Brawl over sprawl

Today, Bruegmann and Ohland address the social tensions over urban sprawl. Later this week, they’ll debate Smart Growth, environmental concerns, modifying public behavior and more.

Density, not sprawl, is the word of L.A.'s undoing
By Robert Bruegmann

The outward sprawl of our cities has clearly caused some problems that need to be addressed. However this sprawl has also had enormous benefits, and it is not at all clear that any alternative urban form would work better.

After doing a considerable amount of research on this subject for my book I concluded that very little of what was said about sprawl was either accurate or useful. The accepted wisdom today is that sprawl is recent, peculiarly American and caused by increasing automobile ownership and use. In fact, if we define sprawl in the most basic way as the decentralization of cities at constantly lower population densities and without any over-arching plan, it is fair to say that it has been going on since the beginning of urban history. Whether in imperial Rome or 19th century London, whenever a new group of people could afford to escape the congestion, noise and unsanitary conditions of city centers, they did so. In fact the exodus from central London in the 19th century, made possible by the newly invented railroad and public transportation, was at least as great as anything seen in the United States after World War II.

And every time a new group moved out there was an intellectual and artistic elite that was affronted and wished to stop it. In 19th century London, for example, “right-minded” individuals condemned the miles of brick row houses then being constructed for middle class families as ugly boxes erected by greedy developers. They considered these new neighborhoods a blight on the countryside and were sure that they would become a slum in a generation. Of course, within a generation, this same class of people had decided that these very row houses were the essence of central London, the antithesis of the new sprawl they saw at the urban fringe.

And so it has gone over the centuries. Today we are told that sprawl is economically inefficient, socially inequitable, environmentally damaging and aesthetically ugly. The current lead argument is often environmental, based on the notion that high-density compact settlements are more energy-efficient and less polluting than lower density, more scattered ones. However, there is little evidence that this is the case. The old 19th century cities were environmental horrors and only worked as well as they did because they were so much smaller than today’s cities and most people were so poor that they had few choices in where they lived or worked. The most likely scenario to solve our energy problems and avert global warming is not to remake our cities at 19th century densities so that they can sustain 19th century technologies like the internal combustion engine, but instead to find new fuel sources and more efficient ways of using them at whatever densities people choose to live.

In any event, even if I am completely wrong and sprawl is a terrible thing, the record of attempts to stop it are not promising. In London, for example, where planners instituted a green belt and some of the toughest restrictions in the world immediately following World War II, they were unsuccessful. Indeed, the urban population of London has now scattered across much of the South of England. Throughout Europe, people are buying and using cars at a much faster rate than in the US and their dense, old cities are now sprawling outward faster than most American cities, particularly places like Los Angeles. In fact, the L.A. region has become so much denser over the last 50 years that it is currently the densest urbanized area in the United States. It is this increase in density and not density-lowering sprawl that lies at the root of many of the woes experienced by L.A. today.

Robert Bruegmann is professor of Art History, Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His most recent book is Sprawl: A Compact History, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2005.

Transit is the answer
By Gloria Ohland

I agree that sprawl has worked very well for this country, spurred on by seductive incentives such as the mortgage tax deduction and promoting the growth of the auto and oil industries that have propelled our economy. But while the American dream of a house in the suburbs and two cars in the garage was particularly appealing during the last century, it just doesn’t have the same appeal anymore. All moralizing aside about sprawl and the loss of open space, the effect of driving on greenhouse gas emissions, and our dependence on foreign oil, the fact is that the real estate market is changing, driven by changes in the demographics of the U.S. population. American households are older, smaller and much more diverse. Whereas the largest demographic group used to be households with children, singles are becoming the new majority and that has profound implications for how and where people want to live—and for the most part it’s not in the suburbs. Moreover, traffic makes driving to and from the suburbs increasingly untenable.

Add the high cost of land to the equation and suddenly it becomes clear why new apartment buildings, row houses, live-work spaces, condominiums, lofts, and other high-rise residential buildings are springing up in urban neighborhoods and suburban town centers all across the land. Times change. The homogeneity of our auto-oriented suburbs suited the homogenous population of yore. But a more diverse America wants more housing choices, and more transportation choices. That’s why all the biggest homebuilders have opened urban infill divisions. That’s why transit is in a building boom, with every region in the country either planning or building a new rail line. If suburban living was yesterday’s fashion, today’s American dream is much “greener.” More and more households want “a room with a view” within walking distance of coffee shops, restaurants, yoga, a dog park, art, film and culture. “Small is the New Big,” trumpeted the cover of Dwell magazine last year. “Smaller is Smarter,” read the cover of last month’s issue.

But the question we were to address is whether sprawl is a legitimate public policy concern, and quite frankly I can’t believe anyone would argue otherwise. What follows is a partial list of reasons why an increasing number of cities and regions in this country should be and are beginning to promote more compact development near transit:

  • It’s more sustainable;
  • It makes ore efficient use of land, energy and resources;
  • It helps conserve open space and habitat, thereby helping to maintain biodiversity and endangered species;
  • It results in less oil and gas consumption, therefore reducing dependence on foreign oil;
  • Less driving to far-flung neighborhoods means less air pollution (the increase in asthma in children is just one related concern);
  • It minimizes traffic increases;
  • It encourages more walking;
  • It concentrates development and activity and the tax base in a way that allows for focused “value capture strategies” like taxes and fees; this captured value can then be reinvested in our communities to make them better, and the increased revenues allow communities to lower tax rates;
  • It increases transit ridership;
  • It increases property values, lease revenues and rents;
  • It increases foot traffic for local businesses;
  • It creates opportunities for mixed-income housing;
  • Height and density can pay for community benefits and affordability;
  • Less time in the car means more time with family and friends;
  • It reduces transportation expenditures;
  • It promotes healthier lifestyles;
  • Neighborhoods are safer because there are more people on the street and more “eyes on the street.”

Research in Portland has shown that the residents of neighborhoods with good transit access and mixed-use development own fewer cars and use their cars less than residents of suburban neighborhoods. Only 58 percent of trips are by auto in mixed-use neighborhoods with good transit access, compared to 87 percent in suburban neighborhoods. Research in California has shown that people who live in more compact development near transit are five times as likely to use transit as residents of the region at large, and people who work in transit-oriented development are three and a half times as likely. I believe that given our increasing concerns about traffic and climate change and our unhappiness with the Iraq war, reducing the amount of driving should be our number-one public policy goal!
But here’s one final argument, one of the most important of all: Research done by the national nonprofit organization I work for has shown that while households that live in auto-dependent exurbs spend 25 percent of household income on transportation, households in “location-efficient” neighborhoods with higher-density mixed-use development and good transit access spend just 9 percent—a savings of 16 percent! This savings can be critical for low-income households: While the average household spends 19 percent on transportation, very-low-income households spend 55 percent or more! So building higher-density housing near transit is a key affordability strategy as well.

Have I convinced you, Bob? We’ve got to build more compact communities near transit instead of more sprawl.

Gloria Ohland is vice president for communications for Reconnecting America, a national nonprofit organization that works with the public and private sectors to promote best practices in development-oriented transit and transit-oriented development (TOD). She is co-author and co-editor of the award-winning Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the 21st Century; The New Transit Town: Best Practices in TOD; and Hidden in Plain Sight: Capturing the Demand for Housing Near Transit, a national market study funded by the Federal Transit Administration and released in 2005.

Next day’s Dust-Up >>
Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3