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Obama's War on Sprawl

Samuel Staley
January 23, 2010, 9:34am

These are heady times for the anti-sprawl wing of the American planning profession. The White House has made empowering cities an important part of its domestic agenda, and it has thoroughly embraced high density, transit-oriented planning through its "livibility" initiatives. In his three point urban agenda laid out before a delegation of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, President Obama made his position on what America's built environment should look like very clear:

"Second, we'll focus on creating more livable and environmentally sustainable communities.  Because when it comes to development, it's time to throw out old policies that encouraged sprawl and congestion, pollution, and ended up isolating our communities in the process.  We need strategies that encourage smart development linked to quality public transportation, that bring our communities together.  (Applause.)" 

These initiatives, however, are likely to backfire, as Joel Kotkin notes in an article on newgeography.com. As Joel writes:

"Contrary to much of the current media hype, most Americans continue to prefer suburban living. Indeed for four decades, according to numerous surveys, the portion of the population that prefers to live in a big city has consistently been in the 10 to 20 percent range, while roughly 50 percent or more opt for suburbs or exurbs. The reasons? The simple desire for privacy, quiet, safety, good schools, and closer-knit communities. The single-family house, detested by many urbanists, also exercises a considerable pull. Surveys by the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders find that some 83 percent of potential buyers prefer this kind of dwelling over a townhouse or apartment.

"In other words, suburbs have expanded because people like them. A 2008 Pew study revealed that suburbanites displayed the highest degree of satisfaction with where they lived compared to those who lived in cities, small towns, and the countryside. This contradicts another of the great urban legends of the 20th century—espoused by urbanists, planning professors, and pundits and portrayed in Hollywood movies—that suburbanites are alienated, autonomous individuals, while city dwellers have a deep sense of belonging and connection to their neighborhoods.

"Indeed on virtually every measurement—from jobs and environment to families—suburban residents express a stronger sense of identity and civic involvement with their communities than those living in cities. One recent University of California at Irvine study found that density does not, as is often assumed, increase social contact between neighbors or raise overall social involvement. For every 10 percent reduction in density, the chances of people talking to their neighbors increases by 10 percent, and their likelihood of belonging to a local club by 15 percent."

Whether one personally or professionally favors higher density living, Joel is spot on when it comes to understanding the preferences of households. At some point, federal policy will have to recognize this.

At a minimum, it requires a more nuanced understanding of what an "urban" environment looks like and how it works. While new housing tends to be more dense than in the past, the new urban form is not going to rise to densities that support transit or reduce autombile use at the levels most Smart Growth advocates want (or assume). This became clear in a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences called Driving and the Built Environment (Special Report 298) that concluded that even if in an extreme case 75 percent of all new development were funneled into higher densities (and just doubling average metropolitan densities), greenhouses gases would be just 11 percent lower than projected levels in 2050. Most likely, increased density would reduce greenhouse gases by 1-3 percent, implying most development would continue on the present path of slightly higher density but still historically low density urban development.

In truth, the antisprawl agenda is really another progressive pipe dream running against popular opinion despite the populist rhetoric.


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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