At last the suburbs are shrinking!

by Richard Register


Actually, merrier than that, the title of one of the articles I’ll comment on here is “The Death of the Fringe Suburb” by Christopher Leinberger, President of a coalition of real estate developers called Locus. He was writing for the New York Times, published November 25, 2011 and represents the activist “Smart Growth” type of developer favoring the transit oriented, higher density centers of vitality and “functional diversity,” as we rather dryly call such centers in Ecocity Builders.

Another article I’ll look at there was one year earlier and four times as long in the Post Carbon Reader Series called “The Death of Sprawl,” by Warren Karlenzig, urban planning consultant and author of “How Green is your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings” (2007). He went into greater detail on the subject.

Sometimes a death is worth celebrating, for example when you eat some good food, either outright killed – carrots, chickens and cattle for example – though sometimes just stolen – eggs, milk and fruit for example. But in this case it’s the death of the oh so active and dangerous bad guy, the source of energy squandering, displacement of farm land, death on the transport system in accidents, climate change damage, loss of biodiversity, enormous waste of money and time on freeways and cars, in commuting… But you’ve heard that all before in this newsletter. Anyway, things are looking up!

One more article touchstone: National Geographic in its current issue, December 2011, has a special section on cities, celebrating cities. Here too sprawl is becoming the bad guy, but not to get your hopes up too much (“Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated,” as Mark Twain once joked). Sprawl is expanding in many places outside the US – but so is our knowledge about it how destructive it is. That article, replete as usual in the magazine with amazing photographs and authoritative graphs, is called “The City Solution,” by Robert Kunzig. His general thesis is that the best city is the solution, best being roughly kindred to the ecocity – at least it has or should have a dense infrastructure of great variety of activity close together and a good public transit system. So far so good. But quoted there from Shlomo Angel, a professor at New York University and Princeton, in a study sampling 120 cities all over the world, “cities are spreading out faster than people are pouring into them; on average they are getting 2% less dense every year. By 2030 their built up area could triple. What’s driving expansion? Rising income and cheap transportation.” Yes the US, which has probably gotten about as sprawled out as possible, may be at last headed in the right direction. That’s hopeful but this country only represents about 4.5% of the world’s population. So even if you don’t prematurely start your sprawl reversal ecocity celebration quite yet, it is generally helpful news from all these sources that we are at least waking up to the positive side of cities as the awareness of the destructiveness of sprawl is getting ever clearer.

Rising Values in and Near Centers Good

Leinberger in his short piece in the New York Times says failure of the fringe can be measured in housing values; whereas ten years ago the highest value homes were largely on the distant fringes of the city, now they are shifting close in to the centers.

He details the American demographics against the burbs: The Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), are beginning to retire in mass about now and don’t need all that space, wasted now that the kids are long gone and enthusiasm for pushing the lawnmower under the increasingly hot climate change sun is diminished with age and boredom, in the suburbs. Boomers are showing clear signs of moving in close for the conviviality of easy conversation, cafes, etc. The Millennials, (born between 1979 and 1996) like the car-free life style, Leinberger says. They’d rather use their cell phone and walk over to their girlfriend’s house a mile away – only 50% of them plan on getting married, ever – than use the land line and drive the $30,000, 2,500 pound steel, glass, plastic and rubber tuber over to her house thirty-five minutes away. Taken together, Boomers and Millennials, says Leinberger, of them only 12% want to live in the car-dependent outback any more. And that is very significant.

He claims, but leaves it to our imagination how, the suburban fringe caused the mortgage collapse. The usual explanation is subprime mortgages getting artificially inflated into a massive bubble starting with original purchase, then migrating up stream to bundled derivatives to ever more risky gambling in the marketplace. Undoubtedly that was a large part of the problem, maybe most of it. I’d add gasoline prices to the payments for overpriced homes. Robert Scheer in his book “The Great American Stickup” adds greed run wild in Wall Street and both Republican and Democrat law makers and Federal administrations taking large Wall Street donations for political power, deregulating prudent controls on not just real estate but all forms of borrowing and debt in the US.

Plus, I’d add, cars aren’t that much fun any more, the tedium of driving and occasionally suffering some kind of accident and car repairs and so on. Even their colors – shades of gray, black, white with a smattering of red – are bor-ing compared to the happy rainbow of times when they flew from place to place with tail fins like airplanes and anyone getting into one became automatically several years younger and far more alluring.

Warren Karlenzig’s essay goes into more details, but readers of this newsletter are familiar with most of them, on both the negative side – climate change, waste of land and energy, cost of gasoline, death on the highways and so on caused by the sprawling infrastructure of the thinly developed suburbs – and on the positive side – better bicycle and transit systems coming on strong, green belts being created, local foods gaining traction, renewable energy systems to match, rooftop greening and so on. All good information.

But what is most shocking in his “The Death of Sprawl” and therefore (alas) most enjoyable reading, is his tale of the surrealistic fall of Victorville, California, where rapid development of sprawl suddenly reversed in 2008. In the whole city the average house price dropped from $300,000 in 2007 to $120,000 in less than two years. In a fringe area one development project saw four recently completed houses no one would buy just sitting there unsold, while around them work summarily stopped on 12 other houses in the same project. I remember Victorville. It’s in the broiling desert inhaling the smog backwash that heads up the canyon northeast of Los Angeles and through the gap in the mountains surrounding LA then to funnel through the thin scattering of new but desolate looking houses, many hundreds of them euphemistically called a town. Even more euphemistically, the real estate promoters and local papers have anointed the place “The Inland Empire” though the only thing I could imagine they could have conquered is a few lizards, jack rabbits and creosote bushes. The developer went bankrupt. The bank took over the buildings. The city government declared the place an attractive nuisance and threatened the bank with liability should anyone get hurt and declared it was about to charge the bank for fire service and security patrols. So the bank “assessed the hemorrhaging local real estate market and decided to cut its losses. A work crew was dispatched to rip the houses down and get what they could – money, beer, whatever – for the remains.” (The beer was traded by some locals for scrap wood.)

There just might be a general pattern toward these things conditions and realizations leading toward general economic slowdown as well as causing particular problems of sprawl development. First, sprawl development means you are stuck with all the above-mentioned simply because of the distances involved in that wildly inefficient layout. Urban form – flat, two dimensional – and layout should be the clear subject of discussion, along with that it means to build in a more three-dimensional arrangement. The basic concept is that complex living organisms are, shall we say, usefully analogous to cities with all their functions. Not just “housing” in the desert ripped out of an urban infrastructure to be cast out to great distances, but like living organisms, with all parts, all “organs” – present and well arranged for happy functioning. A community isn’t just housing with garage, car and miles of asphalt ribbons snaking across the landscape. It’s also jobs, shops, offices, schools, food, hardware and drug stores, restaurants, banks, churches, skate parks, clinics, train stations…

Bigger Problems

There are profound problems beyond the demographic likes and dislikes emphasized by Leinberger in his editorial in the New Yorker. One of them is what he cites cheerfully as higher values near centers that he and other developers see as a source of better, bigger business. But it is also a force against demographics like those he points out are shaping up in the Boomers and Millennials’ generations. More on this shortly.

Second, we may be seeing the first of many expected signs of passing over the top of what’s called Peak Oil and from now on, sliding down the post Peak Oil side of the graph of oil consumption: expect a suite of problems from rising fuel prices to simple shortages. We’ll be seeing increasing of costs for everything, including building materials due to the distances involved, in time wasted, higher real price of labor – If workers can even afford the commutes themselves, costs to haul the logs out of the woods, run the saws and so on, replant and harvest future trees on ever more degraded soils, all that cheap energy delivers sliding away. Not only is it more tedious and expensive to commute one’s body back and forth to the suburbs every day but building materials, furnishings, food, repair materials, yard things, repair items, friends who might want to visit – everything costs more in energy and money than in a compact center of high diversity. More expensive energy and more shortages in general means everything suffers a general increase in price, like the machine of civilization getting less and less grease with more and more sand blowing into the gears. This reality, symbolized and caused largely by rising energy prices, is not just sinking into our consciousness but leading to the physical changes Leinberger and Karlenzig report.

A third point to bear in mind is what might call the “product” (mathematical term) of various multipliers: climate change and related damage, shortages of everything per person just because numbers keep going up, plus consumption for a while, plus everyday dumping of what can’t be recycled and pollution of a wide range of kinds, replacement of natural plants and animals with people, pets, pests and weeds with associated loss of “ecological services.” What is called for here, that should enter the conversation, is the importance of looking at the total and holistic picture to get the picture right, to see and better understand the interrelation of parts and the relationship of the whole with its environment and resource base. As it clarifies greatly to see the city, town and village as analogous in important ways with complex living organisms, so it is very helpful and important to understand that negative factors multiply and hasten the destruction of the community and the whole planet’s biosphere, in fact.

Perhaps most important of all is realizing that the whole city can be healthy if designed and built with this holistic sort of awareness. Urban civilization could be based on cities that build soils and protect and restore biodiversity as well as provide beautiful, vital places where people live and thrive. But we have to have the tools, beyond just the awareness that sprawl has hit, or is close to hitting, the wall.

Rising Values in and Near Centers NOT Good?

But I’d like to also highlight something fundamental to social issues here. If the Baby Boomers and the Millennials want to move back toward the centers they will confront the very prices Leinberger sees as a good sign, which they, those looking to move “inward,” might not see that way: rising housing prices. Good for the developer and landlord with the money… that you and I may lack. In social justice terms in many neighborhoods it goes by the name gentrification. But in addition there are the big areas close to centers that are already gentrified, that is not low income and rising but stable and generally prosperous or at least fairly comfortable. Rising housing prices near the centers are good from the point of view of the everyday homeowner with a fixed mortgage or free and clear, but not so affordable to the people trying to get back into the vitality, convenience, land and energy conserving and face to face conversation of city and town centers.

The big problem here is in failing to give high governmental priority to reshaping the city to provide that housing, or more accurately the housing and all that goes with it for a descent community: jobs, shops, education, food, entertainment, access to plazas, parks and nature even, close in. And the associated big problem, the first step, is that the conversation has hardly started on this aspect of the problem. Perhaps people fear the subject too much.

At the core of all this, beyond the price-to-move-in problem but deeply involved with it, is the NIMBY problem of the people already there and wanting to keep things the same. (NIMBY = Not In My Back Yard, as most of you know.) If we really want to deal with this shift of people toward the centers, thinking it’s a good idea, and not price everyone out but the already well off, and if we want to do it in quantity enough to make a difference in environmental and social issues facing us in difficult times, if we don’t want to wait for those already in the centers to move or not give or sell their houses and condos to their own children or friends freezing out outsiders, which in many cases means many decades of waiting or just giving up, then we have to recognize the problem and deal with it. There is no way around it. In quantity of housing enough to make a serious difference in accommodating people moving toward centers and providing reasonable prices, a large number of lower density houses and other buildings need to be replaced with higher density, full range community development.

Given the importance of the trend Leinberger has identified, mentioned above, with only 12% of the population in arguably the two largest and most important demographic groups determining urban form wanting to live in the car-dependent suburbs any more, in the US anyway, something should be done. He backs his stats with information from the National Association of Realtors and the Zillow real estate database that readers are assumed to know about or be impressed by if we don’t know about it. But I for one accept that his conclusions compare well with masses of anecdotal evidence and my own experience in travels and believe his information is very significant. Beyond the trends in citizen housing desires, given the action-stopping, job-preventing barrier of very high prices toward the centers it would seem even more important to do something. And, given the coming conditions of general overpopulation projected for many decades yet as well as demographic shift toward the older and retired, together with energy problems serious enough and linked to the sprawl pattern of the suburbs that are the chief cause of climate change, sea rise and some disasters actually pretty hard to imagine, something must be done.

But the NIMBYs are in the way! Buy them out. With what money? (I’ll tell you in a minute.) But the historic nature of lots of buildings! Leave them alone; there are plenty of others not just highly non-descript but falling apart and due for replacement anyway – replace those close in to the centers with enough room in them to accommodate real numbers of people wanting the more urban way of life. Buy up, demolish and recycle building materials in the locations most automobile dependent and in the way of agricultural and ecological restoration. What we need to do is make a better deal. Create an opportunity for the NIMBY to be happy with selling: zone so the price goes up even more. They can sell their house as a single unit and in many cases it’s a bit worn out and won’t last much longer anyway.  If the land it’s sitting on is zoned next for ten condos or apartments, it could be sold for a lot more than the present owner would get under one unit zoning. If the owner could afford it, or part of it, he or she could become the developer or create a development group to build and profit from the site. If the owner doesn’t happen to like apartment buildings and holds single family houses sacred from back when most people wanted to live in car-dependent (car-in-theory-pleasurable) development, introduce the possibilities of ecocity architectural features not generally recognized yet, such as use of rooftops and terraces, with great views, native plant and orchard landscaping, adjacent mini-parks and new shops and restaurants and other service at a walkable center near by, and so on. Some significant fraction of the population would actually like that. The NIMBY might turn into a O.K.IMBY and decide to buy into the new development. In Ecocity Builders we have met some who would like to retire to the country or take up other options simply because they don’t need or want that much empty nest anymore, not to speak the yard to take care of and the car to pay for and drive over to where the people are.

There are many people, many different ideas of what to do and where to live as we get older. If the NIMBY still doesn’t want the deal, go to someone else to offer it. If the NIMBYs get organized to keep things the same despite changing demographics, energy, pollution and environmental deterioration and so on, organize the political power of all those who want a healthier environment or more equitable social/economic order and who want to move back toward the centers so they can pass zoning laws so they can.

There may also be a way of looking at this to finance it to. Freeway and lots of car infrastructure is paid for by what some would call subsidies, others call investments. Call such expenditures for something you want to see built whatever you like, but which ones solve our problems as a society, as people who care about environmental impacts? Prioritize those and invest in them. We now invest in freeways, enormous amounts of parking – and more and more people don’t even want cars, and for more reasons than just a passing trend. In fact some people are strictly into pedestrian, bicycle and transit alternatives because they believe in them. If environmentalist could want to save the whales and many of them have never have even seen one, and almost none of them a whole one, some of them maybe a blow spout or fluke way out on the sea, they can actually live in or visit and enjoy, have commerce and social life in the more compact ecocity style centers while solving very serious problems we are having to face whether we want to or not. My own opinion is that ecocity design is desirable and fun; it would be loved by millions of people. You can see it in this newsletter and in my books and talks by Kirstin Miller and myself. But the New York Times, Post Carbon Institute and National Geographic are not yet up to speed on the full visualization of the alternatives they are saying we are tending toward.

But moving in that direction we could start in small areas and prove that higher density ecocity design is different, fine grain, “human scale” and accommodating serious number of people at the same time. But we all have to face the reality that there needs to be a change in the way we deal with the problem of resistance, both economic and simple neighborhood conservatism, blocking all those people looking for a better way to live by moving, as Leinberger says we are already starting to and wanting to, away from the dying fringe. Add the value of the lost agricultural land to sprawl development, the value of that land if it went back into food production and state and national governments should look at the balance sheet in the largest possible context – total sprawl development vs. total ecocity development on the other side. The savings, reinvested in the materials and the jobs to build the ecocity centers, the broadest possible “green jobs” context, would mean a high employment enterprise for rebuilding virtually the whole presently car-dominated city civilization we have developed and lead, in the next few decades, into a far better future.

Bottom line: create zoning codes and incentives, including matching grants and any other means of legal and financial support to get individuals, businesses and everyone on board for the shift toward the centers Leinberger sees is beginning to happen. Shift a large fraction of the money spent by governments on highways and repaving to instead help fund the new ecocity centers-oriented development pattern.  The changes are beginning to head in a very healthy direction but they need a great deal of help.

But now a closing thought, going back to the National Geographic article. Sprawl is not reversing world wide. The American case is relatively unusual at this time. Sprawl certainly should reverse everywhere, if we value a healthy planet and want to avoid some real catastrophes in the environment that are assured to have nasty repercussions on society. So that means that we need to get on with the job of confronting the resistance against the shifts beginning in the demographics and opinions Leinberger points to happening in the United States, and solve that problem. The US has led the way to problems of sprawl and they are still growing elsewhere and in general. We in the US have an obligation to reverse the unhealthy truly colossal trend we started with Detroit and Los Angeles.

And finally a last complaint: some of us have been talking about this problem of sprawl and proposing its very specific solutions, the exact ones being brought forward today, for over 40 years. In fact for all that time we’ve had a much longer more complete list of the particular designs, strategies and tools, policy tools, planning and graphic tools and physical tools for building to succeed heading in the good directions indicated by the three articles I’m citing here. So please take advantage of what we know in this ecocity movement, give us some credit and get moving.

And if that really happened it would be about the biggest Christmas gift imaginable.

Thanks to Bill Mastin for alerting us to this article, “The Death of the Fringe Suburb.”

Richard Register is Founder and President of Ecocity Builders and can be reached at

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