Friday, September 16, 2016

Condemned to sprawl?

Usually the weekly blog articles do not show up on this daily blog site. However, I will make an exception today with a slightly modified up-front publication of  the weekly not Baltimore-centric topic. But with the Governor steering a more and more anti-smart growth agenda and Baltimore's prospective mayor frequently advocating for single family homes in Baltimore, this has also a lot of local meaning. 

When a Berkeley economist with a PhD from Berkeley and a Columbia PhD of urban planning duke it out about density and sprawl on national media, the sparring should be quite interesting, especially if one is Richard Florida, the same guy that in 2004 came up with the term creative class and the assertion that the creative class will need cities to thrive and revitalize them in the process, essentially a theory that predicted the current  migration of millennials to cities. Issi Romem, the economist, is the less well known, but he is no slouch either, having founded, just like Florida, his own research institute, BuildZoom.

Alas, in spite of Issi Romem's contention that sprawl is the best way of generating affordable housing and a litany of graphs showing that single family development is not only the domain of suburbia but also of all American cities. In short, that the choice is either expansive or expensive. Precisely the argument that David Rusk made in his book about Baltimore ("Baltimore unbound).

Florida has little to offer in the way of a rebuttal.

Sprawl on the Eastern Shore (Photo ArchPlan)
The background for the interesting debate is an article that Romem published Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal picked it up and Florida managed to comment on it the same day in CityLab. Since then the Washington Post and Bloomberg News have weighed in as well.

Here are Romems main take-aways (his own summary):
  • The link between housing production and outward expansion is unmistakable: cities that expand more produce proportionally more new housing.
  • Throughout the country, housing production is skewed towards low density areas.
  • Densification has slowed down across the board, and especially in expensive cities, undermining their ability to compensate for less outward expansion.
  • Unless they enact fundamental changes that allow for substantially more densification, cities confronting growth pressure face a tradeoff between accommodating growth through outward expansion, or accepting the social implications of failing to build enough new housing.
The matter isn't  about these two  guys, really, interesting as they may be, but whether sprawl or low density urban housing is really our fate forever. Florida just seems floored by the onslought of Romem's sprawl numbers. They seem overwhelmingly clear and hard to repudiate.
Urbanists like to think that the back-to-the-city movement has increased density and mitigated sprawl, but Romem shows that America has seen a long-run decline in density. (Florida in CityLab)
Developed land areas and low density uses (BuildZoom)
With a statement like this Florida folds his tent and seems to abandon in one sentence all he has propagated in the last 10 years or so. His objections are meek at best:
This long era of cheap, suburban growth has its limits. Many of our most expensive metros have reached the limits of outward expansion, and many others are headed toward it. Not to mention, reurbanization and densification are required both for future innovation and growth, and to address the mounting inequality and spatial segregation of America’s expensive cities. Our cities and the nation as a whole face some very tough choices ahead. (Florida in CityLab)
On second thought the discussion about the dominance of single family homes in the US is surprisingly shallow, given the academic credentials of these two folks:

  • Romem looks at periods from either 1940 to 2000 or from 1980 to now, which means that his numbers include times that are well known to have been the height of sprawl and urban flight. This isn't really anything new.
  • Romem gets his results not by comparing incorporated core cities but entire metro areas, an often shaky definition which clearly skews the data towards large lot sprawl development. 
  • Cost of housing is seen in simplistic terms ("building on green fields is cheaper") without distinguishing between land-cost and cost of structures and without mentioning "external costs" such as the environment and infrastructure usually not carried by the developers or home-buyers
  • Affordability is simply seen as housing cost without factoring in the transportation cost that cheap but far away housing necessarily produces
  • Especially Romem makes no mention of the social cost of sprawl and the systemic discrimination and racism policies that has driven and produced much of the outward development patterns of postwar America which arev largely segregation patterns  systematically sorting out the poor (left behind in cities and excluded from suburbs through large lot zoning etc.) and minorities (restrictive covenants, redlining, specific real estate practices etc.)
  • There is no mention of the lopsided way how housing is delivered in the US with a template in which speculative production of single family homes catering to the same price point any given suburban development as the dominant model adopted by practically all home-builders.
  • The study isn't fine-grained enough to detect recent demographic shifts that have brought about the first change to the prevailing housing production model in 60 years. More and more home-builders are now experimenting with urban infill mixed use models, usually of the "one plus five" variety of 3-5 wood framed stick-built apartment levels stacked on top of a concrete podium. That building type can now be found in cities all across the United States delivering tens of thousands of density dwelling units  and even some suburban centers like Columbia, MD or Stapleton, CO. 

Balto Wash area as a dynamic illustration from 1940-2010
Those omissions are especially confounding as both scholars are confessed friends of cities.
Of course cities should favor densification over the ills of sprawl. But if the past is any guide to the future, failing to expand cities will come at a cost. Cities that have curbed their expansion have -- with limited exception -- failed to compensate with densification. (Romem)

The Washington Post also finds little to critic and supports the argument with localized graphics showing dual metro area sprawl. WP summarizes the findings this way:
Romem’s data show that cities produce new housing in proportion to their rate of outward expansion. Metros that spread out the most add the most housing, and have kept their housing costs in check as a result. Metros that have resisted sprawl (like Portland, which has an urban growth boundary, or San Francisco, which is hemmed in by mountains and water) haven’t built much.
Cost is so much more complicated than that! The WP maps show how, both, DC and Baltimore sprawled, yet housing cost is still high not only in DC but even in Baltimore if one considers incomes as well.

Additional comments  that Romem sent to Bloomberg's Justin Fox via e-mail are even more discouraging:
Is sprawl so bad? Many of the arguments against sprawl boil down to taste, e.g. sprawl lacks character. A key set of arguments that aren’t a matter of taste involve the environment, but…
Greater carbon footprint? Will the carbon footprint still be such a concern if cars are electric, and more and more electricity comes from renewable sources like solar power?
Rural land lost to sprawl? The US is still a mostly empty country, even today.
More obesity when people walk less? Yep, this is true.
  • The cost of sprawl isn't an issue of taste and character even if Howard Kunstler's book "The Geography of Nowhere" made it sound like it. Sprawl has a huge economic cost with its dispersal patterns for which services cannot sustainably provided over the long haul, whether it is schools, libraries, fire houses, roads, water, sewer, cable, electricity or the cost of pollution from well and septic. After a bonfire of revenues from development fees in initial years, sprawl is bankrupting communities when infrastructure starts to crumble.
  • The carbon footprint of the US is in large part so big because of sprawl. Electric cars and more solar power cannot eliminate the inherent inefficiency of sprawl.
  • The typical frequent flyer observation that the "US is still mostly empty" is the most ludicrous assertion of all. Yes, it is true, but what spaces are empty? What use are they to the people in dense metro areas like Baltimore-Washington. Maryland approaches European density levels, but thanks to unmitigated sprawl, without the typical European benefit of clearly defined communities that are surrounded by protected green spaces. 
    Low density housing shares in
    major cities (BuildZoom)
It is also interesting that neither author mentions David Rusk who made the exact same point 25 years ago with his inelastic and elastic cities theory which stated just like Romem that cities either grow outward or not at all and that those who can't grow are doomed.
I commented on Rusk in a recent blog arguing that especially legacy cities with their vast industrial sites have ample opportunity to expand inside their boundaries.
We have seen an astounding turnaround of cities since then, including some of the presumably doomed cities flourished.

Under the heading What is the path forward Romem offers three options:
The projected growth of the U.S. population will exert growth pressure on expensive and expansive cities alike. There is infinite nuance in how cities can respond to the challenge, but essentially they must situate themselves in the space defined by three alternatives. 
  • The first alternative is to expand with gusto. Cities that follow this path will maintain housing at more affordable levels, thereby retaining their current social character. However, going down this path will further entrench the ills associated with sprawl.  [..]
  • The second alternative is to avoid expansion, and maintain the status quo with respect to densification. Going down this path will divert population growth towards more accommodating U.S. cities (the expansive ones), [..] it will render housing increasingly unaffordable for a growing share of the population, and has already set in motion a sorting process whereby, on net, the affluent migrate into such cities while the less affluent are crowded out. [..]

  • The third alternative is to enact fundamental changes to land use policy that prompt far more substantial densification than any U.S. city has undergone to date. [..] It would require cities to stop relying on vacant lots as the primary means of densification, and embrace redevelopment instead. [..]
Neither the first nor the second are acceptable futures and Romem says so himself in so many words if one reads his full text. However, he makes the third sound like so impossible. He ignores that America is over-retailed and that every city has large commercial areas along its peripheral arterials that are underutilized or fallow. Those and abandoned industrials sites can easily be redeveloped without changing the character of residential communities. Each failing mall can become a dense mixed use neighborhood with lots of new housing. A change away from car orientation towards transit and autonomous vehicle fleet mobility will free additional vast amounts of space currently used for surface parking or parking garages or excessively wide streets. Again plenty of opportunities for density and growth without expansion.

If Baltimore manages to build up the 240 acre brownfield of Port Covington as planned with 14,000 new housing units, 20% of them set aside as affordable, it may become a large demonstration of what a city can do without being expansive.

Issi Romem sounds a lot like Thomas Robert Malthus in 1798 when he proclaimed in his book Essay on the Principle of Population   that the world won't be able to feed the ever growing population and projected nothing but gloom and doom. We know how accurate that prediction was.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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