Census and Experts Confirm Death of Sprawl in US

The United States has reached an historic moment. The exurban development explosion that defined national growth during the past two decades has come to a screeching halt, according to the latest US Census figures. Only 1 of the 100 highest-growth US communities of 2006—all of them in sprawled areas—reported a significant population gain in 2011, prompting Yale economist Robert Shiller to predict suburbs overall may not see growth “during our lifetimes.”

We are simultaneously witnessing the decline of the economic sectors enabled by hypergrowth development: strip malls and massive shopping centers, SUVs and McMansions.  The end of exurban population growth has been accompanied by steep economic decline in real estate value, triggering a loss of spending not only in construction, but also home improvement (Home Depot, Best Buy) and numerous associated retail sectors that were banking on the long-term rising fortunes of “Boomburbs.”

The fate of these communities has been so dire that for the first time in the United States suburbs now have greater poverty than cities.

In 2009, I attributed the financial crash in these car-based communities to economic factors perpetrated by the higher gas prices that had first started showing impacts in late 2006 and peaked in 2008. Others including The Brookings Institution’s Christopher Leinberger, and William Frey, along with NRDC’s Kaid Benfield have pointed to longer term demographic shifts and societal desires toward renting in denser mixed-use neighborhoods. The looming specter of excess greenhouse gases may also be playing a role in the marked reduction of driving among younger Americans (16-39 year olds), who increasingly prefer to live where they can walk or bike to their local store, school or café.

The “Death of Sprawl” chapter that I wrote, published by the Post Carbon Institute in 2009, (and in abridged form in the Post Carbon Reader in 2010), provided a case study on Victorville, California. Located 75 miles outside Los Angeles, Victorville’s rise and crash epitomized the hangover of the go-go sprawl era.

During the financial system’s Derivative Daze, Victorville grew from 64,000 in 2000 to more than 108,000 by 2005: no-money-down-housing developments and “liar loans” fueled speculative investments that pumped up the desert city’s average home value to almost $350,000. The large numbers of workers that moved to Victorville had to commute long hours before dawn and after dark to get to work in Los Angeles, without the benefit of local public transit. There are still few options for those who wish to walk or bicycle to stores, jobs, schools or local amenities, and the average near 100 degree summer temperatures make such endeavors foolhardy.

When gas prices began to go up in 2006, real estate sales in the region began to dry up as people ran for the exits. As the doors slammed shut, foreclosures in California’s Inland Empire (Victorville and other parts of California’s sprawling San Bernardino and Riverside counties), Las Vegas and Florida began to trigger a nationwide real estate meltdown. To stick with our illustration, Victorville houses plummeted from an average of nearly $350,000 in 2006 to $125,000 by late 2009. Likewise, new home permits in Victorville went from 7964 in 2004-06 down to 739 in 2008-10: a drop of more than tenfold! The average home sale now brings around $110,000, less than a third of 2005-2006 prices.

Institutional investors and homebuyers alike have avoided for the past five years the nation’s scores of Victorvilles; the new data and pronouncements by experts such as Shiller, author of The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, likely put the last nails in the coffin of speculative, auto-dependant sprawl.

Recent US Census data confirms that the future of the United States is no longer about an economy based on the false and dangerous pretenses of unfettered greenfield development, with its unhealthy and climate-destructive sprawl-scape of fast food, big box retail and freeway-bred exurbs. National policies and investments should strengthen and improve existing cities and suburbs, including transit infrastructure, building retrofitting, clean energy, walkability, bicycle networks and neighborhood redesign–all areas where quality local job and community engagement opportunities can flourish.

Chart Courtesy Brookings Institution

We’ve known for some time that planning for more sustainable metros, both cities and suburbs, makes better sense in terms of protecting local food, water and land resources, as well as in reducing pollution and carbon emissions. Now we know that such actions have been proven to make much better short-term economic sense, while acting as tangible investments for the long term.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, a global consultancy for sustainable urban planning and development.

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Japan’s Green Renewal? After the Disasters UN Tour

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I’ve returned from a sobering United Nations-led tour of six tsunami-damaged communities and two radiation-impacted cities in Northern Japan. The obvious conclusion: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident is forcing Japan to go green, including the launch of a new renewable energy national feed-in tariff that starts in July.Meanwhile the governor of Fukushima, Yuhei Sato, told us that renewables will be the “key factor” in the revival of his devastated prefecture.

Though little planning is in evidence yet as to how this economic and energy transformation will be integrated, our UN tour did witness fragmented signs that Japan can provide a developed-nation resilience role model in the face of cultural, energy system and environmental devastation.

Organized by the Nagoya, Japan-based UN Center for Regional Development (UNCRD), we traveled fora week as part of a fact-finding mission with UNCRD director Chikako Takase and her staff. The mission was called “Reconstruction Towards Sustainable Communities” andmy role was to advise Japanese community leaders on green economic development recovery strategies and opportunities. I had met with a range of clean tech energy companies and urban planning and design firms in preparation,as well as the US Department of Commerce.

I was joined by experts from five countries, Japan, Australia, Bangladesh, Thailand and the US. One fellow American represented the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It seems our contingent was somewhat of a novelty. I was told by the UN and the US Embassy in Tokyo that we were one of the first (if not the first) from outside the three affected prefecturesto meet with local
leaders on reconstruction and post-disaster management planning.

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UN reconstruction tour group of Japan disaster areas, in Ishinomaki (photos Warren Karlenzig)

The tsunami-scoured coastal cities where some 20,000 died–bodies are still being discovered by white ships trolling the coast and on land by locals–are focused on the future of survivors. We visited temporary housing and just-opened temporary retail developments. These modular constructed units, complete with personal flairs such as lanterns, public benches and landscaping, house locally-owned shops from bars to barbers to fish mongers that were wiped out by the tsunami.

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Cities win big in leaked agenda for UN Rio+20

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A leaked agenda for the United Nations Rio+20 conference places urban sustainability in a major role for UN member nation Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) put forth for ratification this June. The document acknowledges that cities are on par with nations in terms of implementing and measuring sustainability progress over the next 18
years–the-make-or-break period for mitigating and adapting to global
climate change.

The Rio+20 agenda, leaked today in the UK’s The Guardian under the Ogilvy Mather
promoted slogan “The Future We Want,” lays out ten areas for new
Sustainable Development Goals that will be released in Rio; urban sustainability is one of the key goals (other nine major categories include climate change, food security, water, green jobs, oceans, natural disasters, forests and biodiversity, mountains, and chemicals and waste).

The Rio+20 draft agenda states: “We recognize the need to integrate sustainable urban development policy as a key component of national sustainable development policy and, in this regard, to empower local authorities….We recognize that partnerships among cities have emerged as a leading force for action on sustainable development. We commit to support international cooperation among local authorities, including through assistance from international organizations.”

Officially, the
UN Conference on Sustainable Development,follow-up to the historic UN 1992 “Earth Summit,” also held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, isdedicated to marshalling the global Green Economy.

The leaked 19-page agenda calls for major global actions in financing, policy, technology implementation and collaboration in the face of global climate change and economic turmoil, developing-nation poverty and climate-exacerbated natural disasters. Continue reading

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Global Mayors Start Acting Upon UN’s Sustainable City Manual

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After providing the curriculum for training urban leaders from 12 Southeast and
Central Asian nations a few weeks ago (Manila, Philippines is pictured above), the United Nations is now globally launching the full content of the Shanghai Manual:A Guide for Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century.

The free publication features 47 global urban sustainability case studies and dozens of timely policy recommendations, especially when one considers the lack of global climate treaties due to tactics of “delaying nations” at the Durban climate talks, including the US. Instead, the Shanghai Manual is a practical tool intended to help the world’s major and medium-sized cities in developing nationsfurther advance their local green economies. The ”green economy” is also the key theme of the 2012 United Nations Conference on
Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20.

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Death of Sprawl: Past and Future

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Seems like my chapter “The Death of Sprawl” from The Post Carbon Reader is taking on a life of its own. Friday, Christopher Leinberger had an Op-ed in the New York Times, titled “Death of the Fringe Suburb,” which built upon concepts I had published (and sent Leinberger last year) namely, that the US mortgage crisis and Recession were set off by upsidedown economics of sprawl speculation in US exurbs or “Boomburbs” and we can’t ever do that again.

The site Adapturbia also recently put together a nifty visual presentation of “The Death of Sprawl” that localized my content to provide context for sprawl issues confronting Sydney, Australia.

What’s important here is that the research and the real estate sales figures are becoming ever clearer: people increasingly prefer to live in mixed-use, transit-oriented walkable and bikeable neighborhoods over drive-everywhere bedroom communities. Those preferences will not change and we will not go back, which is affirmed by the abandoned exurban housing and development that are fast becoming the nation’s newest slums: for the first time in the nation’s history, suburban poverty now outweighs urban poverty.

One need only take a look at the foreclosure heavy areas such as California’s Inland Empire: my chapter provided a case study of Victorville, CA, one of the last gasps of the residential car-centered Boomburb economy of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Leinberger’s piece hit on the changing real estate taste in demographics (retired Boomers and upcoming Millennials) while my thesis examined how cheap energy fueled nearly 100% car-dependent exurban growth. We both concluded that denser, mixed-use metro areas are the wise investments of the future because: more people want to live that way so that is where investment will occur. Developers know that strip malls, sidewalk-less mini-mansions and business parks that cater to cars only are poison in this economy. Continue reading

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UN’s Shanghai Manual Launches to Guide Urban Futures


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A powerful triumvirate,
the United Nations, Bureau International Des
Expositions
and the mayor of Shanghai, released this week the Shanghai Manual:A Guide for Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century.This timely (and free!) manual is
aimed at helping leaders of the world’s cities use integrated urban
planning, management, financing and technology to green their
economies and build climate and economic resilience.

“The Shanghai Manual details
the experience and practices of cities across the world in addressing common
challenges and achieving harmonious development…and is therefore of great
theoretical and practical value,” Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng said at
Monday’s launch, according to the Shanghai Daily.

Aimed at a
target readership of mayors and executive leaders of developing nation cities,
the bilingual (English and Chinese) Shanghai
Manual
is the basis for capacity building and training being rolled out in Asia next week by the United Nations. City leaders representing 12 Asian nations will attend the United Nations Center for Regional Development in
Nagoya, Japan, where UN officials and I will lead urban sustainability training
for leaders ranging from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to Karachi, Pakistan,
to Makati (Manila), Philippines. In addition smaller cities including Chiang Mai, Thailand are participating.

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UN Rio+20 Agenda Galvanizes to Sustainable Cities


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As Rio+20 takes shape (officially, the United Nations
Conference on Sustainable Development,follow-up to the historic UN 1992 “Earth Summit,”held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil),the issue of sustainable cities appears to be
taking center stage in planning for the June 2012 event dedicated to marshalling the global Green Economy.

“Cities provide a great framework to galvanize public
opinion and citizen participation,” said Jared Blumenfeld, Administrator of
Region 9 of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Cities also have a
lot in common: New York and Beijing have more in common in terms of challenges
they face than do the US and China.”

On the road to Rio, the UN’s “Shanghai Manual for Sustainable Cities”will be released by the UN Department of
Economic and Social Affairs on Nov. 7 as a playbook for mayors of global cities
so they can deploy triple bottom line strategies (I co-authored the manual with
the UN). Blumenfeld, who spoke last week at the Commonwealth Club in San
Francisco, said that the US Department of State and EPA are preparing by next week a Rio+20 submittal that is “cities focused.” (Previously, the United States and Brazil
recently announced the US-Brazil Joint Venture on Urban Sustainability.) Meanwhile, non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders has begun high-level discussions with the UN
and NGOs ICLEI and C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group,
on potential Rio+20 standards for ecocities including the International Ecocity
Framework and Standards
(IEFS).

Out of the 1992 Earth Summit,with 110 heads of state and thousands of
non-governmental leaders, emerged pivotal treaties and frameworks for decades to
come, including the Kyoto Protocol
and Agenda 21.
Other products of the first Earth Summit include the Global Environmental
Facility
at the World Bank,
and national sustainability agendas in 86 countries based off Agenda 21,
according to Jacob Scherr, director of global strategy and advocacy for the
Natural Resources Defense Council. Continue reading

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