Archive for sprawl

Is Congress bailing out suburbia?

There’s a lot going on this week in Washington DC and the economy.  It’s challenging to follow all the strands and interpret the econo-speak and political-speak in terms of what it actually means in the big picture.

I may be off base here, but could one not interpret the current plans as bailing out the suburban American way of life — propping it up?

First, the automotive industry is also receiving their corporate welfare cheque.  Atlantic Monthlyeconomic writer Megan McArdle picked up on this.  Sneaking through under the shadow of the banking bail out is a gift to the big three auto makers of a $25 Billion low interest loan. Her analysis:

Yes, I favor intervention when it looks like there’s a risk of a really severe recession.  But there is no such rationale here, not even arguably.  It’s pure pork, with a soupcon of economic nationalism thrown in.  If the Big Three can’t make autos people want to buy, then they should liquidate and open up the market to those who can.

The big three auto makers have built lobbying for roads and freeways (and the resulting way of life) part of their business plan.  While other global companies make cars to fit more compact cities and higher fuel prices, the big three lobbied for cities to be built around the car.  Here we go again.

Second, the banking bail out may also involve propping up suburban living — that’s where the houses in default are.  If the tax payers become stake holders in a bailout, they may collectively become owners of thousands of distant suburban homes that only have value if automobile travel and highways remain subsidized by the US.

Have I had too little sleep lately, or is anyone else seeing an implication for cities of these plans?

The planet vs cities and sprawl

Much ink and webpage space has been devoted to celebrating the world’s “new” urbanism.  We talk about city-living as if it were the invention of the current generations.  We talk about our cities and urban and suburban spaces as if they will always be there.

Two articles this week remind us that the planet and the flora and fauna that also inhabit it can take back cities easily.

First, from Planetizen comes a link to the story about a family of bobcats who have settled in an abandoned suburban home in Lake Elsinor, California.

Second, from the Economist comes a story about finding evidence of former cities and suburbs in the Amazon.

In a paper published in this week’s Science they look at part of Brazilian Amazonia called the Upper Xingu. Here, they found, humans flourished between about 1,500 years ago and 400 years ago. Moreover, these people lived in urban societies that, even if they did not resemble traditional cities, matched them in population and social organisation.

Each cluster had a central settlement, two large daughters 3-5km (2-3 miles) away to the north-west and south-east, and two smaller daughters 8-10km away to the north-east and south-west. All of these settlements, mother and daughters, were fortified with palisade walls and ditches, and contained streets aligned north-west—south-east, north-south and north-east—south-west. These streets linked up with cross-country roads that ran through the farmed area around a settlement to other centres of population within the cluster, including smaller settlements still, which were unfortified.

The most characteristic feature of each settlement, regardless of its size, was a plaza—an open space that acted as a cemetery and may have been a marketplace. It was also, the archaeologists suspect, a place of political assembly, just as the agora in an ancient Greek city was both marketplace and legislature.

Many now-excavated Mayan and Aztec/Nahua and other meso-American sites had also been completely taken over by nature.  Pyramids appeared only as hills complete with trees and plants.

The planet is capable of taking back our cities and our sprawl.

Telecommuting is so ex-urban

Sure, working from home occasionally can offer a productivity boost. Getting away from the phone and co-workers is sometimes necessary to accomplish large, solitary projects or catch up on a dozen loose ends.

But everyone working from home, connecting via the internet and VOIP or video conference to each other is not going to happen.  As suburbanization and then ex-urbanization became the trend, there were workplace gurus who insisted that the office building would soon be a dinosaur.  This hasn’t happened.  Office space is more expensive than ever in most cities and globally.

In the modern economy, far too much productive economic activity requires collaboration. Companies ranging from banks to software companies, law firms and financial advisory companies need bright people working together. Many brains thinking about an issue differently — but together — solve problems faster and innovate better than individuals working alone.

That’s one reason why cities are spikes of economic activity, to use a Richard Florida term. That’s why industries cluster together — they take advantage of many brains thinking about interconnected subjects.

Few companies that require creativity — that earn their revenue or stock value from the collective brain power of their people — can afford to have them working in silos at home.  Working independently, thousands of wheels will be continually reinvented, and won’t get around to creating an automobile.

But, many people when given a choice do not telecommute very often. I can’t find the source right now, but I recall a recent UK study in which only about 10% of people who could do so telecommuted regularly, and most of them only did so only 1 or 2 days per week.
There are a variety of reasons why people don’t telecommute most of the time.

  • Some don’t want to be forgotten about at the office. The best projects may go to people who are physically there when they are dreamed up.
  • Most people enjoy being part of a group — some would argue that it’s human nature to want to belong and the workplace provides an avenue for that expression. For many, going to work has become especially important given how many more years people are now single and often living alone. People all crowd into expensive “superstar” cities in order to be around other people (why else would you pay the rent, tolerate the traffic, and accept the noise? it comes with great creative and inspirational benefits.
  • Collaborating with smart co-workers to solve complex problems can be exhilarating.

In some cases today, people don’t have the room at home to telecommute much. For families living in urban spaces rather than suburban ones, there isn’t a separate “study”.

For decades, people have been predicting the end of the office building and the end of downtowns. The suburbanization trend lead many to dream of living in the mountains or by the beach or lake and away from a city altogether. Some did this in the ex-urbs. Why can’t I just telecommute rather than drive was the plea.

Noting that occasional telecommuting was highly productive, many blamed inflexible employers for chaining them to their desks. However, as employers have brought in increasingly flexible work policies at many companies, regular telecommuting has not caught on. Most of the time, people want to be near people to stay in the know, hear the latest industry news, and collaborate.

Working from the ex-urban mansion is not efficient for participating in a collaborative world.

From Suburb to Satellite City

Writing in the Globe and Mail, John Bently Mays insists that some suburbs are thriving:

If pundits are going to discuss the future of North American suburbs — and this is surely an excellent time to do so — then they should have in mind a clear picture of the very dynamic phenomenon they are talking about. If the upmarket suburbs of Sacramento are lapsing into desolation, the exurban communities around Toronto appear to be doing everything but.

Although Mays was challenging something Richard Florida wrote about the increased demand for urban core living, Florida responded by clarifying his message:

I do not think we are seeing a decline of the suburbs. What is happening is a move back toward the core by certain affluent groups for whom time, costs, and location matter. This is what Alan Enerhalt calls the “demographic inversion.” … This demographic inversion is but a part – an important part, but just a part – of a much bigger spatial shift, I call the great intensification.

What we’re also seeing is certain suburbs and even some exurbs reviving or creating a more urban core. Municipalities with their own historical districts are seeing demand from residents to live and/or work in these authentic, inspiring places.

While most suburbs by definition export people to jobs in the urban core, some are doing well at generating employment opportunities.  Corporations and governments have generated jobs in the suburbs, and not just back office, service industry positions (although these have been common).  In addition, residents of many suburbs — including immigrants in places like Toronto and Vancouver — have over time been creating their own businesses and have supported others as consumers or workers.

Assuming fuel prices remain high, and individuals continue to value time more than in the past, then some suburbs whether close to urban cores or more distant may evolve into self-contained satellite cities with weaker links to the region’s major metro area.

Some who currently commute will find a similar job closer to home.  Others will move to the evolving satellite city to be closer to their work.  And some will keep their urban core jobs, but be able to tele-commute one or two days per week, or perhaps work in a local branch office occasionally.  All of this will contribute to creating a more self-contained place — not just a space in which to live — where people will be able to reach jobs, schools and amenities on food, bicycle, bus or in less than a 10 minute drive. This will keep them supporting local businesses as well interacting more in their community, building social cohesion, which many suburban spaces lack.

End of the Megalopolis?

What if the costs of operating an automobile permanently reach or exceed $10 per gallon and alternative fuels cannot offer any savings just an alternative?

Then, we may see the end of the Megalopolis — although not the end of the mega-region.

On CBC’s The National Wednesday night a person interviewed (James Kunstler, I believe) in Kelly Crowe’s second story suggested that among the consequences for urban life is that cities will become more compact and many people will move to smaller cities.

He described how people will seek urban life on a more personal, human scale where they have access to everything they need in close proximity — homes, jobs, schools, recreation, entertainment, shopping, etc. Fuel consumption would therefore drop dramatically.

If this happens, it would mean the gradual emptying of outer suburbs and exurbs over the next 10-20 years.

By my read, a consequence would be that today’s mega-regions, as defined in Richard Florida’s work, would probably remain much the same. But people would be clustered in cities — some big, some small some medium sized — with large expanses of non-urban space in between, space that used to be housing or malls.

So, Florida’s famous shot of North America at night from which he developed the mega region concept will change. Today, the continuous concentrations of light roughly correspond to continuous interconnected economic regions. In the future, there will be big balls of light and little ones more resembling a connect the dots puzzle.

Maybe — as a commenter suggested in my previous post – the empty space in between can be turned back into farmland to supply more food locally.

The end of the car-tropolis?

Will the car-tropolis come to an end?  Or will America’s suburban style of living survive peak oil.  A few weeks ago I suggested that current gasoline prices will not bring down American suburbia.  I still believe this.   At current prices in the US, people could buy more fuel efficient vehicles and continue the lifestyle — if they want to do so.

But, what happens if gasoline costs $10 a gallon by 2015?  And alternative fuels like electricity are no cheaper?

To be sure, people and cities will have to find ways to function without relying on one-person-one-vehicle automobile travel.   This will mean profound changes to typical urban ways of life.

On CBC’s The National Wednesday night a person interviewed (James Kunstler, I think) in Kelly Crowe’s second story suggested two important consequences for cities:

First.  That cities will become more compact.  Second, that many people will move to smaller cities.  I’ll extrapolate on the first issue here.  And the second in a subsequent post.

So, cities will become more compact, with residents living closer together.  Actually, this means that cities capable of offering higher density living will prosper and others will languish. 

Metropolitan areas with geographic constraints will likely fare well, as most already have a higher density of living and can offer a compact and low-gasoline-consumption life to their residents.

A century ago sprawl wasn’t practical so people lived closer together.  Cities with older origins and a decent sized compact residential core, even if lower density sprawl eventually prevailed, will have an opportunity to remake themselves.  Indeed the business and residents of many such cities are already doing this in such places as Detroit.

The existing residents and new comers in these cities will have to accept more apartment buildings and attached homes than currently exist.  There will be political battles.  There will also be new opportunities — without being in the automobile silo, people will potentially talk to each other more.  More people means more amenities close by from restaurants to all variety of shopping to recreational options.

The car-tropolis took decades to create and will take decades to dismantle if automobile fuel (of whatever variety) continues to rise in price.  It’s end will be more gradual than many doomsayers are predicting — in part because many people will feel trapped in their suburban homes by their mortgages being higher than house value.

Book Review: The Concrete Dragon

Image from Amazon
The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What it Means for the World by Thomas J. Campanella

Reviewed by guest blogger, Dave Atkins.

Thomas Campanella’s book is a timely, eye-opening analysis of the wrenching urban revolution transforming China. Written in a clear, conversational tone, but packed with data and anecdotal stories that demonstrate the author’s insight into China, this book will amaze, confound, and challenge all those who seek to plan and manage urbanism.

The first chapters describe the scale of urban transformation underway in the Pearl River Delta, Shanghai, and Beijing. For those unfamiliar with China, it is an exciting story of rapid progress, amazing growth, and boundless ambition. But after laying the historical and political contexts, Campanella begins to systematically detail the human costs of growth–principally the destruction of neighborhoods and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. It is ironic that the Chinese character for “demolition,” Chai, has become a symbol of resistance–whereas in the west, it is a yuppie tea at Starbucks.

This is NOT a protest book. But the stories of displacement, the sacking of architectural history, and the value systems underlying this march to progress speak for themselves. Apart from being appalled at the human costs, what can westerners take away from all this? Three themes emerge:

  • Scale - Everything good and bad about western urbanism is amplified by several orders of magnitude. We begin from the sheer size of Chinese urbanism: 102 cities in China have more than 1 million people; compared to 9 in the United States.
  • Distinctions - urban “renewal” in China is nothing like that in US history. Understanding it is complex, especially in regard to suburbanization:
    • The city remains the dominant political unit and administrative unit, with suburbs possessing little relative clout. In the US, suburban communities taxed their wealthier base and built better schools and infrastructure, strengthening the cultural bias against cities. In China, cities have long been the ticket to stability for people, with mobility restricted and city-dwellers guaranteed food while the rural population starved.
    • Suburbs have a completely different context than in the US. In China, suburbs are populated with gated, self-contained communities. Buyers choose from all inclusive lifestyle estates with Anglicized (and intentionally bourgeois) names like “Latte Town, Glory Vogue, Yuppie International Garden, Wonderful Digital Jungle, and–cutting to the chase–Top Aristocrat.”

      Jobs have followed more or less in sync with the development of housing, so these suburbs are not “bedroom communities,” but more like mini factory towns. The concept of danwei–the communal work-unit model, and the housing form of siheyuan – courtyard-based living compounds–permeates development practices in sharp contrast to more open community development models in the US. In China, in the midst of extreme density, there is a tendency to organize into self-contained units. In the US, for all our proclaimed individualism, there is a bias towards community integration and an assumed role of government that is very different than China–a country we might assume would be much more communal.

    • The automobile is rapidly becoming central to Chinese experience. In the US, bicycles are a symbol of sustainability, recreation and fitness. In China, they are rapidly becoming associated with an image of a backward past.
  • Timeliness - August 8, 2008 will mark the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing. The urban revolution is part of a national drive to present a shockingly modern China to the world in time for the Olympics. After reading this book, I come away with the impression that what is going on with Chinese urbanism is more significant, more focused, and more imperative than even the US drive to land a man on the moon in the 1960s. It is impossible to understate what 8/8/8 means to China. Other books, such as China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future — and the Challenge for America by James Kynge describe the implications of China’s economic growth and associated social problems, but Concrete Dragon puts things in an infrastructural context, literally describing the architecture of supremacy.

I am not a professional urbanist, but I found the depth of this book impressive and the themes thought-provoking on many levels. The culture is so different from the west and yet the same types of changes are being attempted–on a massive scale–yielding unpredictable results. As an intellectual laboratory, it challenges our perspectives. As practical history, we are about to witness the birth of something spectacular.

Reviewed by guest blogger, Dave Atkins.

The “Pocket book point”

Great editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer regarding gradual changes happening in America as gasoline prices rise.  John Timpane notes that transit ridership is gradually increasing and attitudes are slowly changing away from exurban sprawl and toward “elegant density.”

So, no, we haven’t reached the tipping point – we’ve reached a pocketbook point. When things really tip, we’ll discover – gasp – we don’t have enough trains and buses for those who need them.

He but doesn’t place blame on the choices to build a national cultural around the automobile.  But laments the costs:

How, then, can I say that car culture doesn’t work? Because the cost to individual and communal life, and to the environment, has been too high. And the bill is just now coming due.

As I’ve suggested before, he believes a full scale change to American life may be a ways off because of the deep investments in infrastructure.  But he seems convinced that it is coming, however not without a critical transit shortage and crisis.

Soaring gasoline prices not a threat to American suburbia

As much as I’d like to see differently, higher gasoline prices are not going to change the way American metropolitan areas are organized — at least not for a long time. Here are two reasons why not:

1. Gasoline prices in the US are only now reaching levels that were “normal” for many years in other parts of the world. And in many of those places (think Canada, Australia, etc.) people still drove a lot and suburban living was popular. The main difference was they used smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles.

Already sales of the big SUVs are down so much that manufacturing of them has nearly halted.

2. There is too much invested in the current system culturally, economically, politically and physically (the infrastructure).

The automobile culture with great shopping malls and power centres is a way of life for millions. The American economy revolves around automobile based consumerism as well as around suburban business parks as employment centres. Politically, the suburbs have clout; even if the population declines relative to inner cities it will take a while for the political weight to catch up. Finally, the billions or trillions collectively invested in road infrastructure invites motor vehicle travel.


All this said, I do think that other forces are also challenging the suburban way of life. Everything from climate change concerns to a renewed interest in living close to places of work, entertainment and shopping to a desire to have more free time are pushing people to re-think whether they need a large suburban house. Gasoline prices are also one small factor in this equation for many people.

But, for those who want to live the suburban, automobile oriented lifestyle — and there will be millions in this category — there will continue to be affordable options. More fuel efficient vehicles will be available. The burst housing bubble will generate less expensive houses and mortgages. Suburban families may choose to save money elsewhere — eat out less, skip the movies, etc. (The “latte factor” will be less influential if there isn’t a latte nearby.)

While I’d like to see differently, gasoline prices have a long ways to rise before it will challenge the American suburban “way of life.”

Costing out urban vs suburban living

A few years ago when a real estate marketing company was promoting a downtown Vancouver condo project, they argued that a couple who could forgo automobile ownership would save the equivalent per year in expenses that would allow for an additional $100,000 worth of a mortgage. That is, skip auto ownership and you could afford to spend say $400,000 on your home instead of $300,000, which would by you more space or amenities downtown. Cars cost that much to household budgets.

Going unspoken were the intangible benefits of being close to places of work and play, saving time and allowing a richer life.

Now NPR’s Marketplace (via Planetizen) is now reporting that a tight economy may push more people to recognize the benefits of living closer to work and other urban amenities. Reporter Stacey Vanek-Smith summarizes some findings of a recent report by The Environmental and Energy Study Institute and the Urban Land Institute:

In compact cities like Portland, Ore., people spend about 10 percent of their discretionary incomes on transportation. In sprawling metropolises like L.A. and Atlanta, it’s more like 35 percent and climbing thanks to rising gas prices. Policy Analyst Jan Mueller says that could make city living look a lot more affordable.

It would be interesting if individuals, couples and families trying to decide where to live could fully cost their choices in any given metro area, and suburb or inner city of that place. In addition to the objective monetary costs of once choice versus another other factors could be given a value. For example, having more (or less) time to spend with family could be given a score — subject to the values and preferences of the individual and taking into account happiness studies and other measures. Similarly, having free time along with the opportunity to pursue other passions or hang out with friends, or attend concerts would also be given a value.

In tough times when everyone is looking to obtain more with less, if such a calculus existed (and maybe it does) perhaps more people would consider having a smaller home but more disposable income and time.

Addendum: Gordon Price penned an article on the subject of commute costs and real estate prices at the same time as I wrote this one.  His much more eloquent discussion can be found here.

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