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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Sprawl: The Equal Opportunity Menace

By Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley

Metropolitanism at Work

A group of Chicago business leaders called on major employers and municipal governments to collaborate on building affordable housing near major job sites, such as O'Hare airport.

After studying where employees lived in the Atlanta region, Bell South consolidated 75 offices and 13,000 workers within the Atlanta beltway into three centers located on mass transit lines. Equivalent numbers of workers commute from affluent and less affluent suburbs.

The Agenda for Metropolitanism

  • Change Public Policy and Governance
  • Pool Resources
  • Mobility for All Across the Entire Region

Baltimore is by many accounts, a comeback city. It has the nostalgia of Camden Yards baseball stadium which draws thousands of visitors throughout the spring and summer. It has a lively waterfront district, the Inner Harbor, with charming shops and hot crab cakes every hundred yards or so. Yet, Baltimore is struggling to survive.


Instead of dedicating federal

and state dollars to highway

construction, metropolitanism

invests in regional transit and

upgrades existing infrastructure.

For 20 years, Baltimore has hemorrhaged residents. Since 1980, almost 100,000 people have left. Meanwhile, the surrounding suburbs have gained population and jobs steadily.

In fact, this city is not alone. Voracious growth in suburbs and slower growth or absolute decline in metropolitan urban cores are threatening urban and suburban communities equally all across the United States.

Cities and suburbs have a common enemy and that is development in the wrong place, or sprawl; and sprawl is an equal opportunity menace. When developers bypass older, established urban locations and build out on open undeveloped properties, there are serious consequences.

The rate of population growth in American suburbs is twice that of central cities. From 1990 to 1997, suburban growth was 9.6 percent compared to 4.2 percent growth in urban cores.

More suburban residents mean that more new schools, sewers and water lines, libraries, fire stations, and roads have to be built. Because such new infrastructure is so expensive, localities lower acceptable living standards and the quality of life is affected.

Similarly, attempts to revitalize urban core economies have spawned scores of renaissance cities featuring shiny new convention centers, grand luxury hotels, and impressive office towers. Yet, the cities continue to lose jobs and tax paying residents by the thousands. In just one year, 1996, 2.7 million people left a central city for a suburb. A paltry 800,000 made the reverse move. The result is urban poverty rates that are twice as high as suburban poverty rates. In the words of Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, "You can't build a city on pity."

Enter "Metropolitanism"

For suburbs and cities to compete for development makes about as much sense as two drowning men trying to strangle each other. In a recent speech, Vice President Al Gore said, "we're starting to see that the lives of suburbs and cities are not at odds with one another, but closely intertwined. No one in a suburb wants to live on the margins of a dying city.

"No one in the city wants to be trapped by surrounding rings of parking lots instead of thriving, livable suburban communities. And no one wants to do away with the open spaces and farmland that give food, beauty, and balance to our post-industrial, speeded-up lives," said Gore.

The familiar image of a beleaguered urban core in the middle of suburban prosperity is giving way to something more realistic and powerful. There is a new notion, "metropolitanism," which promises to break the hold of sprawl by recognizing these regional connections which are already quite evident.

For instance, newspapers have replaced city desks with metro sections. Labor and housing markets are regional, and cultural and sports events likewise draw regional audiences. Strangers on airplanes identify themselves, not by the suburban subdivision in which they live but by the closest city nearby. People say I'm from Houston, Chicago or Detroit, not I'm from Cul de Sac Meadows a mile from I-80.

The first principle of metropolitanism is that suburbs and cites are not enemies. Metropolitanism calls for changes in public policy, local governance, and the pooling of public resources across entire regions. It also encourages efficient, economical and reliable regional mobility for everyone.

Build It and They Will Come

Well-meaning, but ultimately misguided, public policies inadvertently encouraged suburban development and discouraged urban development. It started with massive post-World War II federal investment in the national network of interstate highways.

Wherever a new highway was built, housing and commercial development immediately followed the newfound accessibility. During the late 1940s and 1950s, post-war housing shortages, gasoline prices at under 29 cents a gallon and newly built roads made it feasible and even desirable to construct housing for returning soldiers farther and farther out, miles from the nearest train or bus stop.

Sprawl is a good business decision for developers. Builders like the ease and the predictability of cookie-cutter projects. They are easy to finance, easy to build, and easy to manage.

Federal and state mortgage interest and property tax deductions were also subtle incentives to buy bigger houses on bigger lots, which meant almost by definition building on suburban parcels.

Environmental policies adopted in the 1970s also favored suburban development. Many urban sites are contaminated by hazardous waste from a less-aware era.

Federal, state and local requirements insist that these so-called "brownfields" must be cleaned or "remediated" before they can be sold or used again. The cost for remediation is very high, indeed. This makes untouched suburban land more appealing to developers.

Urban residents are caught in a classic Catch-22. Without jobs, they cannot afford automobiles. Without automobiles or transit to suburbs, they cannot compete for jobs. Consequently, the share of a state's welfare population living in cities far outstrips the proportion of the state's population as a whole.

Adopting Metropolitanism

It is clear that highways built by federal and state dollars have been magnets for new development ever since the 1950s. But suburban residential and commercial development necessitates construction of expensive infrastructure to support it. Sprawl is choking suburbs on development and local governments are unable to provide the services that residents need or demand.

Suburban jurisdictions can become impoverished by the need to raise sufficient revenue to finance infrastructure. Amenities that once attracted residents to suburban developments are long gone. In Loudoun County, in northern Virginia, the county school board predicts that it will have to build 22 new schools by 2005, but all the county can afford to build are basic boxes with low ceilings, small classrooms, and few windows.

Since there is considerable evidence that residential and commercial development follow investments in public transit, restorative economic development can take place in the urban core where it is needed the most in the metropolitan region.

Rather than continuing to dedicate the majority of federal and state transportation dollars to finance highway construction, funds would be better invested in regional public transit and maintaining and upgrading the existing (and often under-used) infrastructure in the metropolitan core.

In this way, metropolitanism promotes regional access and mobility in a way that benefits the most residents. Coincidentally, such investment also reduces congestion and dependence on single occupancy vehicles.

A metropolitanism land-use policy agenda ensures that there is zoning for transit-oriented development. In other words, build a plentiful mix of housing, employment and retail outlets within walking distance or adjacent to bus or rail connections.

Job access and reverse commute initiatives such as the one in TEA-21 fit within the metropolitanism agenda. So too do the many programs by churches and community development organizations providing jitney services and private bus lines to get people to jobs.

Most metropolitan areas have undeveloped parcels of land. In suburban locations, these are often the undeveloped gaps between subdivisions or commercial malls. In urban locations, these are usually abandoned or contaminated brownfields. Metropolitianism would preserve these open spaces as parks and other public spaces instead of developing them.

Regional Reality of Sprawl

The problems of sprawl cross regional jurisdictional borders and demand cross-jurisdictional solutions. Responsibility for improving economic, transportation and environmental conditions belong to the entire region, not just to individual jurisdictions.

Unfortunately, metropolitan governance in the 21st century United States is more suited to 18th century colonial America. One prominent city in the Midwest features 113 townships and 270 municipalities, each having its own independent governing body.

This abundance of governing units with competing constituencies, often means that one community's new airport, office building, amusement park, shopping mall or similar commercial property is another community's increased traffic, pollution, and loss of open space.

Metropolitanism understands that regardless of laws delimiting parts-per-billion or -million to the contrary, particulate- and carbon monoxide-laden winds blow, and contaminated rivers and runoff flow with little respect to county, suburban, city, state, or town boundaries.

Another byproduct of sprawl is that the urban cores and suburbs share a newfound cultural isolation. Unlike the high-density architecture, street grid layout and infrastructure of traditional urban cores which have at least potential to facilitate spontaneous interaction between neighbors, suburbanites have few common spaces to encounter one another except maybe at shopping malls. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there's no here, there.

Americans have discovered that sprawl means living without a center. In suburbs, there are no places to gather and in the metropolitan core the gathering places are unsafe or abandoned. Sprawl fosters a kind of cultural agoraphobia.

Suburban residents are discovering that frantic, unchecked growth is undermining what they moved to the suburbs for in the first place. In an essay called "The City as a Site for Free Association," the political philosopher Alan Ryan says, "If people are to be self-governing, they must associate with each other in natural and unforced ways."

This loss of a sense of community is so compelling that developers are artificially recreating it through architectural design in places such as Seaside, Florida; The Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Maryland; and Laguna West in Sacramento, California. Coined, "new urbanism," each community features pedestrian-friendly town centers with wide sidewalks and low curbs as well as structures built within walking distance of each other.

Why Fight Sprawl?

Many wonder whether concern over sprawl is much ado about nothing. After all, Americans live on a scant 5 percent of the land in this country and "hyper-suburbanization,"decentralization, and sprawl are new, less than two generations old. The advancing age of the population is one reason the need to control sprawl is genuine.

By 2023, almost 20 percent of Americans will be over age 65, compared to about 12.5 percent today. Even the most physically fit among them will experience declining vision and slowing of response times as they age, thus preventing many from driving an automobile safely. Sprawl is particularly cruel on these people.

The normal aging process in healthy human beings can transmogrify comfortable suburban retirement homes into well-upholstered prisons. Trips to the grocery store may call for the same intricate planning as the invasion of Normandy. Suburban elderly who cannot drive and do not have access to reliable transit have few options except dependence on friends who also are aging, or on children who may live hundreds of miles away.

Much of the unhappiness of the cities is also the unhappiness of the suburbs. Whether urban or suburban, each community within an entire metropolitan region is connected to the other in one way or another. Metropolitanism makes sense because of the greater range of choices that it promises everyone. Metropolitanism encourages people to see themselves as members of one society.

Bruce Katz is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he is director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy. Jennifer Bradley is a senior analyst at that center.

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