Death of Sprawl

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Los Angeles Times photo

Sprawl is dead: That’s the takeaway of a new report analyzing how toxic exurban real estate started the US economy on its downward spiral. Metro regions and developers are picking up the pieces and are vowing, “never again.

The unchecked trend of US exurbanization was one of the major factors setting off the beginning of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, according to a new research paper published by the Post Carbon Institute investigating the relationship of sprawled, completely car-dependent communities to real estate risk as well as to climate change and ecosystems.

Besides the inherent threats to climate change and dwindling resources, exurban development during the past decades put the United States in a vulnerable economic position when steadily rising gas prices in 2004-2005 began their march toward $4-5 a gallon in mid 2008. 

The research paper argues that many suburbs and most exurbs, which constitute the vast majority of urbanized areas in the United States, have been building up an infrastructure of complete auto dependence, which threatens the climate through multiple forms of inefficient energy, food and resource use.

Despite the emerging “green” urbanism trend, which can be found in a number of North American cities, unplanned exurban growth must be addressed and managed more efficiently, or the economy will face further severe national real estate shocks as oil prices rise again.

California’s Senate Bill 375 is the first statewide anti-sprawl measure, and similar regulation and related regional planning processes will need to occur on a national basis to systemically reduce the combined risks of exurban development and financial speculation. 

The following is an excerpt from my complete paper, a publication pre-release of the “Roadmap for the Transition” series.

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In April 2009–just when people thought things
couldn’t get worse in San Bernardino County, California–bulldozers demolished
four perfectly good new houses and a dozen others still under construction in
Victorville, 100 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.

The structures’
granite countertops and Jacuzzis were removed first. Then the walls came down
and the remains were unceremoniously scrapped. A woman named Candy Sweet came
by the site looking for wood and bartered a six-pack of cold Coronas for some
of the splintered two-by-fours. For a boomtown in one of the fastest-growing
counties in the United States, things were suddenly looking pretty bleak…

The recent decline of Victorville and other
“boomburbs” may well prove to be the last gasp of the United States’
decades-long suburban/exurban development frenzy. We will be absorbing or
trying to erase the unwanted surplus of this end-of-the-twentieth-century
building spree for years, if not decades. In the meantime, exurban communities
in general–and Victorville in particular–will face a daunting set of short term
and long term challenges as the 21st century shapes up to be very
different than the world they were built for…

Within the United States, existing metropolitan
areas can be retrofitted to take advantage of breakthroughs in sustainability
and efficiency technologies, as well as new financial incentives.

The American
Recovery and Re-investment Act of 2009 has provided some funding for the
energy-efficient redesign of our buildings and our means of transportation. But
much more ambitious projects need to be undertaken to retrofit our communities
not only for energy efficiency, but to build their overall resilience.

Fortunately, a foundation for this work already
exists. Barely ten years ago, “green buildings,” downtown streetcars, urban
farms, car-sharing companies, high-quality bicycle infrastructure and other
physical features now associated with urban sustainability were found only in a
handful of North American cities. Today, they are popping up everywhere.

Big
cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are actively trying to
“out-green” each other, while smaller cities like Boulder, Colorado, and
Alexandria, Virginia are rolling out their own localized sustainability solutions.

Some communities have taken early steps toward protecting their surrounding
agricultural lands, or “foodsheds,” from well-established regional plans and
policies in Portland, Oregon to San Francisco’s 2009 comprehensive local food
policy
. Cities are starting to realize that they can’t just “grow smarter”–they
have to fundamentally remake themselves to be resilient for the unprecedented
economic, social, and environmental challenges of the 21st century.

Some metro areas rethinking themselves for resilience
have simultaneously become home to “clean tech” centers with significantly high
job growth rates. Clean tech clusters are emerging in the San Francisco Bay
Area, Boston, and Austin, as well as in some less-expected locations; in
Toledo, Ohio, for instance, more than 4% of all jobs are now in research,
development and manufacturing for solar energy
. Other key areas of future job
growth are in green building and landscaping, water conservation technologies,
low-carbon materials design and advanced transportation…

If the “Great Recession” of 2008-2009 taught us
anything, it was that allowing the unrestrained sprawl of energy-inefficient
communities and infrastructure is not a sustainable economic development
strategy; rather, it is a recipe for continued disaster on every level.

Twentieth century-style sprawl has destroyed valuable farmland, sensitive
wildlife habitat, and irreplaceable natural water supply systems at great environmental,
economic, and social cost. We can no longer manage and develop our communities
with no regard for the natural resources and ecological systems that provide
our most basic needs.

What lessons emerge from metropolitan areas that
have begun to plan for the future by building their resilience with economic,
energy, and environmental uncertainty in mind?

  • Build
    and re-build denser and smarter.
    Suburban and urban population
    densities need to increase so that energy-efficient transportation choices
    like public transit, bicycling and walking can flourish. Multi-modal
    mobility cannot succeed at the densities found in most American suburban
    and urban communities today. Increasing density doesn’t have to mean
    building massive high-rises: adding just a few more stories on existing or
    new mixed-use buildings can double population density–and well-designed,
    increased density can also improve community quality of life and economic
    vitality. Resource-efficient building technologies, as certified by the US
    Green Building Council’s Leadership in Environment and Energy (LEED) or
    the US EPA’s Energy Star rating, can be retrofitted for existing building
    stock and mandated for all new construction.
  • Focus
    on food.
    Gardens
    (whether in backyards, community parks, or in and on top of buildings) may
    supplement people’s diets with fresh local produce–but urban areas need to
    think big and plan systemically for significantly increased food
    production. In many Asian cities and towns–even big cities like Seoul,
    South Korea, the size of New York–there are thriving small farms
    interspersed within metro areas. Growing and processing more food for
    local consumption bolsters regional food security and provides jobs while
    reducing the energy, packaging and storage needed to transport food to
    metro regions.
  • Focus
    on water.
    Our
    freshwater supply is one of our the most vulnerable resources in the
    United States. Water vulnerability is no longer just a problem for
    Southwestern desert cities–communities in places like Texas, Georgia and
    even New Jersey have recently had to contend with water shortages. As
    precipitation patterns become less reliable and underground aquifers and mountain snowpack dry
    up, more and more communities will need to significantly reduce water
    demand through conservation, restrictions and “tiered pricing.”
  • Think
    in terms of systems.
    If we think of our
    urban areas as living, breathing entities–each with a set of basic and
    more specialized requirements–we can better understand how to transform
    our communities from random configurations into dynamic, high-performance
    systems of resilience. The “metabolism” of urban systems depends largely on
    how energy, water, food, materials, labor and knowledge are used (and
    reused, where possible), or metabolized. From these ingredients and
    processes come products, services, and–if the system is efficient–minimal
    waste and pollution…

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, a consultancy based in San Anselmo, California with international projects on urban strategy and metrics. He is a Fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and author of How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings.

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