Several reasons Americans may be moving toward rejecting sprawl

An architecture writer sums up some of the arguments of why Americans might be starting to turn against sprawl:

In short, builders are recognizing that buyers (and renters, too!) value the neighborhood as much as — if not more than — the house. And what they want from that neighborhood might not be McMansions and four-car garages after all. Resale value may not in fact trump all else. Young and old, whether they’re in the city or the suburbs, want to walk to places like restaurants and shops. (And let’s stop talking about the integration of things like cafes, public transit and bike racks as “urbanizing” an area, which only reinforces the divide between two entities that are divided enough already.)

People have begun to wake up to the fact that the more time spent in the car means poorer health and less time with their families — and they’re seeking shorter commutes. They’re interested in smaller homes that are easier to maintain (and less expensive to heat and cool). Young millennials and older baby boomers are also showing less and less interest in car ownership and a corresponding greater interest in public transit, walking and biking. And again, it’s likely that we’re all less interested in continuing to discuss “urban” and “suburban” as dueling polar opposites — and more interested in recognizing there’s mutual benefit to some overlap.

The aforementioned changes point to the fact that a paradigmatic shift in our concept of the American dream is underway. And this shift is not just because of the recession, says Gregory Vilkin, managing principal and president of MacFarlane Partners, quoted in that USA Today piece, “It’s no longer the American dream to own a plot of land with a house on it and two cars in the driveway.”

And here is her summary of the people still defending sprawl:

And yet … there are still those who are having none of it. And they are a vocal and often breathtakingly well-funded minority. For them, the sprawl that characterized the years leading up to the financial crisis remains a dream to strive for. Any threat to the McMansion of yore is equated to “feudal socialism” (I kid you not). And these opponents not only excel at mobilizing the troops but at mastering the message. Take a look at the rhetoric of, say, the Texas Republican party, which recently passed “Resist 21” in opposition to Agenda 21, the United Nations’ sustainable communities strategy adopted in 1992. Taken together, proclaims Resist 21, those strategies aspire to “the comprehensive control of all our population and its reduction to sustainable levels and the socialization of all activities by their relocation to highly restricted urban settlement centers.”

Nothing like cherry-picking the more extreme arguments…there is not much defense of the “traditional American suburbs” here. At the same time, I thought this was a decent summary of some of the arguments out there though, of course, it remains to be seen which side Americans will choose. Is “everyone” really interested in merging urban and suburban life? Opponents of sprawl can continue to tout the advantages of denser living but we don’t have the proof yet that we are headed toward a full “greatinversion” back to city life.

Another note: there is a small paragraph in this article suggesting that government could do more to promote alternatives to sprawl. This is true but one doesn’t have to go all the way to a Agenda 21 level of involvement. Local governments could provide tax breaks or incentives for denser (and more affordable) housing. Gas taxes could be raised. More money could be spent on mass transit. The government could revoke the mortgage interest deduction. Different levels of government could cede some of their own power (such as 45 mosquito abatement districts in DuPage County) in order to work together on a metropolitan level and solve problems together. And so on. The federal government helped promote suburban sprawl throughout much of the 21st century – what would happen if the playing field started tilting in the other direction? Is any attempt to provide alternatives to sprawl “feudal socialism”?


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