industries predicated on large land holdings. As cities urbanized, agricultural land became urban land and that trend continues today as more land is needed for the current build-out. Today, cattle ranches, orange groves, and ‘high and dry’ upland pine habitats are sought by developers because they are abundant and contain natural features ideal to developers, For citrus farmers faced with once-bountiful orange groves now decimated by large-scale orange ‘greening’ and devastating hurricanes, developers and their flush pockets are a welcome sight. Without consistent yields to keep operations profitable, many groves have been sold to developers looking to capitalize on suitable land for development. Cow ranches are also ideal to long-term developers planning phased development because of agricultural tax exemptions for land that has an active agricultural operation. It is common to see pastures with cattle adjacent to new and under-construction development. Developers will often lease land to ranchers to sustain a cattle operation on parcels of land until they are ready for development in order to pay less tax on land waiting to be developed. Furthermore, cow pastures and ranches may not appear to be “developed,” but drainage improvements often installed before the implementation of stringent environmental regulations helped convey naturally-occurring water away from historic wetland areas, leaving a present-day ecosystem that belies the land’s historical truth and making it much more appealing for potential real estate ventures.

Avalon Park Aerial.PNG
Preservation of existing wetlands and creation of "lakes" to mitigate storm water often result in wildly-shaped neighborhoods, like this one in eastern Central Florida. (Google Maps)

Because development in wetlands is expensive and nearly illegal in water bodies, upland (or dry) habitats are utilized to the greatest extent possible. Wetlands and waterbodies are ubiquitous natural features to Central Florida that must be incorporated into the designed layout of neighborhoods because of laws that regulate their alteration. Development impacts to wetlands can be sold by wetland mitigation banks to developers for approximately $150,000 per acre. Fewer wetland impacts equates to cheaper land development prices and a lower cost per lot to developers. Unfortunately, this formula has serious suburban sprawl consequences.

The organic shape of wetland and upland habitats converging in a greater ecosystem inadvertently creates isolated streets and neighborhoods that make any type of transportation besides the automobile inefficient. Walkability in these neighborhoods struggles because wetlands separate would-be adjacent streets or intersections. Interspersed upland and wetland habitats create a secluded ecosystem that is effectively zoned for one land-use purpose: low-density housing. For the most part, wetlands cannot be clear-cut and filled. As developments progress further away from urbanized areas, developers will continue to minimize and avoid wetland impacts at the expense of compact development. Protecting a resource like clean water is vital to a region’s long-term health, but in Central Florida, that often means building new development that can only be efficiently accessed by cars. Moreover, the regulatory focus on wetland protection means that upland flora and fauna are disproportionately harmed by development impacts.

After a site has been selected and authorized for development, a site development contractor will begin the first round of land improvements: pond excavation, utility and drainage pipe installation, lot pad embankment, and roadway infrastructure activities. When that work is complete, small armies of home-builders install foundational concrete flatwork, concrete block work, stucco, framing, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, painting, drywall, etc. Different equipment and trade skills are utilized in residential site development compared to home-building, which makes it financially efficient for contractors and developers to separate development along this divide.

Site development is inextricably linked to much larger industries like oil production, coal-fired power plants, timber harvesting, plastic manufacturing, and steel milling that produce cheap commodities on a large-scale. The PVC that comprises the utility pipes (sanitary, water, and reclaimed water mains) and the asphalt that is installed in these neighborhoods is durable and cheap, so long as oil is being extracted, refined, and pumped to fill up the neighbor’s SUV. The concrete critical to form drainage and sanitary structures, curbs, sidewalks, and drainage pipe is plentiful so long as coal plants churn away and produce a bi-product called fly ash. The aggregate material (various types of sands, roadway shell stabilizer, and limerock) for dewatering, drainage, and roadway base material are abundant, so long as mining operations in Central Florida’s highlands remain robust. Site development in the region benefits from the abundance of fossil fuel based construction materials, notwithstanding the recent spike in material costs, which can be passed on to the consumer.

It is not uncommon for a street in a new neighborhood to be composed of both complete, lived-in homes and those in varying states of construction; at the current pace of home building in Florida, though, streets like this one will not remain incomplete for long. 

Reducing the impacts of fossil fuel and natural resource consumption in terms of site development is best achieved through compact, mixed-use development like that of Baldwin Park. The housing density celebrated in this district, and many other New Urbanist communities, equates to fewer construction materials required per person than standard suburban housing development. The layout of mixed-use developments provides clear evidence that less utility pipe and roadway material is needed to service more units than typical single-family construction. These mixed-use communities often provide their residents with all basic services and recreational needs that can be achieved through walking or biking. What’s more, municipalities that encourage mixed-use development are likely to see high returns on their investments through increased tax revenues, higher social capital, and lower maintenance costs.


Acquiescent Municipalities

New suburban development is premised in the innumerable laws, regulations, zoning ordinances, development codes, and engineering specifications that governmental agencies and municipalities employ to regulate the built and natural environment. The cumbersome rules that govern development in Central Florida are bestowed by federal agencies down to local municipalities. Federal and state agencies have jurisdiction over resources vital to the public interest like clean water and air as well as threatened species and archaeological remains. But it is the municipalities who set the guidelines for the type of development they bring to their front doors. Whether municipalities choose to implement smart-growth codes is a matter of political will and long-term foresight.

Like many other large metropolitan areas in the country, Central Florida consists of a major city, a handful of historic towns sprinkled around the region, and several suburbs and unincorporated areas that were largely developed in the latter half of the 20th century. This sort of makeup breeds regional complexity. Each municipality has different goals and trying to coalesce them under one umbrella to control and regulate growth is difficult, and has only been successfully implemented in a few metros, like Portland, Oregon. Without regionally-shared growth management, Central Florida succumbs to sprawl and expansion. Municipalities on the edge of the region are slated to see stronger growth and development as affordable housing is squeezed out of established areas in the urban core towards the virgin land of the regional fringe. The redevelopment of Baldwin Park from an inland naval base to paragon New Urbanist development has been a successful investment for the City of Orlando, but redevelopment can often be more complicated than new development due to public pushback or regulatory hurdles. Therefore, municipalities with ample land to build-out are acquiescent to satisfy consumer demand for more housing by developing cattle ranches, pastures, and orange groves into homes and shopping centers, often destroying unique regional landscapes.

In 2016 the Orange County Board of County Commissioners voted to approve a controversial 2,000-unit housing development known as “The Grow.” East of the Econlockhatchee River and west of the St. John’s River, the proposed location of this development is located on and adjacent to sensitive environmental and agricultural lands. Moreover, it is located in an area Orange County vowed never to further develop. In spite of strong public opposition to the project, especially from residents of the mostly rural area, commissioners narrowly voted to approve the project to alleviate supposed housing demand. In 2017, an administrative judge halted “The Grow” but recently, Governor Rick Scott and his cabinet overturned the judge’s ruling citing Orange County’s right to interpret growth plans how the county sees fit, although the administrative judge ruled the county broke its own growth rules approving the development. The project is still in limbo but the fact it has reached the governor’s office demonstrates the sharp rift between pro-growth politics and common sense.

The theme of developing on once avowed preservation land is widespread across the region. In addition to “The Grow,” residents in south Orange County are fighting against a proposed toll road expansion that will cut through Split Oak Forest. Municipal officials often do not want to be seen as anti-growth because development is marketed as beneficial to residents for jobs, housing, and increased tax revenues. In a region as complex and spread out as Central Florida, the outcry from a small group of residents in an area slated for growth usually goes unnoticed by residents of a different municipality or county—until those same pressures confront residents of a different area slated for development. Several cities and towns compete to attract new development in the bustling region to expand tax revenues and employment opportunities. Stagnation can often lead to decay, making suburban development a cheap and fast way to allow municipalities to grow, often at the expense of the environment and livability.

Identifying and implementing goals and objectives through long-term comprehensive planning is pivotal to managing development to ensure long-term sustainability. Municipalities must also create and adhere to clear unified development and form-based codes that allow interesting, dynamic places to flourish.  


Distinct Choices for the Future

In 2017 Florida became the third most populous state, trailing only California and Texas. Much of the population growth is attributed to Central Florida, or Lake, Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties. Since 2010, these four counties combined have seen a 17.3% population increase, or almost 400,000 new residents in eight years—an increase that pales in comparison to what is yet to come. The East Central Florida Plan 2060 estimates the population of the four-county region will grow to over 4.3 million people by 2050. Municipalities in the region will need to accommodate an estimated population increase of 1.8 million people over three decades. As of 2010, it is estimated by the PennDesign Central Florida 2050 plan that 36.7% of developable land had been developed in the region and that over 1,600 square miles of land, or roughly the size of Rhode Island, is still suitable for development. With this much room to welcome new residents and the recent evisceration of a popular land acquisition program, it is logical to think that development-as-usual—far-flung subdivisions, high-speed thoroughfares, strip malls—will be continue to be the region’s way of responding to population growth.

Maps for PennDesign's 2050 "trend" modelbased on current regional development patternsand "alternative" modeldense, mixed-use, and transit-oriented development. (Penn Design Central Florida: Our Region In The Year 2050)

This “current trend model,” as PennDesign’s plan outlines, differs greatly from the “alternative trend model,” or building up and not out. The PennDesign plan estimates that the region could save $26 billion dollars if it prioritized dense housing development, mass transit options, and land preservation—enough revenue to fund regional rail lines and improve bus service. The abundance of developable land, cheap development costs, municipalities happy to acquiesce to consumer and developer demand, and the headache of regional planning and cooperation, support the longevity of the current trend model without regard to eye-opening long-term costs of suburbanization.

But other projects (such as the New Urbanist developments of Celebration in Osceola County and Baldwin Park in Orlando, and transit-oriented development [TOD] around the region’s commuter rail, SunRail) demonstrate that an alternative development is not only possible in Central Florida, but that it’s often widely successful. Property values in those neighborhoods are 1.5 times higher than those in neighboring developments of a more suburban fabric. These blueprints for dense development helped inspire additional projects, such as Orlando’s Laureate Park in Lake Nona and Creative Village in downtown, and Osceola County’s NeoCity, altogether advancing new urbanism and sustainable development for the region. Creative Village, however, is the first of such projects to take place in the urban core and thoughtfully integrated with transit and active transportation. While SunRail, the region’s recently-expanded commuter rail, and regional bus transit agencies (which in downtown Orlando, even offer four free bus rapid transit routes) provide residents with alternatives, driving still remains the norm. Meanwhile, low-density, auto-dependent suburban development (like Sunbridge in east Orange and Osceola counties) on the regional periphery remains unwaveringly popular, aided by the existing and continually expanding network of highways, interstates, and largest toll road system in the country.

Cities often don’t have the power or will to say “no” to new development or growth, but they have the authority and the duty to determine the location, shape, and scope of new development. It is incumbent upon municipalities to pursue sustainable development that will accommodate future growth while protecting the region’s unique landscapes from suburbanization. Planning and following through on community visions are not insurmountable tasks, but simply difficult ones. Fortunately, given the arguments, it seems logical that an alternative approach to development will be the easier path to choose, and that sustainability might be a regional aspiration instead of an Orlando-specific agenda.


Andrew LesmesOrlando