Re-centralization and the Decline of Sprawl


While some impacts of the economic crisis have been salient, it remains to be seen how development patterns and land-use planning will be affected in the long-term. Nonetheless, predictions are emerging. On the heels of the recent discussions about the impact of the stimulus on transportation, various agents have offered comments about the sustainability of the sprawl trend of the past decades.

The Architectural Record published an article that explores the recession’s impact on sprawling developments, citing a June report published by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In the annual State of the Nation’s Housing Report, the data for foreclosure rates was very high in the suburbs, especially when compared to the numbers for urban neighborhoods. While this statistic suggests that sprawl is on the decline, Kermit Baker, chief economist at the Harvard Center, is quick to warn that the verdict is still out over whether this trend is merely a short-term recurrence or a long-term pattern.

Municipalities have not committed much funding for new developments lately, but brownfield redevelopment still seems like a viable area for infrastructure investment, given the current economic climate. These project opportunities usually lie within urban cores, and the centrally based locations have much potential for attracting new businesses and residents to cities. But public policy must encourage such development, a point highlighted by President Obama in his recent speech at a summit planned by the White House Office of Urban Affairs. Obama stressed that his urban policy will focus, in part, on transit and high-speed rail, as a means to combat the pattern of “sprawl, congestion, and pollution.” Indeed, if the administration keeps the broad goal of smart growth at the forefront of urban policy-making, it is likely that sprawl will continue its decline.

Check out StreetsBlog for updates on infrastructure projects and sustainable development initiatives, and as always, keep checking this blog.

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About Beata Bujalska

Beata Bujalska is the former Campaign Coordinator for Renew Lehigh Valley. She currently lives in Panama, a place that fascinates her due to (among other reasons) its recent development boom.

Posted on July 14, 2009, in Public Infrastructure, Urbanism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. To accelerate this trend, make urban public transit free. Don’t ask the federal govt, they are too busy bailing out GM and fighting oil wars. Your medium-size town can do it for 60 basis points of tax. The benefits are immediate. Main street merchants will get more traffic, big box store will be less attractive.

  2. The discussion should be about long-term costs and sustainability versus short-term costs: in terms of housing, environment, infrastructure, social inequities, energy and climate change.

    It is possible to take actions to reduce sprawl (which actually has been getting much worse, not better, over the past 5-10 years) but without addressing the fundamental problems within our land use, energy and social policies. That would be a mistake.

    It is also possible for the government to encourage “smart sprawl” that improves conditions and reduces consumption and pollution when compared to many of our typical “urban” development patterns.

  3. Thank you for these comments. Very useful for the discussion about sprawl and its broad-reaching effects (such as the impact on main street).

    Complete agreement on a holistic approach to analysis – one that incorporates all the various aspects affected by sprawl. And while it is true that sprawl has been on the rise, again, it remains to be seen if that will change (or, at least, if it will halt for a bit).

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