There have been a string of articles in the last year or two that expose the ways that we subsidize sprawl, giving that development form an unfair advantage over compact, walkable growth.
But an interactive page published recently by Pew Charitable Trust really nails the issue with the help of maps: The Geographic Distribution of the Mortgage Interest Deduction
Look at the image above of north Georgia, taken from the Pew map. That dark blue doughnut shape is the suburbs of Atlanta, all relying on mortgage interest deductions at a rate that is far higher than the national or state average.
I was pointed to the map by a good post on Streetsblog. Here’s a quote from that post:
About 85 percent of federal subsidies for housing flow to single family homes…though only about 65 percent of Americans are homeowners and the majority of renters live in multi-family housing. The ultimate sprawl subsidy just might be the mortgage interest deduction….the vast majority of subsidies flow to households with incomes greater than $200,000…this money tends to flow to areas where everyone is dependent on a car.
What a far cry this is from the narrative often pushed by apologists for suburban sprawl and car-dependency. They claim that this development style allows for personal freedom and independence in a way that can’t be achieved when people are “living on top of each other” in a more compact form.
But the statistics don’t lie: when it comes to economics, there’s nothing independent about car-oriented sprawl. It’s the most economically inefficient, unsustainable, dependent development form we have and the studies that prove this to be true just keep on coming. But will we listen?
With the Metro Atlanta housing market booming once again, it becomes increasingly important to face the facts.
Google’s Earth Engine lets you view time-lapse satellite images from 1984-2012. It’s an amazing tool for seeing the expansion of our built environments over that time.
Take a look at the changes to the land in this time-lapse of the northern part of Metro Atlanta.
The sprawling development of the area, and the resulting loss of green space, is frightening to see, particularly with reports of a rebound in single-family home construction pointing the way toward continued sprawl.
Here’s some sobering info from the New Georgia Encyclopedia on our urban sprawl and the damage that happens when urbanization of land outpaces population growth via low-density development:
Metropolitan Atlanta is the least densely populated metropolitan area in the United States…Between 1982 and 1992 the amount of greenspace lost to development in the Atlanta metropolitan area increased by 38 percent.
Since 1987 the Atlanta region has lost an average of fifty acres of tree cover per day. Much of this loss is a direct result of encroachment by low-density sprawl development into forested and agricultural areas. This deforestation and loss of vegetation, coupled with increased pavement and rooftops, creates a “heat island” effect (temperatures can be up to twelve degrees higher in heavily paved areas of Atlanta) and contributes to the region’s air pollution problems as well.
Instead of getting excited about a rebound in single-family home construction, Metro leaders need to get interested in accommodating population growth and new development in a way that reduces environmental harm. The practices of the last few decades have caused too much damage. Instead of repeating those mistakes, we need to learn from them and commit to compact, walkable infill.
"Brookings reports that 88 percent of the Atlanta region’s low-income population lives in the suburbs, but only one-third of the region’s suburbanites have access to transit."
— Job Sprawl Leader Atlanta Shows Signs of Reversal | Streets Blog
"As development (and employment opportunities) sprawl out geographically, people who live in segregated communities without good access to jobs are more isolated than ever."
— Why Segregation Is Bad For Everyone | Atlantic Cities
I felt queasy reading this news article on a symposium in Dallas that promises to celebrate and explore the “good” aspects of sprawl:
Symposium to build excitement for sprawl
Ugh. Here are the quotes that made me ill:
[Architecture critic Robert] Bruegmann said sprawl is when a low-density settlement spreads out without much planning…
“My point of view on this is that the problems with sprawl have been greatly overrated and the benefits have not been sufficiently understood,” he said.
“Dallas, Houston and Atlanta are the great American exemplars that have grown dramatically at very low densities in over the last few years. They’ve done it in such a way house prices have stayed relatively low.”
Well there you have it. Anyone who’s read the writings of sprawl apologist Joel Kotkin knows that one of the primary arguments for this development style is low home price. “Drive until you qualify” homes spread far across former countryside do indeed offer low prices.
But at what cost? Is it worth the loss of natural ecosystem, plant and animal species and the increase in a car-dependent environment? Nope. It’s a short-sighted, quick return that passes off environmental and economic ills to future generations.
Shame on anyone who celebrates it and shame on metro Atlanta for being a “great American exemplar” of it.
The anti-urban planning crowd would rather throw nature under the bus (or under the SUV) instead of supporting progress in affordable housing for compact, walkable environments. Insane.
Photo of sprawl in Houston County, GA by Mark Strozier
Low-density development away from city centers can be a drag on growth for several reasons…
For poorer people without access to a car, it can make it harder to physically get to a job. For those with a car, it can lead to longer commute times and more money spent on gas.
It’s also more expensive for taxpayers. Infrastructure costs can be 40% higher in low-density areas than higher ones…
America’s jobs are moving to the suburbs | 4/18/2013 CNNMoney
Oddly, other reports have looked at data and titled it with variations on “Recession slows job sprawl.” Yet trends still show that job sprawl will likely continue. Here’s a quote from an Atlanta Business Chronicle article today:
as the economy picks up speed, the outward shift of employment will also likely resume within most major metro areas…However, efforts to encourage denser forms of suburban development and to attract jobs to the urban core have accelerated in recent year…
The point: despite some gains in acceptance of smart growth ideas in recent years, there’s a lot of work to do to stop the sprawl madness and turn the ship around to development that’s in a less car-dependent, land-hogging format that allows for transit access to a greater percentage of jobs.