The opposite of sprawl


America’s collective flocking to the suburbs can be described as a perfect storm of market forces, social prejudices, government action, technology and ingenious marketing.

Market conditions: Just after World War II, as millions of men returned from service, the market conditions that existed – cheap land with low building costs as opposed the expensive prospect of redevelopment and the high cost of labor in inner cities – meant that builders were more than willing to throw up acre upon acre of ranch housing on land that was formerly farms and forest.

Social prejudices: Meanwhile, the migration northward of many African Americans continued, prompting the white flight from areas of cities that had been populated by various white ethnic groups.  At the same time, according to some sources, banks began to redline certain areas of cities which often happened to be predominantly black so that people interested in buying in those areas would not be able to obtain loans at affordable rates.

Government action: The government encouraged the suburban shift by spending billions on additional infrastructure, notably highways but also schools, sewage and water systems, etc.  With the infrastructure in place, more building followed.  More building encouraged people to spread out even farther which spurred more infrastructure.  Being a zero sum game, more money for suburban infrastructure often meant less money for urban upkeep and service delivery, hastening the decay of these areas and encouraging more folks to move out.

Technology: Advances in production techniques made the automobile more affordable to more people.  Combined with discoveries of oil which increased the supply and decreased the price of gasoline, the car became the dominant mode of transportation and made suburban living just as convenient – if you didn’t mind driving – as living within walking distance of work or entertainment.

Ingenious marketing: Decades of advertising and messaging made entire generations believe that owning a car (or two) and a half acre plot with a 2500 sq ft. (now 4000 sq. ft.) house was their god-given right.  On the flip side, movies and pop culture reinforced an idea often talked about by politicians, namely, that cities were bad, dirty, dangerous, post-apocalyptic places that were inconvenient during the day and downright frightening at night.

Well, all that seems to be changing.

The next president will be the first one since Truman have market forces work against sprawling, ex-urban living for his entire time in office (as opposed to the current president for whom that reality began a few years into his term).

In an article that has been shuffled around the internet pretty thoroughly today, the New York Times profiles several exurbanites and reports on research showing a sharp decline in housing prices in the far suburbs relative to the stable or slight declines of urban housing.

The article cites a recent essay in The Atlantic Monthly by Christopher B. Leinberger, an urban land use expert:

Many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s — slums characterized by poverty, crime and decay.

While this vision is not shared by all, it’s worth noting than in European countries which have traditionally valued city living more highly than the suburban dream, notably France, the suburbs are often the places with the higher crime, greater poverty and decay.  Regardless of whether you agree with Leinberger or think that the shift will be more gradual, there’s little doubt that the movement is happening.  As gas prices and the costs for heat and electricity continue to rise, the white flight will be in the opposite direction – away form high prices and back to smaller houses, greater density and walkability, public transit and connection to employment and entertainment centers.

Atrios hits the nail on the head with what policymakers – often state and city officials but increasingly the federal government – need to do to prepare for this shift:

Despite my own obvious preferences, people like the burbs. It’s going to take more than the stick of high gas prices for there to be any kind of radical change. It’s an opportunity for a place like Philadelphia, where there are still plenty of inexpensive places to live. But transportation needs to be improved, crime rates cut, schools improved, and city services generally need to be better. Now is the moment…

The market forces – the almighty invisible hand – is lining up.

We’ve already seen shifts in the “marketing” of city living.  Pop culture gave us Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and other examples of the glamor and fun of life in the big city.  Condo builders and real estate agents are trying hard to convince us that we have a god-given right to a ten-minute walk from river fronts, opera and ballet companies, restaurants and our places of business.

Social prejudices are still with us but not as bad as before.  Plus, a $3000 per year heating bill and $150 to fill up the tank have a way of helping people get over certain irrational fears of “the other.”

Technology will make the homes in the city more efficient and our connectivity to our community easier.

All that’s left now is a shift in government action.  No more highways, just trains.  Zoning that encourages density.  Tax incentives that encourage renting or urban home ownership.  Building codes that don’t put the almighty car at the top of the priority list.

Yes.  A lot of this will be up to state and local officials.  But most of it won’t happen without a fundamental shift of resources by the federal government to help fix everything up.  Cities are poised to be hosts to the biggest party this country has ever known as millions of folks return to the neighborhoods once occupied by their parents and grandparents.  Federal resources will ensure that the house is straightened up when the guests arrive.


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