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Urban Wonk

The Unbearable Cost of Sprawl

The Unbearable Cost of Sprawl
Courtesy Galina Tachieva

It's no secret that America's sprawling, car-dependent exurbs were Ground Zero for the economic meltdown. These "drive 'til you qualify" communities were built on risky decisions and over-leveraged debt—buyers betting that the price of gasoline for commuting wouldn't go up too much, or that they'd be able to sell their pricey McMansions before their artificially low mortgages reset. Millions of homeowners lost that bet, and the entire world paid the economic price. 

But we haven't gotten rid of the danger. In fact, the worst might be yet to come. Energy costs continue to skyrocket, making travel and heating exorbitant. New research suggests sprawl is hurting our health. For example, rates of obesity in unwalkable suburbs are near epidemic levels. And local municipalities that tried to grow their tax base through sprawl may soon be overwhelmed by the extra costs of maintenance.

We can't afford to throw these places away, as they represent a huge investment of resources, energy and human capital. Luckily, some promising new tools are emerging to retrofit sprawling neighborhoods into walkable and sustainable communities. To do that, planners should take advantage of these principles:

  • Many of the ingredients are there. Sprawling suburbs often have jobs, housing, recreation and talented populations - all the elements of a sustainable urban environment. But they are poorly organized, disconnected and often in the wrong place.
  • The wasted space is a resource. Under-used right-of-way is available for transit. Over-large lots and setbacks can allow accessory dwellings or live-work facilities. Excessive parking lots often make excellent infill sites. Reconfiguring poorly organized, car-dependent commercial developments can often produce walkable and diverse town centers.
  • Make it pay. Many suburban sites suffer from a lack of users to support quality development. By adding customers for vibrant, well-designed new centers, suburbs can support more attractive commercial and civic amenities.

But how do we implement these principles? Sprawl developments have been aggressively promoted and encouraged, and the approach to retrofit must do the same. Here's how cities and planners can help this along:

  • Add new design tools and tactics. A growing toolkit of design techniques is becoming available in "shareware" formats.  New "sprawl retrofit" strategies offer elegant new ideas for turning car-dependent, wasteful suburban sites into vibrant, successful centers. Public, private and non-profits are working together to pioneer new incremental mechanisms and tools. 
  • Remove the old codes and barriers and add new regulatory tools. Many of the most desirable, sustainable neighborhoods in human history would be illegal under today's zoning codes. They need to be replaced with a new generation of codes that allow flexible development that supports walking, transit and a good distribution of amenities. 
  • Create new incentives and funding mechanisms. Good development will happen if its supported through the early stages with financial tools and incentives. In addition, unsustainable development should pay its true cost, so that it does not have an artificial competitive advantage over good-quality sustainable development.

The global financial crisis was a shot across the bow. We have to stop living at the edge of our means, and start living in a way that's environmentally - and economically - reasonable and sustainable. In that light, it should be clear to all but the blindest ideologues that we can't afford sprawl any more. On the other hand, we can't afford not to repair the sprawl we already have. The good news is that "sprawl retrofit" is possible, as numerous built projects show, and it offers us more than cost savings: it offers a higher quality of life too.

Michael Mehaffy is a strategic planning consultant based in Portland, Oregon, and a leader of the Sprawl Retrofit Initiative of the Congress for the New Urbanism. All posts »

Galina Tachieva is a partner in Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, Architects and Town Planners, and author of the Sprawl Repair Manual. She is a co-leader of the Congress of the New Urbanism's Sprawl Retrofit Initiative. All posts »

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