Posts Tagged ‘sprawl; real estate; suburban development’

End of Sprawl?

March 6, 2008

new const lkpt95

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Is the inexorable march to the suburban fringe over? As the recession follows the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, there are interesting developments in real estate economics and geography. I have taught Preservation Planning for more than a dozen years and I would always exhort students that real estate values, having gone up over the last 30 years, could also go down, as history shows and capitalism demands. That was probably the part of the lecture that elicited a “yeah, sure.” Now, we are at “I told you so” and who better to tell you than someone who just bought and sold houses in the worst market in a quarter century? But enough about me.

The Atlantic ran a fascinating story this week by Christopher Leinberger called “The Next Slum” describing new suburban developments where foreclosures are the norm, and how these areas could become the slums of the 21st century. (Thanks to Jim Peters for forwarding the article) They will eventually be chopped up into rentals, Leinberger predicts, although he notes they won’t take the hacking as well as their permanently-built predecessors in the city did: “Many recently built homes take what structural integrity they have from drywall – their thin wooden frames are too flimsy to hold the houses up.” That’s another “I told you so.” What’s worse, a student of mine noted, cul-de-sac McMansions are being stripped of their copper wire, pipes, fixtures and all as homeowners and scavengers take everything they can before the bank takes back the house. Crime is up and suburban schools are soon to follow.

“The Next Slum” notes how urban areas are now commanding significant price premiums over suburban areas in cities from Washington D.C. and Seattle to New York and Portland. Now, you could say these are the usual suspects: New York City has an economic geography all its own, and Washington D.C. is not a real place, but it is happening in Chicago too and Cincinnati can’t be far behind. As gasoline prices rise, sprawl becomes significantly more expensive. We advertised our house with the heading “No Car Needed” because of quick access to two train lines and EVERY commercial need within walking distance. Leinberger’s article notes that train-connected suburbs (he specifically mentions Evanston, which has half as many “L” lines as Oak Park) will “do just fine” in the new economic geography.

This morning the Chicago Tribune reported that a rosy 2008 is predicted for downtown commercial real estate. But NOT for suburban commercial real estate. Vacancy rates downtown are dropping and rents are rising. In the suburbs, vacancy will rise and rents will stay flat. What’s going on? An immediate cause is the housing market itself – all those “Mortgages ‘R Us” shops aren’t renting space anymore. Another is that construction slowdowns put a premium on existing space, and a HUGE factor is gasoline. That, plus the increase in downtown residential puts more people in the inner city commercial market.

A 50-year trend of dispersal and sprawl is ending and a new trend of concentration is starting. Sustainability and “Green” will help as well – it is cheaper and easier to heat a high-rise than those one-story boxes they built in suburbia (no matter what kind of windows they have). Leinberger notes that New York City is the most sustainable “state” in the union thanks to highrises, public transportation and walkability. This doesn’t answer the preservation problem, since you can still have urban teardowns and what Blair Kamin called “Curbcut Classicism” that turned the 1900 block of Burling in Lincoln Park into a Vegas casino stageset, a series of numbingly obvious Lollapallazzos. But at least we aren’t fighting the abandonment that characterized cities in the postwar decades.


November 9, 2005

UIC Professor Robert Bruegmann’s new book: Sprawl: A Compact History (U of C Press) is out, and it is a stunner. Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago alerted me to its imminent appearance, although having worked with Bruegmann as my dissertation advisor over the last few years I knew it was on the way.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has made sprawl a celebrated cause for preservationists for the last decade. Sprawl hurts historic communities and must be stopped. It is something everyone seems to agree on.

Bruegmann’s new book has his typically contrarian take on popular progressive issues: He seems to like sprawl and believes that most people like it in practice, even if they dislike the idea of it.

Heresy! How can I read such filth!

Well, I can read it first of all because I take the train, rarely drive a car and hence have plenty of time for reading J,

Secondly, I can read it because it is phenomenally researched and well-written. Moreover, a lot of his arguments are spot on. The book begins with a history of sprawl, arguing quite convincingly that sprawl has beset urban areas since time immemorial and that many of the lovely historic areas we try to preserve today were sprawl when they were built, railed at for their cheap, ticky-tacky sameness and suburbanness. He traces three periods of sprawl and three campaigns against it in a tightly constructed fashion.

Perhaps the most important argument in the book is the one that unravels it a bit. Sprawl is a negative word, a buzzword and a trendy term and as such tends to be employed indiscriminately against anything that offends the speaker. Bruegmann makes a lot of hay with this fact, noting quite correctly that those who argue against the unplanned, low-density, low-regulation growth on the suburban periphery are also likely to kvetch about the new highrise next to the train stop, even though it is heroically anti-sprawl.

He also explodes several mythical perceptions. The first notice I got about the book was from my brother, incredulous at Bruegmann’s claim that Los Angeles is more densely settled than Chicago. Bruegmann, using a slew of sources from every political angle, proves it. Chicago has exurbs – places like Morris and Mettawa and McHenry that are within the city’s gravitational field and strikingly low-density while Los Angeles does not. In fact, seemingly sprawling Phoenix is also higher density simply because of the limitations of getting water to new developments. A bungalow on a quarter acre is twice as dense as a bungalow on a half acre.

He also explodes the myth of a sprawl-free Europe, and he is right, I have seen the TESCOs and IKEAs myself. Europe has sprawl and automobile ownership has been rising dramatically for generations. I just got e-mailed a new article on British sprawl from a student.

We think of Europe as anti-sprawl because we think of the central 30 or so arrondisements of Paris where a fraction of Parisians actually live. The current Paris riots prove Bruegmann’s point horribly, although I can’t say they will make Sprawl a bestseller like the LA riots did for Mike Davis’ City of Quartz.

Speaking of sprawling slums, I remember being shocked when I saw Singleton’s Boyz In The Hood (1991, right?) at how everyone was living in what looked to me like low-density suburban bungalows. I was like, HUH? New Jack City seemed more realistic, in a support-my-stereotypical-misconceptions sort of way. Poverty is supposed to be highrise, at least if you’re from Chicago.

Bruegmann enjoys shocking the liberal elite. One of the points that aligns him with “free-market” rightists is that many of the efforts to stop sprawl end up pushing development elsewhere and pushing land prices up within the regulated districts of “the incumbent’s club.” The basic argument that regulations can push up values (by adding amenities) is true, but he leans a bit too heavily on anti-environmentalist Bernard Frieden (in contrast to other points that have footnotes from both sides of the aisle) and the ersatz populism of how regulation benefits the rich at the expense of the poor.

Logical, but not an argument that the poor have made for themselves. Television suitheads argue over who gets to be the voice for those on the real as well as the metaphorical rooftops. Not a winnable argument when the only voice worth hearing is silent. This is the impoverished minority that, by definition, has no champions. The rightists offer them favelas and open machinery jobs and the leftists offer them projects and the dole.

They defy the logic of libertarianism because they do not exercise choice, an important point in Sprawl: A Compact History. The middle class likes to live in a single-family house in the suburbs. As the middle class grows, you need more of those, ergo sprawl. For those with choice, sprawl is, in Bruegmann’s convincing estimation, a choice they make. As Joel Garreau proved over a decade ago, people will happily move another 15 miles from their job if they can get more house and yard for the same money.

If the libertarian argument weakens at poverty, it also falters at prosperity, where it envisions infinite growth and wealth. I think there is a limit to how much crap you can accumulate and still enjoy it. The worldwide growth of the middle class is certainly a cohort of worldwide sprawl. Is there a limit? Bruegmann acknowledges this with his statistical discovery that cities are getting denser again since 1990 and we may soon reach automobile saturation. Plus, most people hate sprawl – whatever it is – and one of their upper middle-class free market choices will be to avoid it, an argument he also makes.

There is a lot more in this volume about automobiles and highways that might just make you crazy, but Bob is so refreshingly contrarian that just as he boils your progressive blood by mercilessly slamming environmental regulations he suddenly launches into a paean to the success of Moscow’s communist urban planning.

He would never join a club that would have him as a member, and that is a valuable and dangerous quality in a thinker. He likes cities and suburbs and conurbations because they are messy and historical and overdetermined, not neat and ideological. I like that. Buy the book.