True or false: Long Island is a beautiful place to live?

Well, in many ways it is certainly beautiful. With lovely residential neighborhoods, historical places, arboretums, parks, nature preserves, and a glorious shoreline.

But then there’s the other side: the miles upon miles of unsightly highways, wall-to-wall strip malls, and distressed, dilapidated downtowns.

I got to thinking about beauty recently, when I was invited to address a conference on land use. The conference, held by the Suffolk County Planning Federation, brought together planners from county, towns, and villages to consider how Long Island could start using our land more wisely.

There’s a great deal more to land use than building beautiful spaces, of course. Still, the beauty of our built environment should not be just an afterthought. If it’s true that form follows function, then good development should look good.

Suburban development of the past century has not served us well either in either form or function. Fatefully, we moved away from Long Island’s town-centered design, and started separating residential areas from commercial zones from shopping areas. That’s what brought the sprawling highways and decaying towns.

What’s more, sprawl brought, or aggravated, serious problems: boosting our high cost of living, leaving large numbers of people without affordable places to live, clogging our roads, and threatening our fragile environment.

But if past land-use policies have aggravated our problems, smarter choices can relieve them. We need to think strategically, adapting land-use policies to the challenges we face.

To meet our need for affordable housing, we can build townhouses and apartments in village centers. To re-invigorate downtown economies let’s bring residents close to employment opportunities, shopping, and recreation. Walkable downtowns also make better use of infrastructure, and reduce traffic, pollution, and transportation costs.    

These changes are already happening, much more than most people realize. Towns in Europe have done amazing things. Forward-thinking regions across America have made great strides, too. The Long Island Index will be presenting some of these success stories when we unveil our all-new “Build a Better Burb” website, later this month.

There is much that we can learn from these places, and the first lesson is, how lovely they are.

That’s important, because the moment someone utters the word “density,” people immediately picture the worst examples from the past. But look and see what towns are actually doing. You don’t see the overpowering high-rises, or dreary row houses of our worst experiences.

Instead you see enchanting places that update for a new age the charm of small towns: Welcoming places, where homes are built on a human scale, shops and restaurants are a stroll away, and car parks are tucked out of sight, leaving space for parks, plazas, and public squares.

These places are not eyesores, they’re beacons. To see them is to glimpse a saner and lovelier future for our island.

Are there obstacles? Always. But obstacles can be overcome, when people see something worth working for.