Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sprawl is not Dead...

Countless articles and blogs have breathlessly proclaimed the "Death of Sprawl" in light of new census data showing that exurb growth has stagnated or shrunk in many regions around the country. Planners and urbanist commentators have trumpeted the death of the sprawl and the rise of a new generation of people that can't wait to rush into multifamily housing complexes in mixed-use developments adjacent to light-rail stops and bike lanes, all while building iPhone apps in their spare time in between yarn-bombing trees and yoga flashmobs.

Forgive me if I seem less than sanguine about such calls. There are multiple issues that arise when we actually take a step back and think a bit about these pronouncements. I'll only cover a couple as there have  already been a few folks much smarter and established than me who have called for sanity in these pronouncements.

1. We're Counting Data in a Housing Slump

This is the most egregious, basic first-year grad school mistake made by commentators looking at this census data and proclaiming the end of sprawl in ignoring the business cycle. Have we forgotten that we have spent the better part of the entire first decade of the 21st century in recession? Even before the great financial crash, the US had suffered from sluggish economic growth as part of a hangover from tech stock speculation and 9-11. This anemic growth was bolstered by incredibly cheap credit that fueled a housing market bubble. When we could no longer extend credit, the bubble collapsed in on itself. Because of this, we've had a major drop in housing demand due to a loss of jobs, difficulty in obtaining credit, and in some regions there was certainly excess supply built in booming exurbs far from employment centers.

This recent census data is largely showing this effect of a HUGE housing collapse that's accompanied a stubborn recession. It makes sense that the housing markets that were most driven by the cheap financing that has now dried up would collapse.

2. Urban Growth is Different than City Growth

This is a more subtle argument, but it still holds weight when you have people trumpeting the death of sprawl and a magical exodus back to the city based on some fundamental change in the values of young people, or the country, in general.

What these census values have shown, and what some commentators have been careful to show, is that while exurb growth has certainly slowed or stopped entirely the growth we are seeing are in "urban areas". Urban areas and urban clusters, according to the Census, are areas with census block groups with a population density of at least 1000 people/sq mile, and surrounding census block groups with at least 500 people/sq mile.

Much of the growth touted by urbanists and planners has been in southeast and southwest in areas that are traditionally less dense than large eastern cities and MSAs. The bulk of the growth of these urban areas has been within the metro areas, in suburban areas that are encompassed within metro and urban areas. Witold Rybczynski spoke to this back in November in response to a blog post from Richard Florida pushing this narrative. In a paragraph, Rybczynski, destroys Florida's argument and it should force us to take pause. Our definition of urban, at least the definition as given by the Census, IS NOT the same as saying people are moving back into central cities, or even older inner-ring suburbs in droves. Growth has certainly been concentrated around major urban centers and MSAs, but urban areas have been centers of economic growth and anchors for suburban growth for centuries. This should not be a surprise, nor does it necessarily imply some kind of fundamental shift in values based off of a limited data set in our worst recession and housing slump since the Great Depression.

3. Where's the political support or reform?

This to me is the central indicator as to whether or not we have seen some kind of fundamental value shift in how we perceive what is valuable in where we ultimately settle and what we view as favorable urban forms. This supposed renaissance of urban living as signified by the death of sprawl should be accompanied by a political push to strengthen development guidelines to encourage smart growth, transit-oriented and adjacent development, and, ideally, balancing out jobs-housing spatial mismatch, and working to lessen the primacy of the automobile in our every day lives.

Outside of some pilot cities and large urban areas, this has not been the case. While certain states, like California, have seen recent success in bringing regional development plans into fruition, the regional governing bodies still have few mechanisms to enforce new guidelines and there are still open questions regarding whether there will be funding for these ambitious and, I think, positive steps.

Let us also not forget the rather vociferous campaign by the republicans in congress to utterly eviscerate funding for mass transit and smart-growth initiatives. All of the political indicators show a continuation of the pro-sprawl values that have propelled us forward for the past 80 years. We can talk about the death of sprawl when the federal government gives COGs greater teeth or we see movement on reviving federal growth management policy and leadership. Until then, let's fall back a bit and think more deeply on how we can continue to take advantage of this drop in sprawling development and make our urban areas better and more desirable places to live so that when the economy rebounds (and we should all hope that it does) that we can actually hope for a shift in the underlying values of our citizens, the incentives that drive sprawl, and the political and institutional structures that exacerbate it.