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Andrea

Why Sprawl Is Good

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Here's a review of a book called Sprawl: A Compact History. My thoughts have been going in the other direction but I'll have to admit it's provocative. A couple of quotes:

In recent years a whole movement has coalesced, the so-called New Urbanism, to sneer at suburban sprawl and all its various progeny. Yet as Robert Bruegmann shows in "Sprawl: A Compact History," the conventional anti-suburbs wisdom is often just plain wrong. Mr. Bruegmann, a professor of urban planning and art history at the University of Illinois, takes every assumption about "sprawl" -- a pejorative to be sure -- and turns it on its head. Many of the characteristics associated with sprawl -- such as low-density development and lack of regional or public-use planning -- he argues, have been present in prosperous cities since the beginning of urban history. They are the natural effects of a city's gaining economic maturity -- not the recent consequence of vulgar Americans insisting on living in monstrous, single-use homes, as many sprawl detractors purport. As Mr. Bruegmann persuasively demonstrates, people and businesses have always had good reasons for wanting to leave the city.
"What few people seemed to notice," Mr. Bruegmann writes, "was the way the rising fortunes of the [city] center. . . were directly connected to developments at the edge." That is, as more affordable housing became available in the suburbs -- allowing the middle classes to live there -- the wealthy were more inclined to stay in the cities, particularly since many prestigious jobs in law, medicine and business remained there. For the most part, the richest Americans continue to populate the densest parts of an urban area, like Park Avenue in Manhattan or Beacon Hill in Boston. They can afford to make the trade off -- higher taxes and bad public schools for urban cultural and social stimulation.

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"Many of the characteristics associated with sprawl -- such as low-density development and lack of regional or public-use planning -- he argues, have been present in prosperous cities since the beginning of urban history. They are the natural effects of a city's gaining economic maturity -- not the recent consequence of vulgar Americans insisting on living in monstrous, single-use homes, as many sprawl detractors purport."

True, but the suburbs of yesteryear are largely today's inner-city neighborhoods. Inman Park was a suburb once upon a time. Today's suburban sprawl is a categorically different issue. Granted the desire to move to Alpharetta is founded on the same principle as someone's desire to move to Inman Park in 1920... getting the most personal space possible, for the least money, while still remaining within viable reach of the amenities of the city. The difference is that what has determined that "viability" today is a different technology -- cars as opposed to streetcars -- which expands the physical boundaries of suburbanization. But the problem is that the benefits of the technology shrink as more people take advantage of them.. hence what was once a 20 minute commute from North Fulton is now an hour-plus hell on 400.

It seems to me that there will be a sort of equilibrium, at some point, when the costs of moving so far out increase to dwarf the benefits. I used to get up in arms about suburban sprawl but now I just think it's an unsustainable situation that will probably remedy itself, albeit with lasting negative effects. In the meantime, I suppose everyone has to make the best lifestyle decision based on their own preferences.

Maybe if a city is left devoid of life because of suburbanization, it wasn't a city I'd want to be a part of anyway? The trade-off of moving to the suburbs is pretty far out of line with my personal values, so it doesn't make sense to me, but who am I to judge.

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It seems to me that there will be a sort of equilibrium, at some point, when the costs of moving so far out increase to dwarf the benefits. I used to get up in arms about suburban sprawl but now I just think it's an unsustainable situation that will probably remedy itself, albeit with lasting negative effects. In the meantime, I suppose everyone has to make the best lifestyle decision based on their own preferences.

Yeah, I tend to agree with you, DCD.

I've been chatting about this a little with some friends in the U.K. One lives in the suburbs of London and the other lives in suburban Leeds. They've both visited with me, so they know the situation here and have heard me fuming and stomping my feet about it. Their point is that suburbs aren't all bad, depending on how you do them. They have gigantic sprawling suburbs, too, but they are denser and much better connected internally and with each other.

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I suburban development were not characterized by the soulless proliferation of JuiffyLubes and WalMarts, perhaps I could agree that there would be a future to it. As it stands, the vast majority of our suburban development after WWII has been dreadful. With planning and architectural thought, sprawl could be managed and controlled. We have been too lazy to control the forces of development and are now forced to reap the sad crops of "architrash" surrounding us at every turn.

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The problem with sprawl as we know it today is that it has somehow become the defacto standard. The zoning laws that have evolved do not support alternate building methods and site design styles. This is beginning to change. What new urbansim is showing is that not everyone wants to live in a generic suburban subdivision. Making new, compact/dense housing gives people the option. A safe majority of people wikll still want to live in suburbia which is fine, but its the option to live in an urban setting that makes new urbanism great.

Not only that, the quotes do not recognize that sprawl is inefficient. People initially moves out of the city to escape congestion, but as we all know, congestion is much worse in the suburbs of any city than in the core, where you have multiple road options to get to any destination.

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The problem with sprawl as we know it today is that it has somehow become the defacto standard. The zoning laws that have evolved do not support alternate building methods and site design styles. This is beginning to change. What new urbansim is showing is that not everyone wants to live in a generic suburban subdivision. Making new, compact/dense housing gives people the option. A safe majority of people wikll still want to live in suburbia which is fine, but its the option to live in an urban setting that makes new urbanism great.

Not only that, the quotes do not recognize that sprawl is inefficient. People initially moves out of the city to escape congestion, but as we all know, congestion is much worse in the suburbs of any city than in the core, where you have multiple road options to get to any destination.

I disagree with your statement that congestion is "much worse in the suburbs" than in the core. Peachtree Street in Buckhead at rush hour is no place to be. Neither is Barrett Parkway at rushhour. Both stink in terms of traffic congestion. Suburban Atlanta is far less dense than the core areas of Atlanta but with less transportation options, which combines to form bad congestion. But on the other hand, downtown, midtown, buckhead, and Peachtree Street are way more dense, but with more transportation options, so the two sort-of cancel each other out. The end result is still bad congestion. Still somewhere upwards of 85% to 90% of people commuting in their cars downtown.

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But at least if one lives in town, he/she doesn't have to deal with the traffic in the city, THEN the traffic out on one of the major highways (I-20, I-75, I-85, I-285, GA400, etc.), then the traffic out in the 'burbs.

An associate editor of The Charlotte Observer in Charlotte had this to say in regards to the book. She repeats some of the same stuff you guys have been saying, but she also has some other things to say:

I

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I disagree with your statement that congestion is "much worse in the suburbs" than in the core. Peachtree Street in Buckhead at rush hour is no place to be. Neither is Barrett Parkway at rushhour. Both stink in terms of traffic congestion. Suburban Atlanta is far less dense than the core areas of Atlanta but with less transportation options, which combines to form bad congestion. But on the other hand, downtown, midtown, buckhead, and Peachtree Street are way more dense, but with more transportation options, so the two sort-of cancel each other out. The end result is still bad congestion. Still somewhere upwards of 85% to 90% of people commuting in their cars downtown.

I commuted from north Fulton to College Park for a few years and somehow it always seemed really perverse that it'd take literally twice as long to get from home to 285, as from 285 to CP, despite the distances being basically equal. At least early in the morning, downtown is pretty free-flowing, but 400 and basically the whole northside is at a crawl from 7 am.

Also, I always thought it was interesting how little bearing traffic on the highways seemed to have on traffic on the surface streets in town, and vice versa. Sometimes the connector would be stopped dead and I'd take that HOV exit to Piedmont and shoot straight through town to the Buford Highway entrance back onto 85 with basically no traffic at all. It may not have been much faster in actuality, but it sure saved my sanity some days.

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I commuted from north Fulton to College Park for a few years and somehow it always seemed really perverse that it'd take literally twice as long to get from home to 285, as from 285 to CP, despite the distances being basically equal. At least early in the morning, downtown is pretty free-flowing, but 400 and basically the whole northside is at a crawl from 7 am.

Also, I always thought it was interesting how little bearing traffic on the highways seemed to have on traffic on the surface streets in town, and vice versa. Sometimes the connector would be stopped dead and I'd take that HOV exit to Piedmont and shoot straight through town to the Buford Highway entrance back onto 85 with basically no traffic at all. It may not have been much faster in actuality, but it sure saved my sanity some days.

I think it must be some law of physics, or at least of Atlanta traffic that, no matter what time of day it is, 400/Northside is always clogged. :P

I've (along with the rest of my family) had some of the same experiences with the clogged connector and a clear downtown/midtown on what few occasions we are in downtown/midtown that early.

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An associate editor of The Charlotte Observer in Charlotte had this to say in regards to the book. She repeats some of the same stuff you guys have been saying, but she also has some other things to say:

This person gets it. This is exaclty the crux of the problem. Suburbs themselves arrent necessarily bad - just the way we've built them for the last 60 years. When today's cul-de-sac ridden suburbs grow up to edge cities, they are too fouled up structurally to make a smooth transition to urbanism.

In the interest of disclosure (if it isn't already obvious), I live in the suburbs (or exurbs, if you prefer). However, Newnan has a functiontioning downtown with a proper street gird. Coweta County is finalizing a Comprehensive plan that centralizes growth at specific nodes around the county leaving rural spaces in between. -- There is hope. :thumbsup:

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This person gets it. This is exaclty the crux of the problem. Suburbs themselves arrent necessarily bad - just the way we've built them for the last 60 years. When today's cul-de-sac ridden suburbs grow up to edge cities, they are too fouled up structurally to make a smooth transition to urbanism.

In the interest of disclosure (if it isn't already obvious), I live in the suburbs (or exurbs, if you prefer). However, Newnan has a functiontioning downtown with a proper street gird. Coweta County is finalizing a Comprehensive plan that centralizes growth at specific nodes around the county leaving rural spaces in between. -- There is hope. :thumbsup:

I think that is a very accurate way of looking at the issue.

I also like the sound of the planning for Coweta. :thumbsup: Lets hope they stick to it rather than changing the zoning whenever a developer requests a change.

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Same experiences here. We frequently use the following words to describe Atlanta traffic to folks back home:

"In the city the traffic isn't so bad, actually. It's once you get on the highways and head outside the city that it gets all jammed to hell with nowhere to escape."

The worst traffic we've sat in has been during the times we've ventured out to near Perimeter Mall and Gwinnett.

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Gee, this is an interesting article from the Washington Post.

Out West, a Paradox: Densely Packed Sprawl:

The urbanized area in and around Los Angeles has become the most densely populated place in the continental United States, according to the Census Bureau. Its density is 25 percent higher than that of New York, twice that of Washington and four times that of Atlanta, as measured by residents per square mile of urban land.

And Los Angeles grows more crowded every year, adding residents faster than it adds land, while most metropolitan areas in the Northeast, Midwest and South march in the opposite direction. They are the sprawling ones, dense in the center but devouring land at their edges much faster than they add people.

Odd as it may seem, density is the rule, not an exception, in the wide-open spaces of the West. Salt Lake City is more tightly packed than Philadelphia. So is Las Vegas in comparison with Chicago, and Denver compared with Detroit. Ten of the country's 15 most densely populated metro areas are in the West, where residents move to newly developed land at triple the per-acre density of any other part of the country.

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I once blogged about how I - seriously - consider LA to be a role model for Atlanta. Because the metro will NEVER be centralized, non-sprawling. The key is to promote as much growth, not just to the CBD area of Atlanta, but to all the edge cities & regional centers. LA is the US's first truly post-modern urban city & it is unrealistic for any sunbelt city like Atlanta to ever use Chicago or NYC as a model. Even Portland OR, is essentially following the LA model, of densifying multiple centers rather than the urban classical model of the single dense node.

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Check out this article from demographia.com.

http://www.demographia.com/db-adb-ajc.htm

Somthing interesting that I've always disagreed with...smart growth makes housing more affordable.

Portland's housing prices have escalated well ahead of Atlanta and the nation. The median price between 1991 and 2000 in Portland rose 110 percent to $168,000; Atlanta's rose 65 percent to $150,000 and nationwide the average rose 49 percent to $152,000. Homeownership has dropped 6.6 percent in Portland from 1990 to 2000. Home ownership in Atlanta is up 11 percent.

"If Atlanta had experienced the same loss in home ownership during the 1990s as Portland, 240,000 households who currently own their home would be renters instead," the report states. If Portland trends occurred in Atlanta, 25,000 fewer African-Americans and 3,400 fewer Hispanics would own homes.

When you concentrate your growth into designated growth areas you have less land to put the growth on. This increases the price of land, which results in greater density. But the demand side is still strong -- people want to move in. The supply side is the problem because there is less land. So as long as the density increases the prices will remain low. But not everyone wants to live in a 50 story condo when thats the only thing they can afford to live in. People like lots of housing options. When you cut the number of options down it decreases the demand for living in the city. And your city becomes less attractive to newcomers and becomes more economically stagnant. Hence Portland's growth is much slower than Atlanta's. Portland is more expensive than Atlanta. And Portland has more renters than Atlanta.

There are many reasons why Atlanta is so successful in attracting new residents. Probably the most important reason is the cost of housing. Even in the city, housing is relatively affordable compared to San Jose, Boston or New York. As long as Atlanta keeps a competitive advantage over other cities we should continue the economic boom. The fact is that so-called "sprawl" helps keep housing prices down, which is a very good thing from an economic perspective.

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bfermanich - keep in mind the primary purpose of demographia (besides cooked up statistics) is to push an anti-urban agenda. Nonetheless, the point regarding new urbanism is sadly true about affordability. But that point can be made about any higher dense areas - intown Atlanta is often not affordable. Also - Portland's primary issue is not new urbanism, it's that the city's economy is overwhelmingly dependant on high tech whose slow down caused the economic crisis. Also the city would naturally be more dense anyways due to the topography & most western US cities are more dense anyways.

Demographia loves to rip Portland, and unfortunately looks to Atlanta as a 'role model'. It might be affordable here, but Portland is 10x more livable. But there is a compromise that can be made - but demographia's stance that unchecked growth is good in exurban areas is wrong.

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Thanks. Didn't know that about demographia.com.

I agree in that Portland is probably 10x more livable than Atlanta, but whats the point of having a livable city when nobody can afford to live there? So yes, it is a compromise. If we could move away from the extremites of sprawl on one end and perfect urbanism on the other end, and move somewhere toward the middle of the spectrum... this would be the best of both worlds. Relative affordability, good livability, some sprawl and some heavy urbanism. I think the key word here is sustainability. I don't think either theory is totally sustainable. Sprawl is not sustainable for obvious reasons. But neither is perfect new urbanism -- i.e. prices inflate to the point of unaffordability and that creates economic stagnation.

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But is Portland 10x more livable to whom? I love urban areas myself but all of the Northeastern trasnplants (for example) that settle in Forsyth County and Alpharetta have no interest in the urbanity we hold as the holy grail and is also the environment many of them came from. Just a thought

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But is Portland 10x more livable to whom? I love urban areas myself but all of the Northeastern trasnplants (for example) that settle in Forsyth County and Alpharetta have no interest in the urbanity we hold as the holy grail and is also the environment many of them came from. Just a thought

Interestingly, the Oregon courts just upheld Measure 37. This will allows development in rural areas that were previously off limits because of the state's land use policies, which were oriented toward concentrating cities and avoiding sprawl. The Oregonian says this will jump start 2,500 applications to develop suburban and rural land.

Martinman, you raise a good point. I personally like urban areas but certainly don't view them as the holy grail. But I don't see it as an either/or situation. Suburbs can be developed in intelligent, interesting ways that create a high quality of life and don't encourage ugly and unsustainable sprawl.

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Andrea - neither do I, & yes martinman did raise a good point. But the key to Portland's 'success' (relating to smart growth) isn't it's 'urbanization', but transit oriented SUBURBAN developments. Besides Portland's downtown, what we hear most of Portland's new urbanism is actually suburban.

The key difference is most of what we discuss as suburban Atlanta is truly exurban, minimally 1000 people per square mile swaths that are strictly zoned. Sure we can debate 'what is livable', but certain livable options are not sustainable in the long run. It would be fine if we were just talking about Forsyth or N Fulton counties, but we're not - we're talking about Gwinnett, Cobb, Paulding, Rockdale, Clayton,etc. etc.

I'm not getting on a high horse with this topic - because I think there has to be a middle ground. Portland is not economically sustainable just as Atlanta is not environmentally / socially sustainable.

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