Friday, November 14, 2008

End of sprawl? Um, not yet

Christopher Leinberger of Brookings and the University of Michigan has declared an end to sprawl. "We are witnessing the beginning of the end of sprawl," he writes, in a piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He says the market is demanding it.
I've read a variety of writings along the same vein: Higher gas prices, or aging baby-boomers or Millennials or boredom with the suburbs are among the factors that planners and urban writers and Smart Growth advocates are saying will end the dominion of sprawl. I'm declaring those pieces to be the new trend in urban writing. Whether there's a real trend in U.S. development is, to my eye, still an open question.

So while I hope they're right, pardon me for being just a wee bit skeptical. Yes, as I look around my metro region of Charlotte, I see all kinds of interesting things: the New Urban-style Birkdale Village "lifestyle center" in Huntersville, about 10 miles north of downtown Charlotte, the New Urban-style Baxter Village in Fort Mill, S.C., revitalized or stable downtowns in Mooresville, Belmont, Salisbury and other towns. The transit plan in Charlotte has been successful and is shaping growth along its lines, as planners knew it would.

But in addition to those Smart Growth trends, there has been mile after mile after mile of dumb growth going on still. While Birkdale and Baxter were being so well designed, elsewhere in Charlotte mile after mile of single-use, single-family starter home subdivisions were going up, all on auto-pilot and many of them now tattered by foreclosures, even before they're 10 years old. "Sprawl slums," as Charlotte architect Tom Low calls them. (The photo above is of Peachtree Hills, a starter-home subdivision on the fringes of Charlotte.)

Maybe that's what the "beginning of the end" means, but so far, it's not necessarily visible.

Of course, in the past year, development of all kinds has been in hibernation. Maybe when it wakes up, it will forget the last 50 sprawling years. Sort of like the old Newhart show's ending: "Honey, you won't believe the dream I just had."


Anonymous said...

P'tree Hills is hardly on fringes of Charlotte. It's a new development smack dab in the middle of NW Charlotte. While the development is representative of suburban sprawl its environment is better identified as inner city.

Rebecca said...

I can walk out my door and catch a choice of 5 local and ten express buses bewteen 6:00 a.m. and 8:30 each morning, and be at the office in 15 minutes. Between cotswold shopping center, providence plaza and strawberry hill, I am within walking distance of 2 drugstores, 2 grocery stores, and dozens of shops and rstaurants, dry claening nail and hair salons, doctors and more. But most folks would never pay a king's ransom for my and my nieghbors old houses with their leaky pipes, iffy electrical and colonial era baths and kitchen. It is worth it to me because the walking everywhere, being in the middle of everything lifestyle is one my family enjoys. But most people want a new house and a patch of grass with no thru traffic and are willing to drive their life away to get it. And even if everyone did want to live close in there is not room for them. Granted, they could make each development more of a "mini-city" like Baxter and Birkdale, but then the prices would again be out of reach for most. And condo living is very impractical for families. My son goes to school in Brooklyn and he says there are wars going on now between people trying to raise their kids in city apartments and the singles who also live there b/c of the noise and mess children naturally create. So while sprawl is ugly, not sure what teh alternatives are.

Sarah Goodyear said...

Got to represent for Brooklyn my neighborhood alone, there are thousands of families raising children in one of the most walkable communities in the world (including mine), and I have never heard of the kind of conflict you describe.

Anonymous said...

Do you want affordable housing? Today's affordable housing is crappy starter homes on the fringes and in less desirable areas. Rent and home prices in the spiffy intown areas and new urbanist developments and condos along the light rail are out of reach for most people... unless you can stuff 3 people in a one bedroom. Even my much maligned neighborhood full of dated ranches in East Charlotte is priced above what a school teacher can afford now. Especially now that banks must lend responsibly. So figure out a way to put up condos intown between $90k and $120k for singles, and 2 bedrooms or more for $150-$200 for families. Then you might end sprawl. Best of luck with that.

Anonymous said...


How much longer can we beat this dead horse?

Anonymous said...

Being an Urban Planning grad myself, planners and urbanists of Charlotte love to talk about Birkdale and Vermillion and others and how they're a great trend... but the city of Charlotte proper has yet to adopt this style of growth. That's no longer true. I live in the Plaza Midwood area, 2 blocks from the massive Morningside Village redevelopment project that's slowly taking shape. We can't forget the granddaddy of them all in Charlotte, Philips Place. There are similar infill projects going in all through town now too, in NoDa, in Midtown (Met Midtown), Dilworth (Latta Pavillion), Myers Park, etc. It's not just along the light rail line that 'new urbanist' developments are popping up.

So does this mean we're seeing and end to suburban sprawl? Hardly... but we're absolutely seeing a reversal of trends. The suburbs are now slowing down and many parts are in decline, whereas the inner city neighborhoods are flourishing. People love the amentities the city has to offer now, and this will only continue to domino. The more infill development we get and the more the light rail expands, the more people will want to give up their suburban digs for the city life. Will there be a tipping point where people want to flee back to the suburbs? Perhaps if it simply gets too expensive to live in the city, which very easily could happen. I tend to believe that even if the inner city neighborhoods begin pricing buyers out, that this new urbanist style of development will be pushing further out of central Charlotte into the 'burbs too, and redevelopment will happen out there as well, especially along the rail lines.

I think there's another factor too that's not entirely being examined. I'm a 26 year old young professional, and unlike young 'yuppie' professionals from past generations, my generation couldn't seem less interested in having a big house in the 'burbs. The majority of them seem to prefer more contained urban living. Will this new generation further the trend of new urbanism and fuel more inner city growth as they come more into their own? Only time will tell I suppose!

Rick said...

Usually, problems can't be solved unless one is honest about the true nature of the problem.

In this case, one major feature of the problem of sprawl is the ridiculous and incorrect use of the term "affordable housing".

Affordable by definition means the person acquiring something has the financial means to acquire that thing. In a recent post the idea was put forth that zoning should be manipulated by Planning to increase "affordable housing" in TOD sites. When something has to be manipulated to achieve "affordability", it is no longer truly affordable by the person who lives in that housing. It is subsidized by the developer or the other residents of the development. (I know that's going to elicit the roads, water/sewer response from somebody about subsidizing the suburbs. Save your breath. That's not the point I'm trying to make.)

The honest way to describe the situation would be how do we "place subsidized housing close non-subsidized housing without causing the people in the non-subsidized housing to want to move in the event that crime goes up or the schools go down."

When suburbia originally flourished and inner cities went into decline, it was due in significant part to white flight, bright flight, rich flight (whatever you want to call it) from the inner city to the suburbs.

What we're seeing now is simply the reverse of that, but now it's called gentrification. The wealthy and educated move in and force the poor out due to increased property values.

The problem of placing subsidized and non-subsidized housing in close proximity to each other has not been addressed at all. To do that would require political will that does not exist. Does anyone believe CMS will turn itself around without addressing discipline and achievement problems? Does anyone think constantly seeing repeat offenders commit more and more heinous crimes doesn’t have an affect? Does anyone believe that seeing the city government spend massive amounts of money making Uptown into an amusement park doesn’t turn as many people off about the city as it turns on?

To that point, if someone even raises the issues that I just did, they are very likely to be called a racist or a redneck or an evil rich person by someone on this type of blog. Or, someone will come back with the line that “crime is bad in the suburbs too.” I’ll give you that. It’s gotten worse near my house, and many families have moved – further out. They move to avoid the crime, bad schools, and higher taxes. Moving in, especially in Charlotte, solves none of those issues - unless of course you are rich.

By the way 26-year-old-anon, when I was 26 I absolutely loved living in the urban core of DC.

When it came time to find a reasonably sized house we could afford, with decent schools, and it was safe for my wife to walk outside at night, we moved. Talk to us again in 10 years.

Anonymous said...

I hope urban sprawl slows down. I move to Union County in 1990 becuase it was far enough away from the city so I could own a house with room between myself and my neighbors. Unfortunately it wasnt out far enough and now living here is almost like being in Charlotte - Target, Harris Teeter, Lowes, CVS and Walgreen are almost within walking distance. I wished the sprawl stopped 5 years ago before all of this was here. It may be convenient, but its not why I move out hear.

Anonymous said...

Anyone see the article in the Observer today talking about how the older/inner city neighborhoods have dramatically gone up in value while most of the brand new starter home suburbia schlock is going down in value. Can you imagine what type of financial drain these "new" neighbhorhoods are putting on the City government in terms of increased code enforcement and police enforcement. That isn't affordable housing, that is housing that will cost us much more than it returns. It is time for the City to require better housing developments so they can be truly affordable to those buying the homes and to the rest of the taxpayers who expect new housing to help pay its way!

Anonymous said...

For the next 5-10 years we're going to see "despression" flight" - the desperate scramble during a time of economic depression to find an affordable place to live, anywhere.

I don’t think college grads will necessarily want to return to their parents’ one-acre suburban estates, but even a reasonable $90,000 one-bedroom uptown condo (if there are any) is out of the question for a penniless job seeker. And renting a multi-room flat with friends is equally out of the question when you don’t have rent money.

This may not be a bad thing. Maybe Obama will create a WPA-type agency in which young professional people can get paid minimum wage to build, oh...I don't know...maybe sidewalks in our major cities. Then maybe enough kids can scrape up the moola to ban together and sleep ten-to-a-condo, lowering the value of realtors’ overpriced urban projects to an affordable level for the rest of our population.