Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Backlash Against Sprawl

US Trends
Christopher B. Leinberger claims in a New York Times opinion piece published last November that American sprawl, the continuous expansion of low-density suburban development out into the countryside, is finally showing signs of collapse (The Death of the Fringe Suburb, Nov. 26, 2011).

The choice to  move back to urban centers by two generations of the middle and upper classes, together with the current real estate crisis, have finally caught up with sprawl,  according to Leinberger.

People are fed up with the handicaps of long daily commutes to work and  total dependence on the automobile, he says. As the baby boom generation (born between 1946 and 1954) retires, they are trading their suburban houses for smaller places in urban centers where they can walk to stores and activities. Those born between 1979 and 1996 are also choosing the city to settle down. Together they make up half the US population.

This trend includes more high-density development in previously low-density suburbs closer in to city centers. One-story strip malls with large asphalt parking lots are being replaced by mulit-story apartment buildings, offices and commercial centers with a much denser footprint, as can be seen at suburban Metro stops outside Washington, DC and elsewhere around the country.

Leinberger sees building opportunities here:  
"The cities and inner-ring suburbs that will be the foundation of the recovery require significant investment....  Bus and light-rail systems, bike lanes and pedestrian improvements ... are vital. So is the repair of infrastructure like roads and bridges."

He also points out that a lot of outer fringe developments, now greatly lowered in value, have a future only as slums or in abandonment -- reversing the destruction of inner city neighborhoods after WW II.

Here are some more quotes from the article:
"In the late 1990s, high-end outer suburbs contained most of the expensive housing in the United States,... Today, the most expensive housing is in the high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods of the center city and inner suburbs.  Some of the most expensive neighborhoods in their metropolitan areas are Capitol Hill in Seattle; Virginia Highland in Atlanta; German Village in Columbus, Ohio, and Logan Circle in Washington. Considered slums as recently as 30 years ago, they have been transformed by gentrification."

"Over all, only 12 percent of future homebuyers want the drivable suburban-fringe houses that are in such oversupply..." 
Interestingly, Leinberger is a real estate developer, and the head of a project called Smart Growth America, "which supports walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented development." If people like him are thinking like this, things are really changing.

Photo: Abandoned superstore strip mall in WIlliamstown, New Jersey
From the blog Ob.scene in South Jersey by Pax Romano

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