Durable Growth

Checking up on sprawl

141008005 West HavenSprawl largely stopped dead during the recession, leaving analysts pondering whether the development paradigm had truly changed or if the slowdown was solely the result of a lack of demand in a stalled economy.

Today, I remain skeptical about the long-term strength of the economy, fearing that more bumps will come our way from the accumulated debt of our failed dalliance with suburbia.  However, with the economy showing at least temporary signs of life, it’s worth checking to see if sprawl is making a comeback.

There’s much evidence that the past momentum of sprawl has been reversed.  Driven by the lifestyle choices of younger demographic segments, the outflow of jobs from urban centers has reversed and jobs are returning downtown in most markets.

Also, the sprawling and half-completed subdivisions that were stranded throughout the west by the recession remain enough of a phenomenon that the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has prepared a position paper on “zombie subdivisions”, suggesting strategies for resolving the current half-defunct subdivisions and proposing policies to preventing another generation of failed subdivisions during future economic hard times.

But these indications that sprawl is truly dying are somewhat balanced by a story out of Las Vegas in which a stalled subdivision outside of the city is being rebooted after a change in architecture from a more dense, alley-based urbanist style to more stand-alone suburban-style homes.

(There is another question implicit in the Las Vegas project, which is whether an urban-appearing project that is remains largely remote from urban amenities and requires a car for most trips is truly urbanist or only an architectural conceit?  Michael Lewyn tackles the question with regard to a dense but car-oriented project outside of Boston.

Lewyn concludes that the Boston project isn’t bad, although part of his reasoning involves a Burger King a mile away, a distance that is generally beyond the regular walking range of most folks and definitely beyond the walking range for all but the most intrepid during the Boston winter of 2015.

I hold a more firmly negative attitude toward the Boston project, believing that, until walkability and transit serve the project, it is no better than car-oriented suburbia.  The only reason to prefer it to low-density suburbia is the possibility that it can someday be served by walkability and transit.)

However, the Las Vegas situation controversy pivots on a different point, which is the argument of the developers that suburban-style McMansions are what people want and the response of urbanists that developers were too quick to abandon the more-urbanist model when the slow sales were more likely the result of the economy and not the housing configuration.

Personally, I make a different argument, which is that the issue is solely about economics and pricing the alternatives accurately.

If chocolate ice cream and vanilla ice cream had the same price, there might be a fifty-fifty split between those who would choose one and those who would choose the other.  But if chocolate was suddenly three times more expensive, then the split would move sharply in favor of vanilla.  Heck, I’m frugal enough that I’d be one of those making the switch.

Given of a choice of a Ford or a Porsche at the same price, most folks would go for the Porsche.   But if they had to write a check for the actual market price, the Ford would become the overwhelming choice.

It’s the way markets work and they should be celebrated for the way they create wealth while balancing supply and demand.

But when we get to land use, we subvert the signals.  We don’t tax gasoline to account for the environmental or geopolitical costs, so effectively subsidize driving to remote subdivisions.  We charge a flat rate property tax instead of putting higher taxes on folks who need more roads for their daily life.

We then assume that that the split between suburban and urban sales reflects a true lifestyle preference, when all it’s really doing is bouncing back rational financial responses to distorted economic incentives.

The argument then goes further down the rabbit hole when fringe political groups, who claim to champion the free market system, describe urbanism as collectivism and argue for a continuation of the current system of subsidizing suburbia.  It’s enough to make one’s head hurt.

We’ve gone so far down this path of flawed economic signals that backing our way out will be difficult.  But in my next post, I’ll continue the discussion with a thought experiment.

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: In a local update, Petaluma Urban Chat met a few days ago to review three alternative conceptual plans for reuse of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  The consensus was that all three plans offered good ideas, but that one of plans was a half-step ahead, so would become the base onto which the good ideas from the other plans would be grafted.

The key element of primary plan is a park of perhaps four acres, angling away from the intersection of Payran and D Streets, framed by mid-rise residential buildings on both sides and terminating in a taller mixed-use building, with residential above a public market.

A team of five Urban Chat members was selected to continue the conceptual design effort at weekly meetings.  (Note: This aggressive meeting schedule will require cancelling the general Urban Chat meeting for March to avoid over-commitments.)

Also, it was decided that efforts to mold public opinion with the completed conceptual design would require better graphics than could be accomplished using the tools available to the Urban Chat members.  Thus, the idea was hatched to attempt a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for presentation graphics, with the further hope that the funds could be stretched by identifying design professionals willing to work at reduced rates.

If anyone is willing to champion a Kickstarter effort, please let me know.

And if anyone not at the most recent meeting would like to see the three plans, also let me know.  I’m available many evenings to chat about the process, the status, and the design concepts.  I’d prefer to chat over a beer at a downtown pub.

It’s been a fun and exciting process thus far, and neither the fun nor the excitement is yet over.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

1 comment to Checking up on sprawl

  • Or, if you’re stuck in the suburbs, as my wife and I are, kick back. We have our own litlte shady oasis of hardy, low-maintenance Australian native shrubs and trees. Very un-fashionable, when it’s smack in the middle of a new “development”, an outer suburban desert where the norm is water-loving exotic shrubs and lawns, all clipped and manicured to within an inch of their life, to match the show-case houses and the spotlessly clean four-wheel-drives parked on driveways that get pressure washed every week (to prevent the pavers becoming discoloured by the nasty Adelaide dust, don’t y’know). The neighbours, when they’re not avoiding each other, talk loudly about their property values and the cost of fuel in this car-crazy place where everything’s too far away to walk to. All this in South Australia, the driest state in the driest continent, where we’re currently enduring a drought. Funny people… (Excuse me for ranting in your forum, but you’re not the only one feeling let down by this widespread lack of foresight and, dare I say it, common sense).