Archives For sprawl

Sidewalk PedestrianSince the beginning of America’s suburban experiment, it has only been recently that effort and interest has welled behind the ideas of walkability and alternatives to a car-centric life outside of cities. While movements like New Urbanism that promote re-investigating the suburban model have swelled with support over the past decade, these projects still represent a minority in development outside of urban centers. Even when aspects like tenets of New Urbanism are employed, the goal of increasing walkability in American suburbia faces an uphill battle until more substantial steps can be taken to alter the parameters for both construction and mobility. Re-orienting the suburbia we know for the pedestrian is inherently fighting against its own DNA. Continue Reading…

[tweetmeme source=”intercongreen”]Suburban America often gets the cold shoulder from designers and planners that harp on its inherently inefficient development. The archetype of cul-de-sacs lined with single family homes can often trump and surmount any legitimate goals of its residents to live more efficient lives. As we know, efficiency, and its contribution to a greater idea of sustainability, is a idea comprised of all lifestyle choices–not just CFLs and Energy Saver labels. In their current form, suburbs make inefficiency necessary for living and it is not difficult to spot. Continue Reading…

the effects of suburban sprawlSobering Fact #2:

When it comes to American development over the past half century, suburban sprawl is the issue. Unlike the efficiency that comes with urban construction, suburban planning to date is an expansive practice that spreads habitation out across virgin, natural land to carve it up with fences, utilities and roads. It is easy to lose sight of how much land we occupy in the United States vs. how much there is vs. how much we really need. Suburban development has lead us to stretch across the country covering vastly more space than we need to.

There are an estimated 115 million households in the United States. Let us assume that we gave every person a detached single-family home on a full acre of land all to themselves–most people in America cannot make such a boast. Without any multi-family buildings, no apartment complexes, no project housing; all of the homes in America would take up 179,688 square miles. The state of California is 163,696 square miles, nearly able to fit all of them taking up less than 5% of the total 3.8 million square miles in the country.  While this does not include numerous amounts of other program and transportation, it also is granting most of the country more land than we have. After all, in New York City the average resident density is 42.8 people per acre and that is with one of the highest concentrations of commercial space in the world.

map of the state of california in AmericaPhoto Credit:

Yesterday the Commerce Department released that housing starts in the U.S. had dropped 10.6% in the month of October from the previous month. Cast in a predictably negative light, the markets responded with downward movement due to rising fears of a slow pace for our economic recovery. I find myself in the minority that sees this as long term good news, a market condition we should be embracing as we take a rare economic opportunity to try and move our jobs base from our historical model of unlimited growth to one of sustainable capitalism.

Traditionally, housing starts are seen as a leading indicator of economic health as they represent fuel for the construction industry which contributes 4-5% of our national GDP according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Building and purchasing new homes is one of the quickest ways for Americans to spend money—which is one of the things we do best. But not only is there no reason for us to be building more homes right now, but we should not emerge into a new economy built on the foundations of an outmoded concept of creating square footage ad infinitum.

If one were to forget the economic assumption that more housing starts is always positive, it is easy to see the number of reasons why we have no need for more housing right now. The recession has left us with an excess of homes. An article in the Wall Street Journal notes that “the number of homes listed for sale was 3.63 million in September according to the National Association of Realtors. That is enough to last about eight months at the current rate of sales.” The article also points out that foreclosures are still on the rise, leaving more property in the hands of banks (and even the FDIC) that want, and need, to unload them at bargain values, only further pressuring prices. We do not need more of a product that is in declining demand from a consumer that cannot afford to purchase it.

Furthermore, the NRDC’s Kaid Benfield pointed out last month that aging baby boomers are estimated to begin unloading their suburban homes at a rate of 5% per year between 2010 and 2030, only adding to the glut of available space.

Suburban homes are also not where we should be focusing our money and efforts when it comes to new living space. The financial crisis offered an opportunity to finally rein an expansion of suburban sprawl that has gone on for decades. New homes farther away from town and city centers bring with them more utilities, more emergency services and more energy wasted in commuting. We should be bolstering our urban centers and drawing people back to their inherent efficiencies of living. To have our government working on a carbon bill while we are using more farmland and natural landscape to prop up developer homes is ridiculous. It is the difference between the image of sustainability and the nature of sustainability—the latter is an encompassing system that affects a lifestyle in its entirety.

If Americans are serious about creating a more sustainable economy, then eventually we need to move away from a system where our barometer of success is continuous growth. It is possible for our country to be healthy without building an increasing number of new homes each month. Of course, it means asking those annoying questions like “What happens when there is no more acreage left to develop?” or “How many people can our country feasibly support indefinitely?” The easiest way to avoid the answers is to begin changing our trajectory now. Instead of new home construction we can be focusing on building retrofits, restoration and deconstruction. These practices use less energy, produce less waste and improve upon the building stock that we already have to make it better instead of tearing it down. One can imagine a combination of virgin building, recycling and upcycling that could bring us much closer to a level of construction stasis.

Construction is only one of the areas where we need to re-align our practices to change our economic growth expectations. Transit, energy production and distribution and water infrastructure all are viewed as continuously growing commodities and can all be curbed into regenerative social practices.

Photo Credit: Flickr movers_4u

One of the new opposing forces to the deployment of renewable energy has been dubbed “Energy Sprawl,” referring to a symptom of energy sites requiring dubious amounts of land that could purportedly threaten our natural landscape. Where NIMBY voices are troublesome, these claims are more misguided. There is no question that some renewable power options need space. Energy sources like wind and solar require land in order to build arrays large enough to make them efficient, but the real sprawling epidemic has nothing to do with energy, is much worse and has been going on unaddressed for decades: suburban sprawl. Anyone raising arms about devoting land to renewable energy should be prepared to combat the growth of our suburban communities.

energy sprawl vs suburban sprawl

Over the past half century, flight from cities has created an explosion of development in suburbia that claims more virgin land every year. As late as the housing boom that lead up to the current recession, the cost of construction, laxity of zoning laws and ease in security mortgage debt lead to new communities sprouting up across the country almost over night. The result is an ever-expanding network of roadways and a lifestyle driven by automotive travel that breeds inefficiency and waste.

There seems to be a misconception that land used for building new cul-de-sacs wrapped in colonial revival vernacular is somehow less desirable than land used for erecting wind turbines or solar panels. Virgin forest or prime farmland is consumed every year to be subdivided and turned into brand new housing stock. In her book A Field Guide to Sprawl, Dolores Hayden says “the American Farmland Trust estimates that in the United States, 1.2 million acres of farmland were lost to development every year between 1992 and 1997.”

As a point of reference, a solar farm planned for Deming, New Mexico will be one of the biggest in the world, producing up to 300 MW or enough power for 240,000 homes. If completed, the array will require 3,200 acres of land. Using the same ratio of roughly 1 MW per 11 acres of land, the 6 million acres of land consumed for homes in the 1990’s could contribute a maximum capacity of 545,450 MW (545 gigawatts.) According to the Energy Information Association, our total national power generation capacity is in the neighborhood of 995 GW (so over half of our power.)

Unlike energy development, suburban land acquisition does nothing for the natural environment. Its conception lays more roads, erects more power lines and creates more commuting traffic by perpetuating the need for more cars on pavement. The fortunate developments may only waste time, money and resources by laying new sewers while those too far from town or city centers rely instead on septic systems. Despite our best wishes, pouring Drano into a sink that leads to a leeching field is nominally the same as going outside and pouring it on the ground.

Energy installations like wind farms produce clean power and by doing so are diverting generation from sources like coal and oil that can bring damaging effects to the environment along every point of their supply chain from mining to combustion. Modern wind turbines are also usually tall enough that land beneath them can still be farmed. Though some energy arrays may pose some interference with the habitat or migration of natural species (a common attack against wind farm construction), it is estimated that in the U.S. up to 130 million animals are killed on the road every year by cars.

On the other hand, suburban plots produce nothing. They are not havens for animal habits. Unlike the land that they consume, rarely are they net sources of food, clean water or energy. An article by Dan Shapley notes that according to Census Bureau data, in 2006 nine of the ten fastest growing counties were located in the South or West in areas already stressed for the capacity of fresh water. In Dallas Fort-Worth, one of the fastest growing regions in the country, a North Texas Future Fund report states “by 2050 the [water] deficit could reach 1.1 million-acre feet per year — an amount greater than total current demand.”

Like anything else, the construction of renewable energy has its drawbacks but the argument of space does not come close to comparing to the epidemic of waste that comprises our history of limitless suburban expansion.

In honor of Blog Action Day 2009

Photo Credits: Alex Maclean & Sincerely Sustainable

suburban sprawlA number of government sponsored initiatives are targeting sustainable technologies that want to provide an easy fix to climate change (renewable energy, fuel cells, energy efficient home upgrades.) But when it comes to sustainable progress, if we are going to delve into the policy game then we should be including measures that actually change the way we are doing things, not merely advance the technology that allows us to do things the same. As a result, I would suggest taxing the development of greenfield sites and, conversely, offering incentives to redeveloping existing buildings or property near town and city centers.

Sprawl is a familiar term in design and planning used to describe our common pattern of expansion and construction over the past half century. As the impressive nature of high-rise steel faded in the 1950’s, Americans were less concerned with making gleaming spires of progress and turned instead to cheap tracks of untarnished land. We saw the rise of the residential development and the suburban office park—blemishes on our built environment that result from a top priority of low-cost, speedy construction. Under the proposed plan, developers of such plots would be taxed, effectively making their construction more expensive.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the fact that fighting against greenfield development is fighting against decades of cultural norm. In a paper titled Greenfield Development Without Sprawl the Urban Land Institute’s Jim Heid writes:

“From the start, greenfield development has promised ordinary Americans a way to enjoy the best of city and country, and remarkably often this mix of utopia and pragmatism has delivered.”

Undoubtedly, building on the edges is building cheaper. The land often goes for a song. Labor is less expensive. Access to sites is easier and building codes are less stringent. But the cheaper choice for builders can be more expensive for municipalities (and we know where their budgets comes from.) Sprawling development is notoriously inefficient; each an oasis of occupancy connected by thin veins of pavement that make car travel a considerable portion of daily life. May it be plains, farmland or forests, virgin land is mindlessly swallowed for the sake of inexpensive elbow room. Greenfield development can mean funding for new power lines, new sewers and new roads for a relatively small group of new citizens. It expands the coverage areas for maintenance crews, emergency vehicles and mail delivery that can drastically offset the incremental rise in tax revenue. All of this is only clearer in our current economic crisis where municipalities are being pushed closer to Chapter 9 (municipal bankruptcy) as budgets cannot meet costs of daily routine. Suddenly the cheap route can get pretty expensive. Taxing this kind of sprawling development may help curb its growth in the country.

Most importantly of all, there is no need for greenfield building. We have loads of existing space in close proximity to transportation and infrastructure. Moreover, the timing could not be better for instigating a switch. The Wall Street Journal reported that the recession has prompted a jump in vacancy rates around the country even as rental rates are falling. The article reports that the average vacancy rate in the top 79 markets in the U.S. rose to 7.2%.

On the other side of the tax lie subsidies to shift new construction and home ownership to areas with an existing populace. New homes and offices can benefit from utilities and services that residents have already paid. In addition to possibly being cheaper than new construction, reusing existing structures drastically reduces waste from demolition and construction and negates the need for the production of new virgin materials. All of it points to lower carbon footprints and lighter lifecycle costs. Subsidizing infill development could help take the edge off of the costs needed to upgrade existing properties and make buyers think twice about their location. Remember, the goal is not for less development, merely shifting it for a smarter solution. Reinforcing our town and urban centers would support a critical mass of residents that breeds efficiency where fewer services could reach more instead of wasting more taxpayer dollars on diluted redundancy.

At a local level, some places have taken an initial step of intervention. The WSJ’s Jim Carlton highlights how the city of Arcata, California purchased a 175 acre redwood forest for $2.05 million in order to curtail development. These kinds of efforts affect where developers will put new buildings which will, in turn, affect how suburbanites live. Carlton goes on to say that some experts believe that 10% of the country’s existing forests will likely be developed by 2030. While only a first step, it does demonstrate how development patterns can be guided in the responsible direction.

As I have said before, I believe sustainability is a concept that encompasses more than a technological fix. It is an understanding of balance and stasis that has to be experienced as way to live rather than inventions that supplement wastefulness. If we are going to use the government as a tool to help make sustainable decisions (I think we are already there) then we should be doing something to address the roots of the problem. This kind of legislation would create no less development, no fewer jobs and, when combined with the municipal money it would save through efficient building and planning, may largely pay for itself.

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