The Looming Sprawl Bomb

Over 90% of the Atlanta region lives what is loosely called the suburbs.  So, if the overwhelming majority of people live in suburbia, it must be the right choice, right?  

Well, I wouldn’t call Suburbia the pragmatic choice.  Suburbia stretches resources and eats up land in ways that can’t be sustained in the long run.  Currently we are seeing suburbs attempting to become more walkable and significant development being focused on rebuilding our urban cores.  However, if you’ve looked around recently, there is a lot of suburban style development going up around the northern burbs.  That’s great economically in the near term but it might not be so good in the long term.  It brings more residents, it requires new infrastructure, it creates the need for all things that cities must provide.  These things cost money and often turn into long term liabilities for cities and municipalities.  

The organization StrongTowns has been illustrating the high costs of sprawl to cities across the country in an alarmingly effective way.  Their Curbside Chat is a bit like taking Morpheus’ red pill in the Matrix.  Their premise goes like this.. Our ability to grow by taking on more debt is waning.  Federal and State incentives for growth will become more scarce. The tax productivity of auto-dependent places is lower on a per acre basis than the pre-WWII city design.  Cities need to stop pursuing the short term prosperity that will result in long term liability.  They refer to the post WWII development pattern as the Suburban Experiment and compare it to a Ponzi scheme.  The suburban development pattern requires new growth to pay for long term liabilities.  Eventually, the growth stops and maintenance comes due.

They argue very effectively that the most financially viable development pattern for cities is one that resembles the way we designed cities prior to WWII, prior to the suburban development pattern.  If they are right, and our economic growth is stunted by sprawl, then why aren’t we doing anything about it?  

If we admit they are right, then we are saying we have been wrong for all of these decades.  We are saying that we sunk our national wealth into a development pattern that caused us to go broke.  It married us to our cars and our commutes and it drained our municipalities of cash to build and maintain roads that don't generate enough in property tax to maintain themselves and it unfairly burdened future generations with debt that was ultimately wasted.  It’s hard to admit when you made a wrong turn...  And that’s why we aren’t making wholesale changes to our development pattern.

So, if we are too proud to admit we mad a bad financial bet on an inefficient development pattern, will we do anything to protect the environment?  The suburban lifestyle seeks to create refuge in the environment but in it’s effort to create an idyllic home in the woods, it is actually wrecking the very woods that it seeks to be so close to.  According to a joint study released in July by the US Geological Survey and NC State University, sprawl in the southeast will increase by 110 to 180 percent between now and 2060.  The piedmont region between Raleigh and Atlanta will experience the largest growth.  By 2060, we could see a virtually uninterrupted stretch of development on that corridor.  This will have huge environmental impacts in a region that has some of the most biodiversity in the US.  I don’t know about you but I think developing generic suburban style development from here to Raleigh, is a travesty.  

Development as of 2009

potential development as of 2060

If we continue that direction our places could look like the suburban transect that planner Dan Zack designed to effectively illustrate the difference between Suburbia and the type of development that new urbanists advocate for.  In Suburbia, we divide uses and limit connectivity, while New Urbanist developments combine uses and encourage connectivity.  Juxtaposed, next to each other, it’s easy to see the difference.

 

image courtesy of Dan Zack, plannerdan.com

If we want to build more productive places, that reduce environmental and economic waste, we need to be aggressively building mixed-use, walkable places that follow the pre-WWII development pattern.  The New Urbanists have been doing this for over 30 years.  It’s time to get serious about it.