January 7, 2008

Silver lining dept.: Will housing and energy challenges help end sprawl?

"The collapse in the housing market and high gasoline prices are bad news for middle-class homeowners left to sift through the wreckage. But if there is consolation to be found amid the rubble, it may be that the inexorable spreading out that has characterized American life since World War II might finally be coming to an end," writes Cornell Law School associate professor Eduardo M. Peñalver in the Washington Post.

American suburban sprawl revved up in the aftermath of World War II, reversing centuries-old development patterns that focused around town centers. Many new housing developments had no local anchor, while neighborhood retail centers were supplanted by strip malls that were impossible to walk to.

However, Peñalver points out that this required low gas prices and "relentless demand for housing. . . . Middle-class Americans, not able to find housing they could afford in existing suburbs, kept driving farther out into the countryside until they did."

Even before current trends, he notes, the density of metropolitan areas, which had been declining since World War II, started nudging back upwards in the '90s. "[H]owever, the now-defunct housing boom and cheap gas kept exerting centrifugal pressure on living patterns, pushing the edge of new development farther out into rural America."

Both the housing boom and inexpensive gas seem to be over, at least for now.

High energy prices won't themselves prompt people to move, he acknowledges, but can be a factor in deciding on a new location when people are moving anyway.

If these trends hold, then providing affordable -- and appealing -- middle-class housing in existing communities is key:
"Accommodating a growing population in the era of high gas prices will mean increasing density and mixing land uses to enhance walkability and public transit. And this must happen not just in urban centers but in existing suburbs, where growth is stymied by parochial and exclusionary zoning laws. Overcoming low-density, single-use zoning mandates so as to fairly allocate the costs of increased density will require coordination at regional levels."

It'll be tough to go through this transition, but we might finally have the opportunity as a culture to step back and take a hard look at "the car-dependent, privatized society that has evolved over the past 60 years," Peñalver says. "We may discover that it's not so bad living closer to work, in transit- and pedestrian-friendly, diverse neighborhoods."

I've long felt that for many people, moving to walker-hostile exurbs was less a lifestyle choice than sole option for attractive, affordable housing. Look at the costs per square foot for housing and land in choice neighborhoods inside 128 and outside of 495 and you'll see what the market values more. In fact, as I blogged about awhile back, almost 9 in 10 people rated a walkable neighborhood as being important to them -- more than large rooms or lots, according to 60,000 people who responded to a Better Homes & Gardens survey. But there are relatively few options available for someone looking for an appealing, walkable suburban neighborhood.

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