Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Virtues of Sprawl

Interesting article in the Boston Globe on the virtues of sprawl (thanks to the Out of Control blog for the pointer). A lot of good thoughts in here, so I'm gonna go overboard on the excerpts (highlights mine):

But is all that a bad rap? Maybe, says Robert Bruegmann, a professor of art history, planning and architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who identifies many good things about sprawl. ''It's no better or no worse than any other settlement pattern," Bruegmann says. ''It works because it satisfies a lot of needs. When people have been able to afford it, people move out of cities. We now have tens of millions of people who can do what only a small minority once could do."

Bruegmann, whose new book, ''Sprawl: A Compact History" (Chicago), will be published this month, joins consultant and author Joel Kotkin, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and others in finding inspiration in the subdivisions, like a Jane Jacobs of suburbia. The embrace of dispersal follows a long tradition started by Thomas Jefferson and followed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Today Bruegmann and others feel it's important to identify what's good about spread-out development because sprawl has been hammered for over two decades by activists urging ''smart growth" and New Urbanism, the latter an architectural movement promoting compact traditional neighborhood design.

Sprawl gives us ''decentralization and democratization," Bruegmann says—an orderly use of land that draws in working-class and middle-class people and allows them to head upward in the economy and society. Homes in new subdivisions in the South and West commonly start at $120,000. To try to curb sprawl is to stand in the way of the flourishing of the American dream.

''It's a way to get things once possessed by only a few," Bruegmann says. ''Privacy, mobility—social and physical—and choice."

Nor is sprawl a new phenomenon. From ancient Rome and China to 19th-century London to Paris and Los Angeles today, society has spread out during economic good times. ''There's a massive out-migration as soon as people can afford it," Bruegmann says. Accordingly, maybe we should all stop worrying and learn to love the subdivision.

...

Most smart-growth activists today don't spend a lot of time criticizing sprawl or predicting suburbia's demise. Their main focus is providing more choice for those people who don't want to live in sprawl—changing outdated zoning that prevents compact, mixed-use development near train stations, for example.

''Smart growth doesn't say all sprawl is awful," says John Frece, associate director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research at the University of Maryland. ''It's not about taking away the ability to develop sprawl—just to add the ability to do different kinds of development and put that on equal footing. Then let the market decide."

Bruegmann says he's quite open to the idea that Americans choose different living arrangements at different times of life. And, just to complicate everyone's thinking a little further, he also predicts that as societies get ever more affluent, more people want to come back to cities. It's just a matter of understanding how wealth drives the popularity of different physical landscapes.

''If you have enough money, living at high density is very alluring," he says. ''I think there will always be some people who will want to live in suburban settings no matter what. But if you have a spacious apartment on Fifth Avenue with a doorman, and you can get in a taxi or walk to the Metropolitan Museum of Art...millions of people would love to do that."

Ultimately, says Kotkin, author of ''The City: A Global History" (2005), ''The problems of sprawl have to be solved within the context of sprawl. You're not going to stop it. You can't reengineer society by getting everyone to move back to Boston. Forget about it. It's not happening."

Sprawl is getting better, Kotkin says—more dense, and eventually featuring a better mix of uses, with stores and workplaces closer to homes. Kotkin predicts more of these kinds of suburban villages, which he calls ''the new suburbanism," a deliberate echo of the New Urbanism. With the help of technology, more people will be able to work from home or closer to home. Car trips will still be necessary, but they could be shorter and done using hybrid and energy-efficient vehicles.

''In southern California we've been saying this for years: 'It's just a different kind of city,"' Kotkin says. ''It's like someone from Florence coming to 19th-century Manchester. They'd say, 'Where's the church in the middle?' It's just different. The urbanization of suburbia is the great challenge of land-use planning in early 21st-century America."


I think the smart growth movement realized they really poked a stick in the hornets' nest by being so anti-suburbs, so now they're backing off and focusing on providing higher-density housing and lifestyle choices for those who want to live that way - which I happen to totally agree with. Help remove barriers to attractive and practical new urbanism and transit-oriented development, and hopefully it will flourish.

I'm glad to see that others are also starting to point out the important linkages between sprawl, housing affordability, and social and economic mobility. Home ownership is a proven path to a financially stable middle class family lifestyle - and a lot of unaffordable smart growth communities have cut off that path. But smart growthers shouldn't worry too much: inevitably, the kids of those families will bore of the suburbs and desire to move into the fast-paced, amenity-rich city when they become young adults.

27 Comments:

At 8:34 AM, October 05, 2005, Blogger kjb434 said...

Great post. I'm going to buy that book. I've always liked Brook's commentary on society and feel his insight in this book is much warranted.

I always thought sprawl was a sort of a way people can achieve the American dream. Why should they be punished by anti-sprawl advocates for trying to achieve what they want? The largest issue sprawl brings is traffic. The environmental concerns of anti-sprawl advocates have dwindle since automobiles are getting cleaner.

Some people claim sprawl produces higher polluted storm water runoff and this becomes an environmental hazard. While it's true some pollution runs off developed land, the level of toxicity is much lower than runoff from farmland and surprisingly lower than forest stormwater runoff (from EPA).

 
At 10:46 AM, October 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The environmental concerns of anti-sprawl advocates have dwindle since automobiles are getting cleaner

Oh yes, automobile air pollution has completely become a non-issue. What must those anti-sprawl advocates be thinking?

 
At 11:24 AM, October 05, 2005, Blogger kjb434 said...

Well,

Your so called horrid SUVs are as fuel efficient and release emmisions similar to a sedan of the seventies. I see that as a big improvement.

 
At 11:40 AM, October 05, 2005, Anonymous hh gwin iii said...

"Most smart-growth activists today don't spend a lot of time criticizing sprawl or predicting suburbia's demise. Their main focus is providing more choice for those people who don't want to live in sprawl—changing outdated zoning that prevents compact, mixed-use development near train stations, for example."

Glad you know that Houston is ahead of the curve, having never had zoning.

I wonder if one of the main drivers for sprawl (among parents with kids--a pretty major demographic) might be concerns about the quality of big-city public schools?

Thought question: Technology has blurred the line between work and leisure time. Except for the need to build relationships (schmooze; brainstorm) with the co-workers, many can do much of the job from home. Will this encourage suburbia (as distance from work becomes irrelevant) or discourage it (as longer work hours put a premium on ANY time spent "not working,") discouraging long commutes?

 
At 12:20 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger Tom Andersen said...

There is no doubt that auto emissions per auto have improved. But there are now many many more autos on the road, so the air pollution gains aren't as clear cut as the improvements in individual autos might indicate.

What the anti-sprawl advocates are also thinking is that sprawl has been a disaster for biodiversity, causes polluted stormwater runoff that threatens the water supplies of big cities and has contributed to the near-destruction of our most productive coastal waters, and is generally ugly and not all that convenient when you need to run out for a loaf of bread or a prescription.

As a resident of the outer suburbs of New York, I like the notion of the new suburbanism. There really are alternatives to strip malls and large-lot subdivisions.

 
At 12:57 PM, October 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your so called horrid SUVs are as fuel efficient and release emmisions similar to a sedan of the seventies. I see that as a big improvement.

Let me play this back for you... The typical car owned today has the same efficiency and emissions as a car from the seventies. That's what you just said.

You call that a big improvement? I call that no improvement. In fact, considering how much more we know now about... well, everything... than we did in the 70s, I would say that standing still is in fact losing ground.

 
At 1:25 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger kjb434 said...

^^^
The SUV is carrying more weight and has potential to carry more people.

This gives the SUV the potential of carrying more lower mileage. One person driving a Prius would be similar to 4 or 6 people riding in an SUV.

Either way, i don't care. Little has been shown that the serious environmental issues are a result of increased traffic. Yes, smog is created, but that has as much to do with natural weather patterns and geography than anything else. Look at Chicago. They have just as many cars on the road if not more than Houston, yet they have no much less to no smog most of the year. The weather is playing a larger role.

If you feel like citing articles and studies that show different, make sure the study was performed with proper validy checks by independant scientist. The problems is you won't. The environmental sciences don't employ double blind or any other fact checking quality control measures that are used in other areas of science. All the climatological results developed in the U.N. studies have been refuted by many more scientist that accept it.

Anyway, the sprawl of homes you see in any metropolitan area is about the freedom of choice. You're not going to force people to live in a high density urban space. Do this creates an artificial reality where people dont' want to live where they being made too. Houston and many southern US cities offer the options of living in the dense urban environment or living in the spaces of the suburbs.

I don't think the voting public will be too happy when you say you can't live here or there.

I prefer the urban environment, but I'm not going to ridicule and go after suburbanites for choosing something different. Suburban sprawl hasn't hurt this city the way some urban planners claim. Traffic isn't that bad, and METRO is moving forward with supplying choices for commuting besides a car.

Houston will be a very good model of a modern city when some more rail gets put in and some commuter rail for the suburbs. I think we are already a good model. We have so many choices of where to live. No wondering we are growing at the rate we are. Many jobs because of low taxes on business. Lots of choices for housing. Lost cost of living overall. I can see why people are fleeing the Northeast to come to the south.

 
At 1:54 PM, October 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Either way, i don't care. Little has been shown that the serious environmental issues are a result of increased traffic

And now you're suggesting that there are minimal environmental consequences related to cars/traffic. Wow. And in an act of convenience, you cluster all those scientists who suggest otherwise into the field of environmental sciences, and then sweep them away with a blanket statement that they are not legitimate scientists. How tidy. You don't by any chance work in the Bush administration, do you?

 
At 2:20 PM, October 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

kjb434,
Once again you let Fox News think for you instead of thinking for yourself, and frankly you must think this blog is read by elementary schoolers to think that your baseless arguments hold any sway. Of course it is bad that cars have not improved in efficiency in decades! And unfortunately you have huge SUVs that get 8-12 mpg driven by one person. Not very good.

But then again, a few more evacuations where SUVs are burning through gas like no tomorrow while hybrids are making it all the way to Dallas in 30 hours with the AC on and I think we will see a change for the better in our air quality (assuming we can minimize refinery waste blowing over here with better standards).

In any case, sprawl isn't bad persay. What is bad is that it makes transit difficult leading to massive traffic jams that bother everyone and create smog. Also, it is possible that you can create a new Detroit here, when the city itself is dead and people only live in the suburbs. What people forget is that once the city dies, the suburbs become useless in the same sense that once a star dies, the planets orbiting it don't have anything in common to revolve around.

So as long as we make sure to improve mass transit to the suburbs and make a concerted effort to keep Houston proper alive and well (keeping cultural, sports, and major business and skyscrapers there) I don't mind sprawl at all.

At the very least, building a system similar to MARTA in Atlanta would be quite useful by having commuter rail out to Sugar Land, Katy, Woodlands, and Clear Lake. Encourage hybrid driving by making HOV lanes open to hybrids even with one passanger (as is being done elsewhere in the country). And somehow encourage businesses to have skyscrapers in only one part of Houston-- downtown (Greenway Plaza should not exist in my book).

These are some relatively simple things that in some ways are already being looked at. In any case, we need to do something, or we will soon have the worst of all worlds-- Houston's own pollution and sprawl reputation (which in many ways is undeserved) combined with the actual pollution and sprawl of a city like LA.

 
At 2:21 PM, October 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

***Also by cars not improving in fuel efficiency I mean that sedans have improved in FE but have been replaced by SUVs with the same number of riders but with the same FE as sedans from decades ago.

 
At 3:15 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Responding to hh gwin iii:

> I wonder if one of the main drivers for sprawl (among parents with kids--a pretty major demographic) might be concerns about the quality of big-city public schools?

Answer: big-time yes. Inner-city schools have been identitified as a major inhibitor to families moving into higher density in the core. But there are still plenty of young singles and empty-nest couples.

> Thought question: Technology has blurred the line between work and leisure time. Except for the need to build relationships (schmooze; brainstorm) with the co-workers, many can do much of the job from home. Will this encourage suburbia (as distance from work becomes irrelevant) or discourage it (as longer work hours put a premium on ANY time spent "not working,") discouraging long commutes?

From the evidence I've seen, it's the former: people are moving even further into the exurbs with bigger houses on bigger plots of land, because they can telecommute and only come into the city 1-2 days/week. I think a common life pattern will be to spend your twenties in the city building a social network, then move to the exurbs once you're married and ready to start a family.

 
At 9:45 AM, October 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Anyway, the sprawl of homes you see in any metropolitan area is about the freedom of choice."

A "choice" helped along by taxpayer-subsidized freeway enhancements which reduce commute times of those on the fringes.

 
At 10:17 AM, October 06, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Almost all roads are paid for out of gas and car taxes, i.e. users, vs. transit taxes, which come from mostly non-users thru general revenue like sales taxes.

The freeways do reduce commute times, which keeps jobs in the core. Without them, people don't move to the core, jobs go to the suburbs. LA is a great example, where most major employers have moved to the suburban towns to be closer to their employees, and now only has 3 Fortune 500 HQs vs 43 in NY and 20 in Houston. Chicago has lost 21 out of 31 of its Fortune 500s to the suburban towns.

 
At 2:37 PM, October 06, 2005, Anonymous Thomas said...

"And somehow encourage businesses to have skyscrapers in only one part of Houston-- downtown (Greenway Plaza should not exist in my book)."

As somebody who works in Greenway Plaza, I've got to ask: why? What's wrong with having multiple high-density activity centers scattered around the metropolitan area? If the CBD were Houston's only major commercial activity center, traffic congestion would be impossible. "Satellite downtowns" like the TMC, Greenspoint, Uptown/Galleria and Greenway Plaza actually reduce congestion by providing multiple destinations for commuters. They also create more housing options because employment centers are less centralized and commutes become shorter. At the same time, these activity centers still have enough "critical mass" to support restaurants, retail, services, even residential development in the same manner that downtown does.

I don't think there's anything wrong with having a multinodal city. Most metropolitan areas in the US are multinodal as it is; read "Edge City" by Joel Garreau.

 
At 5:08 PM, October 06, 2005, Anonymous hh gwin iii said...

Thomas Said: “As somebody who works in Greenway Plaza, I've got to ask: why? What's wrong with having multiple high-density activity centers scattered around the metropolitan area? If the CBD were Houston's only major commercial activity center, traffic congestion would be impossible”

One of my previous companies relocated from Downtown to Greenway. Public transit ridership decreased significantly—people had to spend an extra 20-30 minutes to transfer from the long-haul buses to a local. Many of them decided to drive themselves, and they lost (commuting costs and time wasted driving), Houston lost (more traffic) and my company lost (many people quit to go back downtown).

Houston has a half dozen bedroom communities and a half dozen office centers; establishing a web of public transit among all of them is much harder than from bedroom communities to one CBD.

Just speaking for myself, there are several GREAT companies I’d never consider working for because the drive from, say, Katy or Clear Lake to The Woodlands is just not worth it. At a point, don’t companies lose by having a smaller talent pool to pick from?

I guess this isn’t an issue for older cities like BOS or NYC, which are served by a century-old web of excellent public transit.

I wonder if anyone has thought about an el or some other kind of grade-separated mass transit? Clearly, subways wouldn’t work here…

 
At 9:58 PM, October 08, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, it's easy for Houston to "keep jobs in the core" when the core has expanded to become larger than most cities' metro regions. This has everything to do with aggressive annexation and less to do with our freeways.

 
At 10:04 PM, October 08, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all, auto/gas users pay those taxes to build freeways whether or not they use those freeways.

Second, it doesn't matter who pays for it; a subsidy is still a subsidy, and the end result is that one "choice" is engineered to be more desirable than another.

 
At 10:18 PM, October 08, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Our core job area, the downtown-TMC-Greenway-Uptown area, is reasonably compact, esp. vs a string of employers around Beltway 8. See http://tinyurl.com/8n5o2 for details.

It depends on how you define a subsidy. The goal is to try to have costs paid by users. Gas taxes get pretty close on that score. If you own a car but don't drive on freeways, you're likely to put a whole lot fewer miles on your car, use fewer gallons, and therefore pay fewer taxes (which also cover your local roads).

On the other hand, transit fare boxes come nowhere close to covering costs (<20%), and general sales taxes hit the 95+% of the population that don't ride transit.

I'm not arguing against transit - it's a necessary public good - but the argument that roads are excessively subsidized and that distorts the market is simply untrue.

 
At 10:57 AM, October 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why did you bring up transit? I have never said that transit (the way it is done in Houston) is not itself a form of subsidy.

"On the other hand, transit fare boxes come nowhere close to covering costs (<20%), and general sales taxes hit the 95+% of the population that don't ride transit."

Well, since you brought it up, 95% isn't *too* bad -- the Katy Freeway handles < 2% of daily traffic in Houston, but everyone with a car (or anyone who uses gas) is paying for that one (and we didn't even vote for it, unlike, say, the LRT line). And don't even get me started on I-10's farebox revenues, though at least that will change soon.

I guess my basic point (intended more for KJB, now that I think about it) is that the idea that "sprawl = American Dream" stems from an unsustainable post WWII LBJ-pork-barrel view of the American Dream. It is not that "anti-sprawl" people desire an end to the automobile. They simply want a return to free market principles as they relate to transportation/transit.

 
At 2:52 PM, October 10, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The Katy freeway argument doesn't hold up: if you drive a car, you are driving on some roads, and your gas taxes pay for those roads. Obviously, people only use a portion of the road network like they only use a portion of the transit network. You pay into the pool roughly in proportion to your use of the network. Not the case with transit, where you pay in (via sales taxes) even if you do not use the network at all.

I respect the free market argument, but have trouble seeing how to apply it. All public toll roads? All private toll roads? Transit must be covered by the farebox? (welcome to $10 bus fares) Transit used to be a private free market in most cities, but it became economically untenable with the rise of the car and they all went out of business and got bought out by public entities with tax subsidies.

In some ways, you could argue that roads are underfunded and undersubsidized relative to demand. Certainly people are clamoring for more roads without wanting to pay more gas tax (thus the rising popularity of toll roads). But also consider this case: a person could choose to live next to work, walk or bike or use transit for shopping and work, and not own a car (no gas taxes or car fees), yet still gets the benefit of that road network for biking and emergency services (police, fire, ambulance) without paying for it. If they use transit, they would actually be living a taxpayer-subsidized lifestyle relative to the real costs of providing that service. Yet, even with all those savings and transit subsidy offers, few choose this lifestyle.

 
At 8:20 AM, October 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Yet, even with all those savings and transit subsidy offers, few choose this lifestyle."

The places where you can find that "lifestyle" are some of the hottest real estate markets in the country. New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC, etc.

 
At 11:44 AM, October 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, anon. I was about to make that point: if anything the particular lifestyle Tory describes is underfunded and undersubsidized relative to demand. The most desirable (and expensive) real estate in the country is dense, bikable, compact, and with access to usable transit. The choice to live in such an environment is a choice that is unfortunately denied to the majority of people who desire it.

 
At 2:53 PM, October 11, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I guess I should have clarified: few choose this lifestyle when a similarly affordable suburban alternative is available nearby.

 
At 4:13 PM, October 11, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Hey Tory -

Re: "few choose this lifestyle when a similarly affordable suburban alternative is available nearby."

Help me with the wording, I don't think I am understanding you intention. "similarly affordable" as I interpret it would mean that you are comparing as an example Greenwich Village in Manhattan vs. a suburban house in way out on Long Island at a similar price. I would respond that Greenwich Village would win that in most instances. If instead you are saying that because Greenwich Village is so expensive, people choose the far reaches of Long Island or New Jersey or Connecticut because it is relatively more affordable... well yes. But what we are in short supply of is Greenwich Villages and North Beaches and Dupont Circles and such.

 
At 5:28 PM, October 11, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The Long Island house is not nearby Greenwich Village, nor is it that affordable. What I'm saying is that most examples of popular dense New Urbanism (not Kentlands/Seaside stuff) are found in areas where suburban-style housing is not affordable for miles around (or even in some cases even available at almost any price, like Manhattan). I guess I'm saying a pre-condition of large-scale, high-density, successful New Urbanism (not a one-off project here or there like Dallas' Mockingbird Station or the Woodlands or Sugar Land town centers) is that nearby suburban style housing has become unaffordable. In recent years, a swath of suburban housing in Houston from Downtown thru River Oaks/West U/Heights to Uptown and the Villages has appreciated rapidly, creating the necessary conditions for New Urbanism/TOD to potentially thrive in that area.

Here's what I think the average person's thinking is: I want to have access to this part of town (work/shop). Can I afford a suburban-style house with a nice yard nearby (however they define that)? Nope. OK, how about a town house with a small yard? Nope again. OK, let's look at high density condos. If they've gotten to this level, then land is clearly at a premium, which probably means the same for parking: it's either expensive or a hassle or both. So now transit figures in too: if I'm going to live in density, I better have a way to minimize car trips too, because they're a pain in the butt in this area.

Note that, in this model, dense New Urbanist living is a third choice when the other two are either not available or unaffordable. I'm not saying everybody thinks this way, but the majority do.

 
At 8:46 PM, October 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alright, and I could just say that most examples of sprawl are found in areas where affordable walkable density and transit are not to be found for miles around (or even in some cases unavailable at almost any price).

Unfortunately, in the end it's hard to say for sure until both types of living choices are similarly affordable and a side by side comparison is possible. That won't happen until the excessive demand for urban living is met and a New Urbanist (or whatever) lifestyle is possible at a reasonable price.

 
At 9:32 PM, October 11, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think the side-by-side experiment has essentially been conducted. In many "second tier" cities that managed to get the feds to build them a light rail line, they have had substantial difficulty getting New Urbanism/TOD built along the line or near the stops - or what has been built has languished (esp. street retail with limited parking - even TOD-paragon Arlington VA has this problem). Developers are generally not too interested unless there are big subsidies. Why? I suspect because they know they can't compete with the affordable suburban house a short distance away. Examples I can think of are St. Louis, Dallas, San Jose CA, and Portland rail outside the downtown core. A friend of mine in Dallas said there was some media coverage this year talking about the disappointing amount of development along the rail lines - far less than expected.

 

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