Sprawl apologists like Joel Kotkin like to trumpet the continuing population shift to sunbelt metros of the southern US as proof that people prefer to live in these car-centric places that are spread out far and wide — as opposed to compact, walkable cities.
Others believe that there’s a draw to sunbelt states because of pro-business, low-regulation policies that allow for better wages. New York Time columnist Paul Krugman recently wrote an excellent piece that counters that argument, pointing out that, though the population shift is undeniable:
[From 2000-2012] greater Atlanta’s population grew almost 27 percent, and greater Houston’s grew almost 30 percent. America’s center of gravity is shifting south and west.
…this shift to the sunbelt isn’t due to wages:
The average job in greater Houston pays 12 percent less than the average job in greater New York; the average job in greater Atlanta pays 22 percent less.
In other words, what the facts really suggest is that Americans are being pushed out of the Northeast (and, more recently, California) by high housing costs rather than pulled out by superior economic performance in the Sunbelt.
The other draw that sunbelt metros are assumed to have is lower costs of living due to more affordable housing. And though the houses themselves may be lower in price, a new study shows that overall living costs are actually higher in these sprawling, car-centric areas due to transportation spending. Kaid Benfield has the info here: How Transit, Walkability Help Make Cities More Affordable.
A quote from Benfield:
The least affordable cities when housing and transportation costs are combined and compared to typical household income turn out to be sprawling, Sun Belt cities: Riverside, California; Miami; and Jacksonville. Those three cities also have the study’s highest transportation costs for a typical household, because of high rates of driving and relatively low use of mass transit.
So even though lower home prices are an obvious draw to sunbelt metros — and appear to be the sole reason behind the population shift — these prices aren’t low enough to truly provide a cost-of-living advantage over more walkable cities when we factor in the big costs of car-centric living.
Places that are more compact and walkable offer more transportation choices, rather than tying all residents to expensive car mobility. Additionally, they provide a built environment that gives multiple generations of residents the ability to get around without a car.
As I’ve written before, when we build car-sprawl for the middle-class car owners of today, we’re also building environments that will be eventually devalued by the common trends of the real estate market and that will likely be housing the low-income populations of the future. It’s better to pass along walkable environments to future inhabitants of our places than saddling yet another generation with car dependency.
The answer to a more sustainable pattern of housing affordability is not to accept car-centric sprawl as inevitable — it’s to find ways to create lower housing costs inside walkable environments and encourage a population shift within that format.
Top photo of Atlanta suburbs by Flickr user Maik
Bottom photo of Atlanta traffic by Flickr user Craig Allen
The nice people at WABE asked me to appear in a short segment for their City Cafe radio series recently. It aired this week and you can stream it online here:
The talk is based on a post I wrote about the confusing reports we’ve seen regarding Atlanta’s sprawl this year. In a nutshell: though metro Atlanta is the king of existing low-density sprawl among large US metros due to past expansion, it is no longer sprawling like it did. It is, in fact, doing quite a good job at urban infill these days, thanks very much.
The post on WABE’s site contains an interesting graphic that they found. It shows how metro Atlanta’s land mass, which contains 5.5 million people, could easily house eight world cities with a combined population of well over 100 million.
This is not to say that metro Atlanta needs to shoot for that level of density, but it’s interesting to note what an inefficient use we’re making of this sprawled-out area — and to think about how this low density figures into our public transportation struggles. More on that in an upcoming post.
— Suburban sprawl and bad transit can crush opportunity for the poor | Vox, 7/23/14
— Automated Cars May Boost Fuel Use, Toyota Scientist Says | Bloomberg.com, Jul 16, 2014
A recent post in the Atlanta Business Chronicle claims that Atlanta is “no longer the King of Sprawl" — basing this on a report from Georgetown University. Awesome! So, we’re done with it, right? We can all take a metro-wide walk outside to a pocket park and forget the “s” word every existed.
But wait, didn’t we also read just a couple of months ago that a different study found Atlanta to be “the most sprawling big metro in the U.S.?” Why, yes we did. And both are correct. Which makes your brain hurt for a second, but here’s the way to untangle the mess: “sprawl” can be both a noun and a verb.
In it’s verb form, “sprawl” means 1.) the action of a development that is in the process of sprawling across the land. But in it’s noun form, “sprawl” is 2.) the end result — the finished product of low-density, land hogging development.
WHAT WE’VE GOT: A SPRAWLING MESS
That #2 definition, the end product, is what Atlanta has in spades. As that Smart Growth American report from this year shows, Metro Atlanta is still a leader when it comes to having a low-density, far-reaching built environment, following decades of outward growth in a format that’s focused on cars.
WHAT WE’RE BUILDING: DEVELOPMENT IN WALKABLE PLACES
But we’re doing well on #1 — that verb form. Because, according to a report las year from Christopher B. Leinberger, over half of our new development is in walkable places. As the report shows:
…In the real estate cycle begun in 2009, “60 percent of all development delivered to the market by square footage has gone to walkable urban places,” representing less than one percent of metro Atlanta’s land.
So we are no longer in the act of sprawling like we once were. And, as the aforementioned Georgetown University report shows, even greater amounts of development in walkable places are predicted for Metro Atlanta’s future.
There’s still plenty of leftover low-density sprawl (noun form) from previous decades. So trumpeting that there’s an end to sprawl (verb form) here makes sense and it’s a cool thing to see happening, but it’s a bittersweet victory.
I’ll be more excited when, in conjunction with our new-found interest in infill type development, we’ve also got regional leaders on board with the idea of retrofitting suburban sprawl to have a form that’s more compact and walkable.
For now, let this little graphic I’ve made be your guide in clearing up the confusion on where the metro stands with sprawl:
"We should resist the false choices offered to us by the ideologues who tell us that our only two options are either abolishing cars altogether, or a continued spending spree on highway construction and urban sprawl.
An important point established here: the choice between continuing the status quo and getting rid of all cars is a false one.
This is a particularly important to consider one when it comes to having productive public conversations about reducing car use. Many times I’ve read apologists for suburban sprawl write dismissively about smart growth-ers, new urbanists, etc. as being people who hate cars and who are unrealistically promoting car-free cities.
But no reasonable urbanist that I know of wants to ban car use or establish car-free cities. I certainly don’t. Cars have a place in a multi-modal transportation system, even in a dense urban environment, alongside pedestrians, buses, trains, bicycles, and more. As the Underground blog post notes, “it’s all about balance.”
The problem arises when urban environments are unbalanced — when they are built to exclusively suit personally-owned cars at the expense of all other options, hindering public-transit implementation and making pedestrian and cycling mobility either difficult or dangerous (check out the Dangerous by Design report for more info on that).
When car-centric places make it almost (or entirely) impossible to move around without ownership of or access to a car, communities are being ruled by transportation — not served by it. Another quote from the post:
We should think long and hard about the reality of the fact that we’ve reordered our entire society; our built environment; even our very way of life, to serve this machine that we were told would serve us.
Our generation’s challenge is to create a balanced transportation system that works for all of our citizens - rich and poor; young and old; urban, suburban, and rural.
Photo: Automobiles traveling by freight train, on tracks over the Downtown Connector, Atlanta, Georgia, December 10, 1963. From the GSU digital collection.