Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sprawl and social mobility

OK, this is going to be the fourth time I post on the "Sprawl: A Compact History" book by Robert Bruegmann. I'll try not to cover anything in the earlier posts, but there are some excerpts I wanted to pass along, and both articles mention Houston several times.

First up is a book review by Joel Kotkin in the Wall Street Journal.

No, Mr. Bruegmann says, don't go blaming the Federal Highway Administration for sprawl or the executives at General Motors and Exxon or racist developers fleeing urban environments. Don't even blame Karl Rove. You really don't need to blame anyone. Mr. Bruegmann notes that contemporary sprawl -- best defined by places like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Houston -- is nothing new. It represents "merely the latest chapter in a long and curious history."

What propels that curious history is something often overlooked by the makers of grand theories -- the particular choices of individual human beings. Mr. Bruegmann places the urge to sprawl squarely where it belongs: on people's logical desire to escape the high costs, crime, pollution, congestion and lack of privacy that accompanies life in dense cities. [and I would add bad schools to that list]
...

As powerful as sprawl logic may be, the traditional city is far from dead. Mr. Bruegmann, a longtime Chicago resident and a professor at the University of Illinois campus there, is particularly bullish on amenity-rich older cities -- New York, Boston, Seattle and Portland, as well as Chicago. They can lay claim to a promising demographic niche among the nomadic rich, the young and those who cater to their needs.

Yet Mr. Bruegmann understands that the future of urbanity will likely be shaped not in these adult Disneylands but in the peripheries to which families, jobs and industries are now fleeing. Such flight should not be a cause for despair among those who love cities. Suburban communities are not frozen in their current form; many are busily developing their own core districts, cultural facilities and particular identities.

Urbanists interested in the future need to pay more attention and give more respect to such places. Mr. Bruegmann has told us why they grow and will continue to do so. The next step is figuring out how to make them work better.

Next, from the Architecture section of the LA Times:
One of his most shocking assertions is that suburban spread helps cities and their urban centers: Look at the way immigrants and the poor moved out of Lower Manhattan, for instance, only to have the area later reborn as a chic living space for artists and young people. It wouldn't have happened, he argues, if the highways and houses beyond the city center hadn't siphoned off population, allowing these neighborhoods to be reborn.

Even fans of Bruegmann's book blanched at this notion.

"It's certainly true that deindustrialization of any downtown presents some opportunities," author and journalist Alan Ehrenhalt wrote in an approving review in the trade magazine Governing. "But for every inner-city district that has emptied out and retooled, many more have been emptied out and are waiting desperately for the revival to begin. Abandonment is an awfully high price for the chance to start over. I wouldn't expect the leadership of Detroit or St. Louis to find Bruegmann's long view of urban history very consoling."

But Bruegmann points at downtown L.A., where he sees this process, despite some rough years, bearing fruit.He has some emotional sympathy with anti-sprawl critics, just as he does with environmentalists. But he thinks both groups are a little shortsighted when it comes to the real costs of their programs.

"By trying to stop sprawl, you'll be doing something very beneficial to the incumbents' club," he says. "It stops change and makes it harder for people to get onto the middle-class ladder. It has a definite effect on social and economic mobility."

Sprawl may not be inevitable, but it is, he says, "completely essential" to the functioning of a free society. "It goes absolutely to the heart of people's aspirations — what it is they want to be, of how they want to live," Bruegmann says. "And tampering with that is very, very fraught."
That link between sprawl and social and economic mobility would go a long way towards explaining the population booms in sprawling cities like Phoenix, DFW, Houston, and Atlanta: people seek out opportunity, and it is generally found in more sprawling areas where housing supply meets demand and keeps things affordable.

16 Comments:

At 10:52 AM, December 12, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The idea of an "incumbent's club" opposed to change presupposes strong zoning laws the likes of which we see in places like Los Angeles. Plenty of people moved up the socioeconomic ladder in pre-automobile pre-zoning times in places like New York and Chicago.

 
At 2:13 PM, December 12, 2005, Blogger kjb434 said...

^^^
Are you sure?

I though early 1900s New York city was a place where poor immigrant workers lived in tenaments with not in the way upward mobility. Much of the upperclass in New York City prevented their upward mobility by ensuring they were dependant. This was also the time where progressive movements tried to educated, work with and encourage the lower class citizens to assimilate into society so they could move up in society. The results of this are mixed.

It wasn't until late 40s and 50s when second generations were able to move on out of the city to the suburban areas. This is the point at which they've achieved aspects of the American dream by owning a piece of land and a house which was impossible within the city. This was also the time in which assimilation by families of immigrants occured at a greater pace.

 
At 3:02 PM, December 12, 2005, Anonymous Ring Zero said...

' Sprawl may not be inevitable, but it is, he says, "completely essential" to the functioning of a free society. '

If that's true, free society will end quicker than I thought, because eventually we'll run out of sprawl space. Bummer.

 
At 3:32 PM, December 12, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

--That link between sprawl and social and economic mobility would go a long way towards explaining the population booms in sprawling cities like Phoenix, ... Houston--

and here I was thinking that proximity to Mexico and the high birthrates of the hispanic population had something to do with it.

 
At 7:39 PM, December 12, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> If that's true, free society will end quicker than I thought, because eventually we'll run out of sprawl space. Bummer.

Less than 5% of US land is urbanized or suburbanized with ~300M people. We're headed towards 400M over the next 30+ years, which, at current densities, will get us to almost 7% of land developed - the equivalent of moving the entire US into the eastern third of Texas and letting the rest go wild. Space is not a problem.

 
At 12:33 AM, December 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"No, Mr. Bruegmann says, don't go blaming the Federal Highway Administration for sprawl"

Hey, no one's "blaming" anyone. But the fact remains that it weren't for the interstate highway system, there would be less of an incentive for builders to toss up planned communities 45 miles from the core.

And of course there will be opportunity in sprawl, just as there is opportunity to be found in and around any government subsidy. That's where there's money to be made -- which is why cities and states (or rather the businessmen and politicians in charge of them) are always vying for federally-funded projects.

 
At 7:52 AM, December 13, 2005, Blogger kjb434 said...

^^
How do you explain the first elements of sprawl in New York, Boston, Philadephia, and Chicago being created by rail transit?

Interstates and federally funded projects came later.

 
At 1:56 PM, December 13, 2005, Anonymous Ring Zero said...

> If that's true, free society will end quicker than I thought, because eventually we'll run out of sprawl space. Bummer.


Less than 5% of US land is urbanized or suburbanized with ~300M people. We're headed towards 400M over the next 30+ years, which, at current densities, will get us to almost 7% of land developed - the equivalent of moving the entire US into the eastern third of Texas and letting the rest go wild. Space is not a problem.


I'm thinking more like 1000 years from now, rather than 30 years. At some point, sprawl will no longer be possible, which, according to the author, means the end of free society.

 
At 2:18 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

^^^ Most models show global population leveling out and then starting to decline over the next century, so the sprawl will also reach its limits and then start to contract.

 
At 4:57 PM, December 13, 2005, Anonymous Ring Zero said...

If sprawl ends in the next century, that means free society ends in the next century. According to the article, sprawl is "completely essential" to the functioning of a free society. Not just essential, but completely essential. So expect free society to end sometime in the next century or two. Sorry to be so coy but I was mocking the author's ridiculous assertion.

 
At 7:36 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think what he's saying is that, if you have a free society where people can live where they want, generally do what they like with their land, and freely elect politicians that will build what they want (like roads) - then sprawl is an inevitable consequence, because it fits the basic desires of most people. If somehow you stop sprawl, you probably compromised a free society in the process.

 
At 9:06 PM, December 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If sprawl ends in the next century, that means free society ends in the next century. According to the article, sprawl is "completely essential" to the functioning of a free society. Not just essential, but completely essential. So expect free society to end sometime in the next century or two. Sorry to be so coy but I was mocking the author's ridiculous assertion."


you are thinking of sprawl as a verb, think of it as a noun. people want the land and space, not neccessarily to live far away from the core. If population falls people will be able to live closer in and still have there space. so we will have contraction and low density sprawl.

 
At 9:30 PM, December 13, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

If population falls people will be able to live closer in and still have there space. so we will have contraction and low density sprawl.

Contraction is a very difficult prospect for a city. Think Detroit. And, unfortunately, New Orleans.

And c'mon Bruegmann, sprawl is in no way completely essential to a free society. I'm thinking the average person in Amsterdam is a more free than we post 9-11 Americans.

 
At 4:09 PM, December 14, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Tory -

RE: Less than 5% of US land is urbanized or suburbanized with ~300M people. We're headed towards 400M over the next 30+ years, which, at current densities, will get us to almost 7% of land developed - the equivalent of moving the entire US into the eastern third of Texas and letting the rest go wild. Space is not a problem.

If the amount of land that we lived on also happened to be the amount of land that supported us from a resource perspective, then perhaps space would not be a problem. But of course that's not the case.

The US has something like 2.3 billion acres of land, and 300 million people. That's 7.6 acres of land per person. However, researchers Matthis Wackernagel and William Rees estimate that the average American uses 24 acres of land in resources (that's our total ecological footprint). We are able to do this because we use resources (and land) from around the world, meaning that we displace our impact to a large extent. So is space a problem? Yes.

 
At 4:37 PM, December 14, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

^^^
1) That's a seperate item from sprawl
2) I don't quite understand what that really means in terms of acres of resources that we each use. Trees? (which can be regrown) Oil? Minerals? Some composite? Regardless, I expect economics to work as it always has: when something becomes scarce, prices will rise and people will find substitutes.

 
At 10:33 PM, December 14, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Hi Tory -

RE: That's a seperate item from sprawl

What I was getting at is that we'll sometimes see statistics to the effect of 'we can fit everyone in the US on roughly half-acre lots all within Texas' (forgeting for a moment roads and offices and stores and so on), that are then sometimes followed by the misleading conclusion that the rest of the US would be completely empty and wild.

But we of course need food, energy, building materials, consumer goods, and so on, and a rough estimate of the amount of acreage it takes to sustain an average american's appetite for consumables / resources is 24 acres. The world average is around 7 acres per person, Canada is about 18, China 4, India 2.

So I wasn't commenting directly about sprawl, but rather about the difference between the amount of space it takes to physically house people and the amount of space it takes to support people.

What starts getting scary is when you project other countries - like China and India - to start consuming in patterns more like the US. We have 126 billion acres on the earth; at 7 acres per person, will still have some breathing room in terms of productive capacity. But if the population hits 10 billion, and the average person demands say 13 acres worth of resources (about half of the US average), then we've hit the wall. (And this completely ignores the needs of every other species). This is why I say that we don't have as much land as we think we do.

What sprawl does do (some would argue) is make us generally more resource intensive. It also takes away productive capacity in close proximity to our population centers, which makes us ever more reliant on cheap energy to import those goods from further away to make the whole system work.

 

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