The financial benefits of not living in sprawl

Richard Florida argues “The neighborhood you live in can have a huge effect on your ability to spend or save, do the kind of things you really want to, and navigate the ongoing economic crisis.” Cars are indicted here as they require large sums of money to maintain and operate.

Based on this data, Florida argues that we need to rethink what we promote:

There remain some pundits and politicians who continue to believe that we need to get housing back to its former levels. But that won’t work this time. The old Fordist housing-auto-energy economic model which helped bring on the crisis in the first place has reached its sell-by date. Our continued commitment to (and massive subsidizing of) it will only further erode the financial situation of middle-class and working families and hold back the recovery.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the typical tools of monetary and fiscal policy are proving insufficient to sustain the recovery. Our future prosperity requires that we to begin to shift precious resources from houses, cars and energy toward investments in new skills, technologies, and industries that can generate higher paying jobs and improve overall living standards.  And that in turn requires a new geography built around denser (more innovative and productive), more walkable, transit-oriented (more efficient) communities.

If American families and policy-makers don’t see being green or sustainable as reason enough to change the way we live, perhaps seeing the very tangible financial rewards that accrue to those who do will help them change their minds. As the poet wrote, “You must change your life.” The numbers speak for themselves.

In addition to being more green, Florida is making the pragmatic argument that denser, more walkable communities actually help improve the financial situations of residents.

This may be compelling evidence – Americans can be persuaded by financial incentives – but I still think it is an uphill climb against an American culture that prize cars, driving, and the freedom that it represents. Changing this mindset is difficult even with at least 38 years of evidence that gasoline will not always be cheap or plentiful, evidence that suggests long commutes harm relationships, and research showing people aren’t necessarily happy in the suburbs. People are willing to trade a lot for the vision of the dream of the single-family home in the suburbs.

What would help is an alternative, positive vision that would celebrate denser neighborhoods and more urban life. Rather than simply attack the suburbs, sprawl, and McMansions, how about images of more urban life that can combine the best of both city and suburban life? The narratives regarding denser lives tend to be about chaos and a lack of control – think of the recent stories of “flash mobs” and “wilding” in Chicago. This could change with younger generations as they grow up with different aspirations and values. As Florida has argued, younger people are attracted by more exciting urban areas and they have the potential to change social patterns as well as promote new types of policies. But this vision needs to include family life, not just 20-something or single life, in denser areas.

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