IG of the Day: Sprawl in Abeyance

Population growth 2006.

“America’s romance with sprawl may be over,” blares the headline of USA Today. “Five years ago, millions of Americans were streaming to new homes on the fringes of metropolitan areas. Then housing prices collapsed and the Great Recession slowed growth to levels not seen since the Great Depression in the 1930s. Growth remained slow last year, and largely confined to counties at the center of metropolitan areas.”

The maps at left (taken from USA Today) show just how much growth has slowed overall. What they don’t show very clearly is how growth has reoriented within metropolitan regions. Says the newspaper:

Population growth 2011.

Population growth in fringe counties nearly screeched to a halt in the year that ended July 1, 2011. By comparison, counties at the core of metro areas are growing faster than the nation as a whole.

“There’s a pall being cast on the outer edges,” says John McIlwain, senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit development group that promotes sustainability. “The foreclosures, the vacancies, the uncompleted roads. It’s uncomfortable out there. The glitz is off.”

But never count sprawl out. “Sprawl is the Freddy Krueger of American development,” says Robert Lang, author of Megapolitan America. “It’s always pronounced dead and yet somehow springs back to life.”


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  1. If the Urban Land Use Institute is promoting urban living as somehow more sustainable,they are a fraud. There is no credible evidence that urban areas are “more sustainable”, unless you also count all the land in their environemental footprint as part of the urban area.

  2. larryg Avatar

    on the other hand – exurban greenfield development characterized as “Smart Growth” is just as big a fraud when the folks who are supposedly going to live in these enclaves are commuting 50 miles to jobs in NoVa.

    not that anyone can understand why anyone with a job in NoVa would commute 50 miles to live in the same kind of “Smart Growth” that would be available in NoVa.

    The difference is that “Smart Growth” requires water and sewer. Water and Sewer does not exist in a lot of exurban suburbia unless of course some developer proposes a Smart Growth development. It does not really matter if anyone really lives in it or not as long as the water/sewer is extended to it because then that same water/sewer can be extended a bit further to serve traditional single family detached subdivisions with VDOT-maintained internal roads – i.e. S*P*R*A*W*L.

    The wild card on all of this is HOT Lanes and the cost of commuting to Suburbia.

    The further you drive on the HOT lanes – the more it will cost you.

    It will be interesting to see what, if any, effect HOT Lanes have on Sprawl.

  3. larryg Avatar

    The heat and soul of sprawl is the single family detached home in a subdivision configured like a virtual gated community – i.e. one entrance with one possible emergency entrance and no other connections – all interior roads end in a cul-de-sac or “court”.

    This is what people want and often cannot find in affordable versions in urban area and thus begin commuting, i.e. not only driving until they qualify but driving until they find that subdivision they want to live in.

    I think views that high gas prices and HOT lanes will kill sprawl greatly underestimate what drives sprawl – pun intended.

    I predict that Mass Transit and Hybrid-like cars and plain old carpools will become the saviors of sprawl.

    Already in the Fredericksburg Area, we are festooned with “commuter” lots that are hives of commuter bus and van activity at 4 and 5 am in the mornings.

    North of us, there are several commuter lots that are so popular for slugging that the Police have to ticket people when they start parking on grassy areas.

    We have anti-Sprawl groups who talk about the wrongness of the public paying for commuter highways and mass transit such as commuter rail (which is heavily subsidized) but as highways / rail become maxed and options for adding highway and rail infrastructure shrink due to costs and availability of tax dollars, the options of commuter buses and vans as well as slugging (casual carpooling) only become more likely to expand.

    I do not see people giving up their homes in suburbia because of high fuel prices or even HOT Lanes.

    The question I have for the folks who abhor “sprawl” is – if people start moving from solo vehicles to multi-passenger private vehicles is that addressing one of the bigger complaints about “sprawl”.

    And if it does… is “sprawl” enabled/sustained by private mass transit still a “bad” thing? In other words, is Sprawl well-defined enough such that in and of itself it is STILL a bad thing?

    I’ve always wondered what the answer to this question is. Perhaps some will take a shot at it.

    1. My feeling is that people should be allowed to live where they want — as long as they pay their full locational costs, with transportation being the No. 1 such cost. If people want to live in cul de sac subdivisions, that’s their prerogative. Just pay the full cost. If people want to live in the city…. just pay the full cost.

      The trouble is, nobody knows what the full costs are. It is arrogance and hubris to say we know. As Ray Hyde says, maybe it’s *more* expensive to provide public amenities/services in the city. The best we can do is try to price the cost of transportation, utilities and public services so that people pay in proportion to which they create a demand for those amenities. Then let the market sort it out.

      Well, I would add one more caveat: The zoning rules of the game are rigged in favor of sprawl-type development. It is far more difficult for someone to build a higher-density, mixed use project than a greenfield cul de sac project. We need to allow real estate developers more freedom to innovate — always with the stipulation that they pay the full locational costs.

  4. exurban greenfield development characterized as “Smart Growth” is just as big a fraud

    I believe that is also correct. In every case there is an objective truth: whether the action results in a better situation or not. Greenfield smart growth simply exhibits the true goal of retaining open space, no matter the cost.

    Especially if that cost falls to someone else in the form of a noncompensable regulatory taking.

  5. It will be interesting to see what, if any, effect HOT Lanes have on Sprawl.

    Indeed. I believe that part of what we will discover is that highways are not much of a benefit for commuters, but rather more to the employers that hire them.

    Right now you have a large mass in the center and a bunch of small satellites. But the more expensive it becomes to reach orbit, the more likely it is that you can afford to build a space station.

    Hot lanes will make it more expensive to reach teh center city, but they won;t do anything to make the center city less expensive or more desireable to live in. To the contrary, some of the smart growth agenda will take hold, for which we will hear no end of trumpeting. At whatever extent this happens and people do elect to live closer to work, it will drive the costs even higher.

    With higher costs to live or opperate your business in the central areas, and a higher cost to get there, the obvious alternative becomes much more probable, especially when y0u see it already happening. The new FBI building will not be built downtown, for instance.

  6. The trouble is, nobody knows what the full costs are.
    Nah, the trouble is no one really wants to know. If they knew, they would lose the opportunity to point the finger at the other guy.

    A big part of the problem is those that focus only on the government cost of things, as if saving the government money was the same as saving all of us money. But if the government saves money by selling a toll road, and the people still pay the tolls, where has the money that was “saved” gone to?

    The answer will be that there was no money saved, and the road was in fact more expensive, the extra cost going to private enterprise. Furthermore, if larry and Jim think for a second, that at least the USERS will pay, and this system s therefore more fair, let me put that idea to rest as well.

    A user pays plan lets all the other beneficiaries off the hook, and for those that do pay, much of the cost will, I guarantee, get distributed through higher prices, higher wages to attract those that must pay the tolls, etc.

  7. …….. so that people pay in proportion to which they create a demand for those amenities. Then let the market sort it out.
    This is another one of those ideas that is easily distorted. As this is written, it is fine, but the distortion comes in when people assume that increased demand is attributable only to the new population. If the population increases 30%, then 70% of the “new” level of total demand is still attributable to the existing population, which of course wants to hear none of that.

    Which is why no one “knows” the real cost.

  8. It is far more difficult for someone to build a higher-density, mixed use project than a greenfield cul de sac project, because people do not want built next to them what they moved from the city to escape.

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