Thursday, August 18, 2005

Dealing Realistically with Sprawl

I received an email yesterday from an author who will be at the Rail-Volution conference in Salt Lake City in a couple of weeks (Sept. 8-10). The opening line of the email -- "Sprawl Kills -- How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money, by Joel S. Hirschhorn."

What a way to catch your attention! It turns out to be a pretty blatant marketing ploy to get attendees at the conference to come listen to Hirschhorn and buy his book. And, if you're into rhetoric about that great evil of our society -- sprawl -- it'll probably pull you in.

But over the years I have come to be wary of such broadsides, particularly when they tout their philosophy as the cure for all those ills.

"Sprawl" is an incredibly loaded word, and means a lot of different things to different people. As I read through the rest of the email, what it sounds like Hirschhorn is advocating is changing the design of typical suburban development. "Healthy active living can be promoted by replacing blandburbs (now there's a term of art!) with walkable real neighborhoods, designed on smart growth and New Urbanism principles. No matter what else you've read, "Sprawl Kills" gives a new picture of what American society can and should be." Wow! All that by changing the design of a subdivision?

You see, it doesn't seem that Hirschhorn is addressing the core issues of sprawl -- even though you change the design, it is still a subdivision out there off a freeway exit where you have to have a car to get to work, to the theater, to the sports event, to shop (in all likelihood).

A couple of writers I have come to like and respect talk about this pretty extensively.

One is Richard Carson, current Community Development Director of Vancouver, Washington and the former Executive Director of Portland METRO. Speaking of writers like Hirschhorn, Carson says, "Of course it is always popular to be against convention in order to sell books. But there are limits to such ridiculous rhetoric. America is the most powerful nation on earth, with one of the highest standards of living, and with an amazing amount of personal independence and mobility. Much of this is precisely so because of the car."

Carson goes on to say that one of the problems with the image of planners today is that we often try to push things that people do not want. Eventually we wind up being ignored as irrelevant, or actually spark a revolt, as when voters passed Measure 37 in Oregon. He says, "Many current government planning policies are being driven by a desire on the part of environmentalists and some sympathetic elected officials to change the American automobile culture. The anti-automobile sales pitch is designed to radically change our lifestyles, limit our mobility by getting us out of the car, and to have us walk, ride a bike or use transit."

This is fine as far as it goes -- but given our current development trends, we may be peeing in the wind if we push too far too hard.

Carson continues, "It is time for those who would be king to end the denial about the automobile. It is here to stay and will only get more popular. The automobile will be here long after New Urbanism becomes yesterday's architectural news." He cites several sources about new technology developing that will replace internal combustion engines with other, more environmentally friendly energy sources, and hence, we will still have cars, maybe even lots more of them because they will not be constrained by diminishing oil resources. "I am not suggesting that we abandon the quest for a more multi-modal transportation system. However, we should build the system people want. It is clear most people prefer the automobile to mass transportation."

"Some environmentalists are taking a perfectly good idea (increased transit and transit-oriented development) to a political, social and economic extreme. They preach that compact urban areas must be achieved by increasing urban densities. Their to save the natural environment by packing people in to dense human reservations and then to limit their mobility by convincing them that they don't need automobiles. A more rational economic approach is to decide what the market deamnds for housing actually will be and to plan the future accordingly."

Alex Marshall, author and commentator on urban planning issues, is even more direct. He says, "There's only one problem: New Urbanism doesn't work. It's proponents are selling something they can't deliver without charging a far higher price, and without making changes far more fundamental than redesigning a few homes. ... The problem is that, while these (New Urbanist) developments mimic the old 19th century streetcar neighborhoods, they keep the same transportation system that produces conventional suburbs. ... They sit right off a main highway. They often have a single entrance. They have winding roads that are just slightly less confusing than cul-de-sacs. They are, in effect, subdivisions masquerading as small towns, except with the homes pushed up to the street and a few front porches thrown on.

"Indeed," Marshall continues, "the Achilles' heel of New Urbanist developments has been their inability to change the way people shop, and the way retailers locate their stores."

The problem is essentially this, according to Marshall. "The older sections of European cities and places like New York and Boston were scaled to people getting around on horse and by foot. The classic nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century neighborhoods many people love were created by extensions of streetcar lines. Levittown was a product of cars and highways. And the mega-malls and subdivisions that surround Washington grew from the highway system that laces the region. New Urbanists propose building what are essentially streetcar suburbs, without the transportation systems that originally support those kinds of neighborhoods. This is a fruitless exercise. The result, at best, is a place that looks like Georgetown but functions like any other subdivision built off the Beltway."

Well, enough of this rant. I don't mean to say there aren't good things about New Urbanist designs. It's great to live in a neighborhood where you can walk to school, to the park, to the local store (though I'm not sure the local store can survive just on local business without charging a whole lot more than Wal-Mart does). But the basic pattern of development doesn't change -- suburbs and shopping spread out along highways.

And if we think we can supplant all that by not building any new highways or roads and thus get people out of their cars -- well, then you must understand something about people and our mobility society that I don't.

In closing this long, long blog entry (sorry about that!), let me point out that Hirschhorn says in his email, "Readers will learn about corrupt sprawl politics used by the sprawl industry, how the public must be involved in planning, and how to evaluate true alternatives to sprawl being designed and built by the most innovative land developers and home builders." Carson notes, "Now 'sprawl' is either a spreading virulent cancer that is destroying the fabric of the American culture or it is the spreading of economic wealth depending on your political views. But in either case it was with full make 'sprawl' federal policy. The government underwrote both the suburban housing boom through Veteran subsidies and then provided the freeway system to feed it."

Was this done by hoodwinking all of us, or did we cheer it on? I tend to think the latter.

Come listen to Hirschhorn at Rail-Volution, it should be good entertainment!


At 8:22 PM, Blogger Prof Simmons said...

Wilf, I received the following from Joe Bast at the Heartland Institute. It sounds like a book worth reading:

Robert Bruegmann, Professor and Chair of the Art History Department and Professor of Architecture, Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago has written a book titled Sprawl: A Compact History, about to come out in October from the University of Chicago Press. Below is the cover jacket blurb. It ought to be a good free-market critique of the usual anti-growth stuff.

If you'd like to request a review copy, you can contact Bob at .

As anyone who has flown into Los Angeles at dusk or London at midday knows, urban areas today defy traditional notions of what a city is. Our old definitions of urban, suburban, and rural fail to capture the complexity of these vast regions with their superhighways, subdivisions, industrial areas, office parks, and resort areas pushing far out into the countryside. Detractors call it sprawl and assert that it is economically inefficient, socially inequitable, environmentally irresponsible—and ugly. Robert Bruegmann calls it a logical consequence of economic growth and the democratization of society, with benefits that urban planners have failed to recognize.
In his incisive history of the expanded city, Bruegmann overturns every assumption we have about sprawl. Taking a long view of urban development, he demonstrates that sprawl is neither recent nor particularly American but as old as cities themselves, just as characteristic of ancient Rome and eighteenth-century Paris as it is of Atlanta or Los Angeles. Nor is sprawl the disaster claimed by many contemporary observers. Although sprawl, like any settlement pattern, has undoubtedly produced problems that must be addressed, it has also provided millions of people with the kinds of mobility, privacy, and choice that were once the exclusive prerogatives of the rich and powerful.
The first major book to strip urban sprawl of its pejorative connotations, Sprawl offers a completely new vision of the city and its growth. Bruegmann provides readers many provocative insights that confound received opinion about what urban life has been and could be. And he helps them see how “in its immense complexity and constant change, the city--whether dense and concentrated at its core, looser and more sprawling in suburbia, or in the vast tracts of exurban penumbra that extend dozens, even hundreds, of miles--is the grandest and most marvelous work of mankind.”

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