Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A New View of Sprawl

I know I've commented on this topic before, but Alan Ehrenhalt's review in Governing magazine of Robert Bruegmann's new book "Sprawl: A Compact History" has a lot of great excerpts that are very relevant to Houston. The main point, which I've been making for years, is to stop fighting sprawl and focus on developing a vibrant urban core.
But while the icons that stand for sprawl may be subject to change, Bruegmann believes that the phenomenon itself derives from a fixed element of human nature: the desire to spread out and settle one's family in larger spaces as soon as this becomes feasible. In other words, the low-density residential development that most of us currently recognize as sprawl wasn't created by greedy developers, or incompetent urban planners, or misguided federal policy, or even by the emergence of an automobile culture. It reflects an easily documented historic tendency for people, given the financial and geographical chance, to choose lower densities over higher ones. Sprawl, Bruegmann says, "is the preferred settlement pattern everywhere in the world where there is a certain measure of affluence and where citizens have some choice in how they live."

But this is where Bruegmann throws us a fascinating curve. He doesn't hate cities at all: He's a passionate urbanist. He calls cities "the grandest and most marvelous work of mankind." He doesn'’t live in the suburbs but in a townhouse on Chicago's Near North Side. He just thinks that the prevailing obsession with sprawl and suburbia is a distraction from the important task of urban revival.

In fact, Bruegmann believes that sprawl has been good for downtowns and inner cities. When traditional downtown functions relocated to the suburbs (not just housing but manufacturing, warehousing and even some retail business), the opportunity arose to rebuild the urban center around a new functional core -— as a hub of entertainment and leisure and a residential magnet for singles, high-income couples and older people eager to sample a new form of urban life. "The stage was set," Bruegmann writes, "for a remarkable revival... While central cities have traded on their 'traditional' character, much of what is most attractive about them is the fact that so many of the things that once defined them have disappeared."
Bruegmann is correct: Sprawl is largely a force of history and geography and not primarily a consequence of any policy of government or any conspiracy by developers. Different policies might have altered the suburban landscape in modest ways over the past 50 years, but they couldn'’t have reversed them. What we can do, many decades after the fact, is work to ensure that real choices exist for those who want to fashion a new form of urban life in the new century. That means public support for central-city residential living, investment in modern public transportation, and sensible zoning that allows experiments and supports developers willing to take risks. If we do those things, I'm reasonably sure that the new generation of urban-dwellers will show up. They are already showing up. Bruegmann is right about that. And we don't need to expend as much energy as we currently expend denouncing sprawl and wishing it didn't exist. In his words, "there is room for both Houston and Portland in a country as large as the United States."

It's funny how Houston ends up the poster child for sprawl even though metros like Atlanta and DFW are far more sprawling. Atlanta has only two-thirds of Houston's density! I think it must be the lack of zoning and some of the less-attractive results of that that have locked "Houston=ugly sprawl" into most peoples' minds. But with our urban renaissance, low cost of living, and strong economy (esp. immigrant entrepreneurship), I think people are also very slowly starting to equate "Houston=vibrancy".


At 9:26 PM, November 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory -

RE: Atlanta has only two-thirds of Houston's density!

A big reason for that is topography. Atlanta is full of hills, ravines, etc., and Houston is flat (basically, a clean slate for building). When you take a sprawl pattern like Houston and try to put it on an Atlanta-like terrain, you have to spread things out due to the non-buildable slopes and features. A more dense pattern (ala San Francisco, postcards of Italy...) works just fine on such steep slopes.

RE: Different policies might have altered the suburban landscape in modest ways over the past 50 years, but they couldn'’t have reversed them.

I would take issue with that. If the Interstate Highway Act in the 50s had been the Interstate Railway Act, the US would more closely resemble Europe in terms of how the cities are shaped. There were a long list of incentives to abandon urban neighborhoods in favor of new construction. To say that the impact of these policies in the overall form of cities was "modest" is understating their role. The availability of cheap energy also played a crucial role.

At 10:41 PM, November 09, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

My understanding is that Atlanta has a lot of downzoning, encouraging big lots and lower density.

At 1:45 AM, November 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are incorrect about Atlanta, Tory in the sense that Atlanta is pretty much as far out radially as its going to get, and almost all the new upper-middle class development is occuring via old home teardowns and building from within. This has created its own problems, but if anything, the recent trend in Atlanta is to move into the loop. The city expanded too far and is now paying for it with gridlock, which I fear is a harbinger of things to come in Houston (ie worse traffic)

At 9:25 AM, November 10, 2005, Blogger David said...

This is a big problem, this business of talking about the overall average density in a region. Just as RJ says, Atlanta has lots of varying topography, which means there's a lot of land that isn't developed, which means there's a lot of greenspace. And that's exactly the feeling I always get moving around Atlanta. This is just a sort of gut notion, but it seems to me Atlanta has a lot more centers that are at least moderately developed, while Houston is getting to be more of a carpet of subdivisions with no centers. Tory, you say you've always been against the sprawl fight and for a vibrant core, and I agree about the sprawl fight part, but not about the idea of one core. Houston has several cores - at least 6 really big ones - and there could be more. If we could put more energy into all of them - and there are over 140 municipal opportunities - we might have some greenspace, too. But I think that statement that Houston is the poster child of sprawl is correct, because we don't have that. And also because Atlanta is focused on quality of life as its top priority, and it's been impossible to get Houston's leaders to adopt that goal.

At 1:51 PM, November 10, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I would say that quality of life has been a big recent focus in this city, and has been a stated top priority of Mayor White. GHP is all over it too. I think there are good efforts on more greenspace along the bayous too, and a lot of the newer master-planned communities reserve plenty of greenspace.

I'm all for more town centers, more places with, well, a "sense of place". When I say core, I really mean the city of Houston, particularly the inner part of it. I don't want us to end up like Detroit with a lot of great little suburban small towns around the edge, but a decaying core city with no tax base. Dallas is heading that direction and LA has a similar problem.

I do have a concern that, as we strengthen neighborhoods/places, they will become more NIMBY-like at the expense of city and region as a whole. People fear change, and given the political tools, will stop it every chance they get. I'd hate to see us lose our dynamic, ever-changing, ever-evolving nature.

At 9:02 PM, November 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too worry about Houston becoming the next Detroit, rather than the next Atlanta. LA really doesnt have the problems you speak of though, you will have absolutely no problems getting people to move in the city to avoid traffic, its just so darn expensive to do so.

On the extremes of Portland and Houston, it would be better for us to find a middle ground. Frankly, Greenway Plaza shouldn't exist. We need to stop building up peripheral downtowns and focus on our main downtown. But we also need better means of getting there.

Houston, rather than discouraging development elsewhere, really needs to find ways to encourage development in the loop. I have a bad feeling if we don't, we could easily become the next Detroit once oil starts becoming less profitable.

At 8:27 AM, November 11, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Sorry, what I meant about LA was that most big companies have moved out to suburban cities, but you're right, they still have a healthy property tax base. Unfortunately, because of caps in CA, even though property values have skyrocketed, the city doesn't get much money.

I disagree on the multiple job centers. I think it helps distribute the traffic load more evenly around the city, but I certainly agree that we want to keep the bulk in the core.

The best way to encourage jobs in the core is to provide mobility in and out. I think freeway capacity is critical, but there are realistic limits. So we need the comprehensive HOV/HOT network with fast express bus and vanpool service from all over the region (not just Metro service area) to *all* the job centers with convenient schedules.

At 11:07 AM, November 11, 2005, Blogger kjb434 said...

I think Houston has a very (extremely) small chance of becoming anything like the horror Detroit has become.

Houston doesn't have the ridiculous tax and anti business climate that can kill a city. The people of Detroit need to wake up and realized that taxing something never solves a problem.

At 1:30 PM, November 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Taxing didnt kill Detroit, it just made sure Detroit didnt have a graceful decline to insignificance (with just about every other major midwest city save Chicago).

Even according to the tax impact rankings from CNN quoted in this blog, NY, Philadelphia, Portland, Atlanta and Baltimore have higher overall tax impacts yet NY, Phily, Portland, and Atlanta all have vibrant economies.

What really killed Detroit is that everything of significance moved outside their city limits, and in doing so reduced the number of taxpayers. In a situation like this, the only option a city has is to increase taxes to make up for the lost base. This is unfortunately the only thing a city can do to stay afloat, yet it is in effect what drives more businesses from the core.

But I really feel the main problem Detroit had aside from an industrial monoculture and high crime were the flight of people, companies, and quality research facilities into the periphery.

Aside from high crime, we have similar problems, but luckily our population growth is counteracting any potential loss of base.

At 9:10 AM, November 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Taxes had virtually nothing to do with Detroit's popultion decline. White flight killed Detroit. Detroit's population maxed out at 1.85 million in 1950, as the post-war expansion of the economy created a huge demand for automobiles. Detroit lost 44% of it's population from 1950 to 1990, becoming 90% minority, one third of the population living in poverty. The rising tax rate resulted from the cost of running a city being borne by a shrinking populace with shrinking income, not the other way around.

At 8:23 AM, November 14, 2005, Blogger David said...

Tory said "I would say that quality of life has been a big recent focus in this city, and has been a stated top priority of Mayor White. GHP is all over it too." I actually mean quality of life, not just fewer billboards and more synchronized traffic lights. Quality of life, the whole thing. Some of that's about greenspace, but not as much as GHP would like to pretend. I'm involved in some exercises right now where making quality of life the top priority is being debated, with the clear likely winner being "economic development" instead of "quality of life."

At 10:52 AM, November 14, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I understood that there were high-level groups focused on green space (mainly along the bayous) and air pollution. The Mayor is building the GRB park and expanding the transit system as fast as possible with the switch to BRT. The Mayor has announced free wireless Internet, improving air quality, and upgrading neighborhoods all as second term priorities. That all sounds like quality of life to me.


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