Reports of sprawl's death are exaggerated
At the start of his new book, Reshaping Metropolitan America, Arthur C. Nelson asks whether the US will continue its sprawling development patterns this decade and the next. Due to monumental shifts in the housing market and significant redevelopment opportunities, the answer he gives is “no.”
That’s plain and simple — except for a few caveats and qualifications. “Will developers and planners take advantage of this opportunity? Only if the accommodation of market trends is facilitated through a range of federal, state, and local policy initiatives,” Nelson says.
A continued “sprawl by default” is possible, he explains, because much depends on the political will to change. Not only do zoning codes and street patterns encourage sprawl, but so do a range of federal and state tax and finance policies.
There’s no question that the American sprawl machine has slowed considerably since the start of the Great Recession. Single-family building permits are less than a third of what they were in 2005. The fastest growing housing type is multifamily, and the strongest markets for this housing are in the urban core. Emerging Trends in Real Estate reports that developers are looking for infill, urban sites for single-family dwellings.
Looking may be the key word here. More than 500,000 single-family building permits were issued in 2012, an increase of 23 percent over the year before. The vast majority of these houses have two or three car garages, and two-thirds are sited on large lots. The locations are mostly typical suburban subdivisions. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably sprawl.
Meanwhile, we see lots of smart growth activity in urban cores, around transit sites, and in urban centers in the suburbs. The vast majority of the housing in these places is multifamily.
What about single-family?
So how do we make single-family development sustainable? We did it routinely in cities all across America prior to World War II. The new urbanists have created models for it in recent decades. Yet sustainable single-family requires interconnected networks of walkable streets — complete streets — and a mixture of uses and housing types. Cities lack land for new neighborhoods of this sort (in city sectors where land is plentiful, there’s often no market for housing of any kind — think Detroit). In the suburbs, there’s plenty of land, but the policies often prevent walkable neighborhoods.
Too many suburban municipalities have zoning codes that prevent mixed-use neighborhoods and lack “complete streets” to connect to. Until we change these codes and thoroughfares, and until suburban leaders call for street networks — builders will keep doing what they have been doing.
To meet future market, economic, and sustainability needs of the country, we need to build less large-lot single-family housing and more small-lot single-family housing (along with multifamily). And we need to build it in walkable places.
New urbanists have been successful at teaching many builders how to put the garage in the back and how to make the fronts of houses more appealing and human-scale, but they haven’t made it much easier to provide the street network necessary for livability.
Production builders will not provide their own street grid if it goes against zoning and street standards. But if the system makes a connected network easier than typical sprawl, I maintain that builders will adapt in short order.
Like Nelson, I am optimistic that our development patterns will be different in the coming decades than they have been in the last six. Cities and historic towns are making a comeback.
But those who think that sprawl is dead are wrong. We’ve got a lot of work to do before the majority of new development is sustainable.
Robert Steuteville is the editor of Better! Cities & Towns. This commentary piece is printed in the March 2013 issue of Better! Cities & Towns.