Subdivisions without a pulse
Sprawl is not dead. Let’s say it is undead.
A recent article in The Washington Post reports on farmers that are buying, at cheap prices, land that was once slated for housing. The Garrett’s Chance subdivision in Prince George’s County, where two lots have sold, is now being used to store hay.
This is something new in my experience. In previous housing recessions, developments sometimes went bust — with half-finished buildings sitting derelict for years. But eventually the sites were always sold and developed. Once land was prepared for development with infrastructure in place, a return to agriculture was almost unheard of in the last six decades. It would be like going back in time.
Also new in my lifetime: Cities have surpassed suburbs in growth in the last year or two. Clearly, something fundamental has changed.
Analysts like Christopher Leinberger and Arthur C. Nelson say that a long-term shift has taken place in the market — that large-lot, automobile-dependent housing on the metropolitan fringe is oversupplied and will be for a generation to come. Others, like the authors of Harvard’s State of the Nation’s Housing, contend that sprawl will return as soon as the economy picks up.
I think that Leinberger and Nelson are fundamentally correct, but that won’t stop what I call “zombie sprawl.” Sprawl has never been entirely market-driven — it’s also an act of will on the part of the housing and finance industries, the regulators who establish the codes, the highway lobby, and departments of transportation. Even after sprawl is dead in the market, these forces can keep it going for a long time.
One example of “zombie sprawl” was reported in the June issue of Better! Cities & Towns: Wall Street has written off the value of thousands of lots purchased and entitled prior to the housing crash. National builders can now build on these lots very cheaply, with zero land value factored into the price. This is not the market at work, it’s a hangover from bad finance decisions prior to 2008, and it will take years for that hangover to disappear.
A policy for the 1950s
Other zombies are crawling out of our national transportation policy, which seems to be based upon the needs of the 1950s and 1960s, rather than the present day. Automobile miles traveled have dropped in the US since 2007, while transit use is on the rise. This trends are especially pronounced among the youngest adults: Motorists aged 21 to 30 accounted for 14 percent of miles driven in 2010, down from 21 percent in 1995.
Yet the transportation bill approved by Congress and signed by the President in July maintains the 80 percent/20 percent split for highways and transit that has been in place for decades. Spending for pedestrians and bicyclists may be slashed by 60 percent to 70 percent, advocates estimate.
The transportation infrastructure we build today sets the foundation for the development of tomorrow. The market may be screaming that it wants mixed-use, walkable places close to transit, but our representatives in government and the powerful highway lobby still want to lay asphalt like it’s 1959. This will result in more sprawl, whether we want it or not.
Similarly, zoning codes, street standards, parking regulations, and other hidden determinants of the built environment are like regulatory zombies from the distant past, continuing to throw up barriers in the path of anyone who wants to create a human-scale place. As Leinberger reports in The Economics of Place, it is still illegal to build walkable urbanism in most communities.
Even when it is legal, barriers put up by transportation engineers often make walkability difficult.
So despite subdivisions turning back into farms, sprawl is not dead. Let’s say it is undead. It may look alive but it has no pulse. Not really. So don’t be fooled. Maybe we should all carry a wooden stake.
Placemaking lives. That is the real future.
Note: This article is from the July-August 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns.