Notes From Babel

To Sprawl or Not to Sprawl

with 2 comments

Seems several people lately have taken to writing about land use and urbanism and sprawl—perhaps taking a mental health break from the HCR debate.  As I’ve been trying to finish an article touching on the topic, I wound up burning through much of my Saturday morning reading all the cited articles in this post by Austin Bramwell.  One of those links was to this lengthy and very enlightening article by Michael Lewyn.  Lewyn lays out in detail the argument that sprawl—popularly characterized by purported free-marketeers as the very joi de vivre—is actually a result of the deliberate machinations of government.  The argument, at about 30,000 feet, looks a bit like this:

Big cities used to be pretty hot stuff until about 1950.  By then, however, cars had become ubiquitous, and the 1956 Interstate Highway Act began to invite well-to-do city dwellers to explore the possibility of outskirts living.  The Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage insurance program doubled down on this incentive, giving mortgage insurance to new low density areas.  This drain of the affluent out of the cities left the cities with a bigger share of poor folks, which the federal government exacerbated with affordable housing subsidies—driving even more poor people to the inner cities.  The State Zoning Enabling Act, adopted by many states, allowed new suburbs to regulate land use to further attract the affluent and keep out the poor.  Anyone still tenacious enough to stay in the cities gave up once their kids got to schooling age, and the reality of sending their kids to lousy urban schools with the local riffraff finally broke their spirits and sent them packing for suburbia.

As a result, starting with the 1950s, every single decade has seen a decline in population in almost all of the nation’s major cities.

This all had me going—I’m ambivalent on the urb/ suburb question, but I certainly don’t like the thought of some place-hunter making up my mind for me.  If sprawl is the result of choices freely made, then let it be.  But if the deck’s been stacked by government controls and incentives, then it can’t be said that the choice was a free one.  All of a sudden, the principal justification for sprawl—that it’s what people want—is out on its ear.

Then I came across William Bogart’s Don’t Call It Sprawl on Amazon, and then this interview on  Bogart’s view is much better than either the pro- or anti-sprawl camps, or even the libertarian/conservative position espoused by Lewyn.  In short, Bogart argues that we are naive to think that we can get our heads around what a “good” city might look like.  Instead, the planning, developing, redeveloping, moving, and starting over that goes on in our communities—the fluidity in land use planning—is not a side-effect or symptom of bad ideas, but instead an essential, healthy component of human societies.  Here is a key exchange:

reason: You write that “lags in investment mean that existing metropolitan structure will always be inefficient.” You also note that “if all the houses in an area are newly constructed at the same time, then they will likely become obsolete at the same time.” So is the inefficiency a good thing?

Bogart: It gets us away from that static view and more towards a long-run view. Those static inefficiencies are perhaps a cost of a long-run efficiency. You’re much better off having a place where there is this constant flow and flux. That flow and flux means that things are leaving that shouldn’t be there anymore, and things are coming in that think that it’s a good place for them, and maybe it works out and maybe not.

A wonderful book in many ways is Edge City by Joel Garreau. He talks about people who look at some of the places in Venice and say, “Why can’t we build something like that in America?” They forget that the city developed over 800 years. It’s not as though an urban planner came in and said, “Let’s build this plaza.” Developers would go in and build something. If it was great it lasted and people redeveloped it and kept it, and if it wasn’t then 20 years later someone came in, tore it down, and built something else. Over the course of a few hundred years you might be left with something pretty nice as a result, because the good stuff stays and the bad stuff goes.

A lot of our negative judgments are taken perhaps too quickly. Some of these Baltimore neighborhoods with rowhouses, maybe 30 years ago someone said, “Why would anyone want to live in a place like that?” Well, it turns out that there’s a large number of people who want to live in places like that, for very good reasons. Had we done things that were advocated with bulldozers and wrecking balls, they would have lost that opportunity.

As for sprawl, Bogart says this:

The other thing that’s frustrating is, if you read a lot of planners’ critiques of what they refer to as urban sprawl, they’re completely focused on the present. You would think a profession called planning would be concerned with the evolution and transition of areas. But they aren’t. They’ll look at a situation where a few houses have been built, and they’ll say that’s sprawl. Well, perhaps. Or perhaps over the next 10 or 20 years there’s going to be further infill development there — if it’s allowed by the local land-use controls — and in fact what they’re seeing is a city in construction. As a country, we’re growing in population. Those people have to go someplace. And they’re not all going to go there at once.

So we have to think about not just land use at a particular point in time, but where we’re going. Areas change, and a lot of the problems we have in redevelopment are self-inflicted because of the type of land use regime that we’ve imposed on ourselves.

Keeping these observations in mind, let’s now take another look at Lewyn’s critiques.  There is nothing contemptible about the government building roads to give people new choices for shaping their communities.  It might even be forgiven for subsidizing suburban mortgages in order to allow these new communities to reach critical mass.  Certainly, these policies created problems for the traditional cities.  But if we accept a more fluid model for land use and community planning, this is more a puzzle than a problem—that is, certainly there are virtues in both urban and suburban living, so how do we make both of them work?

If fluidity creates these puzzles, fluidity will also help solve them.  This means planners are going to need to release their chokehold on land use decisions and let the market express people’s choices.

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Written by Tim Kowal

March 15, 2010 at 10:21 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Very interesting Tim. I feel like I’m not traveled enough to have views on best living situations. I hate how spread out LA is, and think the tight formation of NY is cool, along with London and elsewhere. But I also love having a yard and fire-pit and bbq’s on the patio.


    March 16, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    • You’ve put your finger on it. Politicians always like to engage in the “one the one hand…on the other hand” kind of talk. And yet they go right on ahead and lay down monolithic rules anyway. If they’d stop doing that, we’d be more likely to see communities where a little bit of everything is offered.

      Tim Kowal

      March 19, 2010 at 11:59 pm

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