Sunday, November 20, 2005

Sprawl seems to be coded in our psyche

I apologize in advance, since I've already talked about this topic before (twice), but this book review in Slate of "Sprawl" has an excellent excerpt I had to pass along. I almost started to highlight specific sentences, but soon had more than half of the text highlighted, which is a sign to just drop the highlights and let the text stand on its own:

The point is not that London, any more than Barcelona or Paris, is a city in decline (although the demographics of European city centers have changed and are now home to wealthier and older inhabitants, just like some American cities). Central urban densities are dropping because household sizes are smaller and affluent people occupy more space. Like Americans, Europeans have opted for decentralization. To a great extent, this dispersal is driven by a desire for home-ownership. "Polls consistently confirm that most Europeans, like most Americans, and indeed most people worldwide, would prefer to live in single-family houses on their own piece of land rather than in apartment buildings," Bruegmann writes. So strong is this preference that certain European countries such as Ireland and the United Kingdom now have higher single-family house occupancy rates than the United States, while others, such as Holland, Belgium, and Norway, are comparable. Half of all French households now live in houses.

It appears that all cities—at least all cities in the industrialized Western world—have experienced a dispersal of population from the center to a lower-density periphery. In other words, sprawl is universal. Why is this significant? "Most American anti-sprawl reformers today believe that sprawl is a recent and peculiarly American phenomenon caused by specific technological innovations like the automobile and by government policies like single-use zoning or the mortgage-interest deduction on the federal income tax," Bruegmann writes. "It is important for them to believe this because if sprawl turned out to be a long-standing feature of urban development worldwide, it would suggest that stopping it involves something much more fundamental than correcting some poor American land-use policy."

What this iconoclastic little book demonstrates is that sprawl is not the anomalous result of American zoning laws, or mortgage interest tax deduction, or cheap gas, or subsidized highway construction, or cultural antipathy toward cities. Nor is it an aberration. Bruegmann shows that asking whether sprawl is "good" or "bad" is the wrong question. Sprawl is and always has been inherent to urbanization. It is driven less by the regulations of legislators, the actions of developers, and the theories of city planners, than by the decisions of millions of individuals—Adam Smith's "invisible hand." This makes altering it very complicated, indeed. There are scores of books offering "solutions" to sprawl. Their authors would do well to read this book. To find solutions—or, rather, better ways to manage sprawl, which is not the same thing—it helps to get the problem right.

Bottom line: affluence seeks space, and economic growth is always adding to affluence. These fundamental forces must be taken into account in urban policy to the same extent weight and gravity must be considered in designing and building any physical structure.


At 9:17 AM, November 21, 2005, Blogger kjb434 said...

I have read this book also. It really does show that truly investating sprawl reveals that it's not a problem. Sprawl needs to managed in a way that doesn't stop it, but instead makes it work.

I find that Houston is fairly good case of where sprawl has worked and not hurt this city.

At 1:58 PM, November 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sprawl never hurts a city until its too late to change the transportation dynamics of the area.

One need not look farther than all of California, Dallas, Miami, Atlanta, or Washington to see how bad sprawl can get in such a short span of time.

Detroit suburbs ironically killed the city that led to their existence. One hopes that this will not happen here as well.

At 2:16 PM, November 21, 2005, Blogger kjb434 said...

Detroit's demise and the growth of its suburbs have more to do with the failure of the city of Detroit to implement pro-growth policies.

High property taxes and local income taxes drove people out of the city.

Houston doesn't have the problem of people fleeing the city center and moving to suburbs. Our suburbs are gaining much of its growth from new residents and not residents from within the city.

The overal Tax burden here in Houston and in Texas in general is lower than most places which allow are cities to not fall apart.

At 4:03 PM, November 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

kjb said:

"Detroit's demise and the growth of its suburbs have more to do with the failure of the city of Detroit to implement pro-growth policies.

High property taxes and local income taxes drove people out of the city."

You repeat this every chance you get, even though there is no evidence that it is true. Wishing your political philosophy onto a situation does not make it so. Repeating it without facts does not make it true, either.

At 10:04 PM, November 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems as if you do not understand basic economics. The reason struggling cities have to raise taxes is because once all the rich people leave, they have to tax the few people left over just to survive and provide basic services.

The reason people left the city-- both rich people and jobs moved to the suburbs, so there was no reason for Detroit proper to exist.

And in terms of taxes, California, New York, and Massachusetts all have much higher taxes and have no problems with their cities dying. Sugar Land and Woodlands have higher taxes than Houston proper, but those suburbs have no problems attracting people.

Saying high taxes killed the city is just plain stupid, no one would tax their city to death-- because that means they would be out of a job. But once people start leaving, and you need to raise taxes just to operate, well, you really have no choice.

At 8:05 AM, November 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

kjb434 -

Since you are repeating the same (incorrect) facts about Detroit as in previous posts, I will paste below a prior response...

"The city was killed long before that, by mostly different conditions than you mentioned. A book by Thomas Segrue provides a comprehensive analysis of the factors of Detroit's decline, and the following review nicely captures his points: case the url gets cut off, that's history dot standord dot edu slash conference slash sugruerev.htm"

- anon2

At 9:02 AM, November 22, 2005, Blogger kjb434 said...

"And in terms of taxes, California, New York, and Massachusetts all have much higher taxes and have no problems with their cities dying. Sugar Land and Woodlands have higher taxes than Houston proper, but those suburbs have no problems attracting people."

Do you really want to look at these places you mentioned above. New York city has gone from over 100 fortune 500 companies down to around 40. Many jobs and companies have moved from California to Arizona because of taxes and outlandish job benifit requirements imposed by the state. The numbers of people moving out of the northeast to the south continue to grow also.

The state of Florida estimates that about 800 people a day move from the northeast to Florida. This is just under 300,000 a year. I suspect the suburbs of Atlanta and cities in Texas are also getting some of these people.

The larger northeast cities are seeing an upsurge in wealthier residents while more and more middle class residents have live farther away. So yes, these cities aren't dying, but they aren't any friendlier to middle class residents. They are starting to follow the pattern of European cities where the middle and lower class are being pushed to the suburbs. Houston is seeing some of this too, but there are still many places that are of good value closer into the city where one doesn't have to be wealthy to live.

I concede it's not just taxes, but in my orginal post I have mentioned "pro-growth" policies. This encompasses so much more.

At 11:12 PM, November 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pro-growth is so much more than low taxes. Even with some businesses and people moving from NY, CA, and Mass. they are still 3 of the best performing economic regions in the country. Texas would trade places economically (and educationally) with any of those 3 states if we could because they have been a model, even with their problems, of how to develop a regional high-tech economy.

Secondly, businesses don't just look for low taxes, they look for an educated population and adequate infrastructure to support their business. If low taxes were all that was required to attract business, Silicon Valley wouldn't be in Cali, it would be in South Dakota or Alabama, both states with substantially lower taxes than Cali.

While everyone wants low taxes, sometimes you have to pony up if you want to not be run into the ground. If you don't provide an adequate infrastructure with an educated and economically affluent community, no business is going to want to come there, no matter how low the taxes.

At 5:14 AM, November 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For anyone not in the know, "pro-growth" is just secret conservative code for "huge subsidies for businesses that conservatives support."

At 1:32 PM, December 12, 2005, Blogger Dean said...

An excerpt from Sprawl: A Compact History by Robert Bruegmann is available on the University of Chicago Press website:


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