Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Unnatural Act? Whether sprawl is inevitable

Nan Bauroth, a former community columnist for the Observer, e-mails to suggest I read “Sprawl: A Compact History,” [by Robert Bruegmann] recently reviewed by the Wall Street Journal. “This proves that far from unenlightened, sprawl has been with us since time immemorial for good reason,” she says. “Interested in your take!”
My reply:
I’ve seen the reviews, haven’t had a chance to read it, though it sounds interesting. Here’s my take, with the caveat that I haven’t read the book: The process of people moving out from cities is age old, due to the inevitable crowding, noise, and – in many cities until modern sewer systems – disease-ridden filth. People who could afford it built villas, country houses, etc., and kept a place in town. People who couldn’t afford it didn’t. I think that’s a natural economic process that really can’t be stopped.
But in the 20th century, the form that natural process took changed dramatically, as governments, influenced by planners and would-be social reformers as well as automakers, began mandating vast territories of nothing but single-family-home dwellings on mandated large lots, and other vast territories of nothing but stores, and yet more vast territories of office-only buildings (a.k.a. office parks). That’s not the way cities evolve naturally when left to their own devices. Plus, governments began catering to, and subsidizing, automobile travel in unprecedented ways. Traffic engineers came up with the theory that dead-end streets feeding onto large thoroughfares would make traffic move smoothly. They were right – up to a point. When there’s too much traffic, those thoroughfares get horribly clogged.
So while the process of suburbanization is natural, the form it began taking in the 20th century was decidedly unnatural, as well as more costly to governments (all those streets, longer sewer lines, more police cars covering more miles, ditto school buses, etc.)
In addition, in previous centuries, those suburban villages could easily be absorbed into the city as it grew out to meet them. Examples: Montmartre, Greenwich Village, etc. The zoning-law/traffic-engineer-designed suburbs of the 20th century aren’t so easily absorbed, with their highway-like thoroughfares and cul-de-sacs that distort traffic dispersal, their lack of pedestrian amenities, and legally enforced, unnaturally low densities.
I think suburbs in general are a natural phenomenon. What isn’t natural is the style in which Americans have been building them for the last 60 or so years. There’s also a lot of research pointing to some very harmful rules on the part of banks/insurance companies/mortgage firms, etc., that prevented city property owners (or anyone owning property anywhere near black people) from getting loans. The federal government, to its shame, supported and enforced that discrimination during the first half of the 20th century. The removal of official and unofficial red-lining is one reason, in my unresearched opinion, that city living has seen a renewal recently.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree 100%. It would be nice to see more connectivity - a lot of people think that means cars will cut-through their streets, but thats not true. I have lived in an older town/suburb with a street-grid, and my street was just as quiet as any other street on a cul-de-sac. The plus is that you have multiple outlets, sidewalks on both sides of the street, and tree-lined streets. I think Charlotte needs to push for more connectivity - look at W.T. Harris Boulevard - that is an example of bad sprawl and cul-de-sac development at its worst. And not only does Charlotte need to push for connectivity, but also for making developers integrate their new projects within the existing infrastructure. I think that is the number one problem with New Urbanism - it still functions like a subdivision, with one main outlet and a giant sign, plus two or three side outlets, and a buffer of trees between the main roads and the neighborhood. It is still seperated, not integrated, from everything else...

Anyways, just my 2-cents, take it for what it's worth...

Anonymous said...

I once saw a letter to the editor saying that New Urbanism, if widely adopted, would mean the end of suburban life as we know it. Someone else wrote back, and this would be a bad thing because?

Anonymous said...

Mary, you forgot suburbs make us fat, make our kids teeth crooked and grown men bald.

Suburbs also evolved due to farm families being forced by economic realities to seek employment in and around cities. When economicly capable these families sought out the best return to a rural non-urban lifestyle available to them -suburbs.

Urban living has recently increased because the old Family of Mom, Dad and 2.4 children has evolved or been destroyed (insert politics here)to single parents with one child, professionals with no children to single person households. Forms of "Family" more easily adapted to or even desiring urban living conditions.

uvagrad2002 said...

I haven't read the book either. But with regard to your question as to whether suburban sprawl is part of a natural evolution - I would have to say no. It is the result of economics and government policies in the US, which you touched on briefly on your blog. Take France for instance: As the recent riots evinced their suburbs are slums and government projects. Urban living in France is reserved for the upper echelons of society. The democratization of the car and cheap gasoline has enabled the white flight to the suburbs that has occured in the US. Home-lending policies of previous decades have also discouraged residential urban development.

A topic I find more interesting than the causes on suburban sprawl is the sustainability of it all. I think urban renewal will continue to occur as fuel costs and quality of life considerations make suburban living less desirable.

Anonymous said...

Sprawl is not inevitable. Fast growth communities, like Charlotte, should steer growth (growth management) towards areas where the City has adequate infrastructure to serve that growth. This results in a more efficient use of the taxpayer's dollars and results in a higher quality of life. Growth in all directions, with no growth management strategy, comes with high costs and little return on investment. Sprawl is bad land use policy and is bad fiscal policy for a community. The long term fiscal drain on a community that perpetuates sprawl will result in higher property taxes and diminished services for all residents as in-town neighborhoods are required to "subsidize" new sprawl development.

Anonymous said...

Take France ... Take France Please. The "suburbs" of France are not at all like those of the US. French suburbs are high urban density typically government funded projects simply removed from the center core of a city. Government created slums.

US suburbs tend to be low density (hence the sustainability question)and are not in any direct sense government funded projects. Hence they are not slums but typically high valued real estate (hence the counter arguement as to who subsidizes who). No mass transit project in the US is ever self-sufficient and so always subsidized.

There was a major study done in the last two years that identified age of a city as a more important factor than density (the real question here) in the cost of providing services. Their conclusion (very timely to the current Transit Union Strike in NYC), was entrenched public unions and excessive administration in large older cities was a much more significant cost factor than density.

Anonymous said...

I would love to live right in uptown Charlotte; in fact that was my original plan when I moved here. However, as a single one-income person, it's too expensive and too risky, since again, as a one-income person, I have zero safety net as far as another income. I saw the same thing going on in Metro D.C. - the only housing available near anything metro/downtown was way out of reach pricewise for single people and undesirable due to size, environment, etc. for couples with dual incomes/families. I'm honestly not sure who these Charlotte uptown condo developments are catering to. $300K plus for 1000-1200 sq. feet would be monumental mortgage times for a single person and not large enough for a dual income household unless they are childless and intend to remain that way. In the end, I bought in the burbs because it's cheaper and being from D.C. Metro, the commute can't be any longer or any worse here than it was there.

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of close in neighborhoods in West Charlotte,that are crime free and close to uptown charlotte and all three interstates.
I live in one that is very diverse and stable.
They are homes 1500-2000 sq. feet with at least a third of an acre of land,under $200,000 in price.
For many years my area of town has been redlined simpley because of it being in West Charlotte,now I'm beginning to see Yuppies and Buppies move into my community for all of the above reasons.
Sad thing is all of my older neighbors are being ripped off in their selling price by underhanded realtors.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the "Naked City Column could explore the older close in neighborhoods of West Charlotte and see what the rest of Metro Charlotte is missing.

Anonymous said...

Well of course the path of development has been influenced by government planning. Those who dislike suburbs and all that comes with them ought to remember that the planning visionaries (and yes that is sarcasm) of the last half of the 20th century were no less sincere, no less educated, and no less competent that today's crop of visionaries. And that might lead one to question whether smart growth and the new urbansim will be any more effective in dealing with the issues it addresses.

There have certainly been social and economic changes over those past decades that have brought about conditions that could not be foreseen 25 years ago, but it is probably a bit naive to assume that the law of unintended consequences has now been suspended and this time they'll get it right.

Anonymous said...

Drive down Rea Road, south of 485, and you will see how disgusting sprawl is. Cookie cutter houses, a foot apart, with zero connectivity and a Harris Teeter and Lowes and Target and Wal Mart on every block. This needs to end and we need to revert back to gridlike street patterns with smaller shops!

Disgusted in Union Co said...

First, just about anything spewing forth from Nan Barouth should generally be discredited out of hand. She embodies the worst misappropriation of capitalistic principles, asserting that the unfettered generation of money should be supreme and that any social responsibilities or regulatory structure are anathema and should be eliminated.

A natural evolution of a suburban model is one thing, but what happens today at the gradually broadening urban-rural interface is a grotesque perversion of any sort of sustainable living pattern. This is not a product of natural migratory activity: rather, it is purely a product of political corruption. Developers and land speculators, the precursors to developers, control every level of government from local to federal. Tax dollars are appropriated to construct arterial roads that serve no other purpose than to provide access to huge tracts owned by speculators (witness Rea Road extension and Ardrey Kell Road) with the resulting construction of massive, ugly, and unsustainable storage facilities for people. North Carolina, and the Charlotte region in particular, impose no requirements on developers, such as providing schools, significant parks, or other essential services; this corrupt structure has resulted in the region being one of the most profitable in the nation for developers. Rather than limiting taxpayer-funded road building, and stopping the absolutely irresponsible extension of sewer service far out into the countryside, the corrupt elected officials and their appointed lackeys continue to speed up construction of these facilities for the sole benefit of their campaign donors (and graft-payers).

An obsession with strip retail on every corner, dominated by ever-larger big box anchors, creates a false sense of economic development; in reality, these retail behemoths are nearly as economically unproductive as the repulsive cul-de-sac monstrosities they serve. The misdesign of interstate-quality highways, particularly in terms of the ridiculous number of interchanges and the irresponsible "each one a city in itself" development of these interchanges, completes the destructive and unsustainable pattern.

No, Ms. Barouth, there is nothing "natural" about this - except, maybe, its pandering to the "natural" characteristic of greed.

Anonymous said...

You conveniently left out at least three other factors driving suburbanism, especially in Charlotte: escaping from bad government, from high taxes, and from high real estate costs.

Why is any rational person with a family going to pay through the nose for a tiny living space, send their kids to a politically-charged nightmare like CMS, and pay through the nose for it when there's a much better alternative just across the border?

Anonymous said...

If I had grown up in the Piedmont, I would probably view the progress/sprawl situation as the latter. The real estate boom is going to play out here as it has in other growth markets. However, Mecklenburg and Union County leaders could do to more to usher in positive change.

For starters, run a media campaign encouraging people to be more courteous drivers. Yankees need to learn how to give and take. Let's teach them how. Second, create bike lanes that provide safe passage to the existing transit systems as well as the light rail. I'd be happy to put my money where my mouth is.

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