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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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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Redesigning Civilization after the Stress Tests

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The BP oil gusher should remind us that our civilization relies on unseen, not very well understood forces, especially energy and the environment, for our day-to-day economies.

Our institutions and communities have recently failed stress tests that pushed system designs beyond intended limits: whether it’s toxic exurban real estate assets, climate-altering pollution or deepwater oil drilling.

The Post Carbon Institute just published my report, “The Death of Sprawl: Redesigning Urban Resilience for the Twenty-first Century Resource Crises.” Random exurban sprawl and informed urban systems are the opposite ends of a spectrum. In this continuum, the interplay of economics, energy and natural resources management can be optimized (or wasted or ignored) through planning, design, behaviors and technology to yield astonishingly different outcomes.

The chapter will be in a Fall 2010 book being published by The University of California Press and Watershed Media.

We need to understand what stresses will hit before the levees reach their breaking point. When stresses do hit, we will better know how to respond quickly and systemically. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with the impacts of scores of towns like Victorville, California, which were overbuilt during the height of 1990s and early 2000s speculation. I examine in detail just how Victorville became a poster child for foreclosures and why it is a harbinger for our economy, resources and oil use. Chances are if you are in the West, Sunbelt or Midwest, there’s one of these towns out on the fringes near you.
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Location of hyper-growth US Boomburbs 2000-2009 (click to enlarge)

Quickly developed and poorly planned exurban communities, called “Boomburbs,” require cars for virtually every human activity outside the home, going to school, eating out, shopping, dating, seeing a movie, playing and of course, working. But working actually comprises only about 25 percent of the driving we do as a nation: the national reliance on cars goes far beyond our jobs, and is more based on how our communities and streets are designed.

(If that “Green Home” you see in so many magazines doesn’t analyze how people get to and from that home, then it’s probably far from being sustainable.) 

The foreclosures started in these exurban areas after gas prices started rising in 2006, impacting local communities, lenders and housing or strip mall developers that formed the points of the triangle, or a pyramid, you might say. A bank, rig or smokestack regulator won’t limit the flood of bad paper, crude or carbon emissions if rules can be circumvented in order to make more money. That’s the point when stresses build up, exposing failures that at first seem an outlier, then become more commonplace as the very fabric of the system gives way. 

Historically cheap gas was enabled by the federal government and foreign producers, combined with no-holds barred real estate development encouraged by the feds, states, and local communities, and of course the banking industry. Zero down homes are still being offered by developers and their agents in these sprawled communities. To be fair, many low-income individuals wanted to own or invest in their first home, but greed greased the transactions.

Sprawl was one of the major factors requiring more driving and more cars, leading to more time spent commuting, poorer health and ever-greater oil consumption. As a nation we needed to Drill, Baby, Drill in ever-more precarious situations, be it Iraq or the deep waters of the Gulf. 

Meanwhile, the ongoing foreclosure crisis in sprawled California, Arizona, Florida and Texas is undermining a national economic recovery, and will eat away at resources for decades to come: energy, water, time, investment, and security.

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Real estate prices in or near transit-served Washington DC (green arrows indicate prices going up) and in car-dependent outlying areas (red arrows mean prices decreasing): Credit: Kaid Benfield, NRDC, 2010

Even before the oil gusher, smart institutional money started to avoid sprawl like the plague for the first time. Now, there is a new wrinkle: will the BP Deepwater Horizon incident change global access to oil and the public’s cognitive understanding of what burning gas and driving really mean?

So far the reaction in this nation has been to talk about developing renewable sources of energy, including wind, solar and nuclear energy. None of those forms of energy have been used to power our cars and trucks on a meaningful scale–though they will in 10-20 years–so such talk is premature.

Other nations, such as China in wind and solar, are leading US development in such technology, so we are falling down in preparing for the distant day when cars will be powered mainly by renewable energy and alternative fuels (Brazil has gained dominance in producing non-food based ethanol).

Euro nations have tempered their oil addiction by taxing gas at a higher rate while also building denser communities requiring much less driving, and allowing many people to walk or cycle to their destinations. Besides being more energy efficient for residents, these cities and suburbs are also more attractive to businesses and tourists, with their density and mixed-uses (cheese and wine markets, parks, schools and office buildings) being a big part of the charm.

China and India are embarking on ambitious programs to build new cities and redesign existing cities, which is a necessity, considering their exploding urban populations. While automotive growth is a given in these nations (China just overtook the US in auto sales last year), both nations are weighing innovative metro-area designs. Tianjin, China has an “eco-city” district (one of 40 in the nation) that is planned to have 90 percent of all trips by public transit, bicycle or walking.

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Denver, meanwhile, passed an innovative update to its zoning codes this week that will make its transit-oriented planning and investments more successful, reducing auto-dependent development and integrating more mixed uses into the city’s neighborhoods.

Not everyone wants to or is able to afford living in a city or dense suburbs served by transit. But as “The Death of Sprawl” illustrates, we need to find a way out of the institutional, economic and environmental hangover from the last days of cheap and easy oil.

We can deny there’s a problem and continue our delusional ways, or we can put the bottle down, sober up and get to work on seeing what the rest of our lives can really be.    

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current,
an internationally active consultancy based in San Anselmo, California. 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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Urban Resilience: climate change, peaking resources, economic crash. Next?

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How do we put the pieces together to make our cities and metro areas stronger than they were before climate change, energy volatility and the Great Recession?

(See “*answer” at end of this post…)

That’s what I’ll be discussing tomorrow (Tuesday) night on a panel, “Urban Resilience in Post-Carbon World,” in Vancouver with Bill Rees, of Ecological Footprint fame, and Daniel Lerch, author of Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty.

The panel, sponsored by the Post Carbon Institute, will be open to the public and is part of a larger event on urban resilience bringing together local government leaders from Canada and the United States, as well as academics and practitioners in urban sustainability–er, resiliency–management.

Vancouver has been viewed for a decade as a success story in sustainable planning and programs. From the city’s emphasis on increased downtown density, bikability and green buildings, including its sponsorship of a “21 places for the 21st century” contest, to a city farmer program for exchanging surplus fruit, Vancouver is on the vanguard of urban resiliency innovation. It also is one of Canada’s most diverse cities, home to significant numbers of Asians from many countries, including India, as well as indigenous North Americans.

The rich offerings of the Resilient Cities event demonstrates that Vancouver is thinking ahead once more. Besides its Mayor Gregor Robertson, minions of regional and local government, non-governmental and business leaders will be putting on events, including:

  • The Vancouver Design Nerds and Open Space Network will be facilitating an urban agriculture ideas jam while another group of food system experts and producers will examine “Planning Metro Vancouver as if Food Matters.”
  • A local university campus (BCIT Burnaby Campus) will be having a design charette, led by Ecocities founder Richard Register, to reduce its ecological footprint by a factor of four.
  • City government and groups including TransFair Canada will examine how to invigorate local economic development through fair trade and sustainable purchasing.
  • The city’s “Greenest City Action Team” including the manager of the City of Vancouver Sustainability Group will share advice on engaging people in change.
  • BC hydro will lead an interactive session on sustainable community energy.
  • Provincial official will examine convening action throughout British Columbia (Vancouver’s province) that achieves settlement in balance with ecology.
  • Real estate experts including David Suzuki Foundation author Nicholas Heap will explain how climate change could impact the region’s real estate.
  • Other cities, from New York City, with former Sustainable South Bronx’s Majora Carter, (a Fellow at Post Carbon Institute along with Bill Rees and myself) to Berkeley, California, will have case studies presented. AAt in 

Key to a successful event will be how well presenters and activities engage systems approaches for resilient communities, rather than just repackaging siloed sustainability chestnuts under a new label.

Besides regional government organization Metro Vancouver‘s hosting of a session on “The Politics of Decision-Making for Sustainability,” Vancouver is making attempts at coordinating with Seattle and Portland on how to make the Cascadia region a more interconnected and better managed bioregional market. Cascadia forces helped push Amtrak to connect Portland and Vancouver for the first time without border fees, for instance.

Portland Mayor Sam Adams will be at the event with a contingent from that Oregon city, as will Jim Diers, author of Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way.

* The easy answer to my opening question, by the way, includes providing better regional
collaboration, particularly in the area of land use, planning and
transportation.

Unfettered growth in car-dependent sprawled communities proved during the past few years to be the biggest economic risk factor in real estate, endangering the whole US economy. Exurban Sun Belt homes and entire neighborhoods went from being hot properties to foreclosed or even largely abandoned, as rising gas price rises changed speculative economics from 2006-2009. 

Sprawl also has which has massive implications for higher average water, building and infrastructure energy use, increasing greenhouse gas production beyond tailpipes.

Which means that because of climate change, the issue of how to control and rethink sprawl on the regulatory and policy level should become a leading order of business in metro areas, states, nations and the world.

The unplanned sprawl that already exists will need to be re-engineered or “undone,” which means that the alternatives provided by the Vancouvers and Portlands–transit-oriented development, multi-model mobility (including walking and biking), regional energy and food production–will need to be applied at regional levels throughout North America.

The suburbs and exurbs are ground zero for change, particularly in the United States, where though most people live in urban areas (79% in 2000), they do not live in big cities. Only a quarter of US residents live in cities above 100,000 in population, so no matter how green cities become, we must think in terms of metros and their smaller cities if we really want to prepare for the future.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and co-author of a forthcoming book from the Post Carbon Institute on urban and societal resiliency     

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Limiting Sprawl’s Economic and Resource Toll: California Law SB 375

Yesterday a special all-day confab in San Francisco hashed over the state and local impacts of California SB 375, the first statewide anti-sprawl measure in America, which was signed into law in September.

The law will be historic if it can hold its center.

Sprawl causes greater greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution than more compact urban or suburban development that is served by transit, walking and biking. 

Current research now points to sprawl as helping set the 2007 real estate meltdown into motion. The first foreclosure crisis occured when rapidly rising gas prices began to make long commutes more than people could afford in torid Sun Belt locations such as Phoenix, Las Vegas and California’s San Bernardino County.

A study released this week by my firm Common Current provides data that demonstrates how car-dependent mainly post ’50s suburbs have been hemmhoraging value, whereas central cities and suburbs served by good transit, walkability, bikeability and high telecommuting rates have held their value.

Senate Bill 375 will use carrots (permit expediting, special funding) and sticks (withholding federal transit funding) to make sure local government and developers build closer to existing or planned transit and take into account how much people will have to drive as a result of  proposed projects.

“Now we can do regional planning with teeth,” said Peter Calthorpe, the long-time Smart Growth planner and head of Calthorpe Associates. “We have to determine just how sharp those teeth are.”

 

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While the sprawled regions of the US host a disproportionate amount of residential foreclosures, these outer rings also demand a disproportate share of service- and oil-dependent infrastructure (asphalt alone went up more than 300% between September 2005 and September 2008), proving mighty costly to government. 

The anti-sprawl bill provides regional land use and transportation guidance for the state’s expansive and historic AB 32. Passed in 2006, AB 32 aims to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions 70 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2050. The California Air Resources Board is guiding the AB 32 policy body and enforcement with Goverernor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office, the CalTrans highway agency, and regional policy agencies.

SB 375 provides the state a new trowel for shaping the developed footprint of the Golden State’s 163,000 square miles so it can limit carbon-hungry car-centric planning and construction. Besides encouraging infill, the intent is to stymie easy development of exurban agricultural land, wildlife habitat and natural resources. 

“SB 375 demonstrates we can get big complicated things done…in transportation, land use and environmental protection,” said the bill’s chief sponsor, California Senate President Darrell Steinberg in a video. “Together we have provided the template for Congress and other states.” 

Senator-elect Mark Leno was present in the flesh, and he laid out how sprawl–non-dense, unconnected, auto-dependent exurban or suburban development–was a form of development that has seen its day. “How we plan and construct the community of tomorrow will literally determine our future.

Backed by the California Building Industry, The California Alliance for Jobs, many regional governmental and transit organizations, SB 375 contains designations for market-rate and affordable housing near transit, but not jobs near transit. This was a concern for some, as was how to garner basic program funding with decreased federal highway funding and a state budget meltdown.

Joked Steinberg, “I have 28 billion good reasons why I’m not in San Francisco,” his video image said, referring to budget deficit meetings with the Governor.

Meanwhile, one member of the California Legislature called 375 not a great leap but instead “baby steps.”  

“Baby steps?” I asked.

“Baby steps.”

 

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