Make Smart Growth Affordable by Building More of It

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we’re looking at a post from Kaid Benfield on NRDC Switchboard about smart growth and how to make it more affordable. The answer, in a nutshell, is to build more of it — and the market tells us the demand is there.

Benfield writes about a recent paper by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Institute called "Where We Want To Be: Home Location Preferences And Their Implications For Smart Growth (pdf)." Benfield writes:

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One of the more frustrating challenges for people in our field to
overcome is a certain past-is-destiny argument from sprawl defenders
who contend that past trends in favor of large-lot, dispersed,
automobile-dependent development constitute proof that Americans want
more of it in the future. 

In fact, signals in the market have never been clearer that consumer
preferences are changing and that demand for smart growth will outpace
both demand for sprawl and current smart growth supply trends in the
coming decades.…

Litman walks the reader through the evidence, from market surveys to
trend data to quite a bit of academic research, all suggesting that,
while demand for large-lot suburban homes will remain (an important
point), it is not where the growth in demand will occur.

Litman’s work is a must-read for anyone interested in the relationship between smart growth and market forces.

More from around the network: Bike Commuting in Columbus looks at why cyclists in that city break the law. The WashCycle examines a BBC report on risks for women bikers. And St. Louis Urban Workshop blogs about the importance of complete streets in transit planning.

  • I totally agree with this. I love it when someone says that people don’t like urban living because it’s too expensive. Lack of demand causing high prices… that’s obviously how economics works!

    The problem with this is dense developments face inherent limitations that dispersed developments don’t. Even given the most efficient transit system in the world, you’ll still have a limit on how much land is within reasonable commuting distance to the city center. Suburbs solve this problem by locating office parks near residential centers (while still leeching off infrastructure made possible by the city).

    I’ve always wondered if it’s possible to have it both ways: have decentralized urban developments. Basically, taking the suburban concept of scattered office parks and sprawly single family houses and translating it into office towers dispersed among apartment buildings.

  • Charley, Jarrett Walker says that that’s exactly what they do in Paris, and even Los Angeles. More discussion at Streetsblog LA.

  • Thomas Hardman

    Charley has the right view, in my opinion.

    Rather than putting all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak, by concentrating all development in massive urban centers, why not spread out the urbanization?

    Thus, the concentrated model of mixed-use becomes a diffuse and dispersed model of mixed use.

    We already see this, to some degree, in the office centers that pop up around Metrorail stations and even bus-transfer hubs in the Greater Washington DC Metro area. It’s not just “all about Washington”. Nearly every suburban/semi-urban Metrorail station on the Red Line from Rockville to Wheaton has a large employment center (Forest Glen has the hospital complex and dependent offices) and generally lots of walkable retail and residential space as well.

    Another thing to keep in mind is this: just because there haven’t been any successful terrorist attacks in the States since 9/11, this doesn’t mean that there won’t be any more attempts. Why create tempting targets? After all, they didn’t hijack jets and fly them into suburbia (omitting the one crashed by passenger intervention). They selected the biggest and most casualty-dense target they could find. Why build more targets? Why promote density when that is promoting target concentration? Why built dependency on transit, when that only creates exploitable single-points-of-failure? If western society can’t work without the commuter trains, that’s the easy and obvious target.

    No, we’re all better off by spreading out. This doesn’t mean that we have to be automobile-dependent, we just need to have more and better bus-lines and comparable systems that can change routes and destinations.

  • “Why built dependency on transit, when that only creates exploitable single-points-of-failure? If western society can’t work without the commuter trains, that’s the easy and obvious target.”

    What about auto-bridges and tunnels? These are points of failure. Countless stretches of elevated roadway are vulnerable to attack. To the extent that automobiles can route around destroyed passages, trains can do the same if parts of their infrastructure are taken out. (Trains were used through the last century’s world wars, enduring attacks to which modern terrorism pales in comparison.) But this ‘failure’ framing of terrorism is fundamentally wrong; terrorism doesn’t work by physically disabling a system. It works by attacking some part of it, killing some number of civilians, and scaring the masses away entirely. If even a non-catastrophic explosion were achieved on a bridge into Manhattan, the city would shut down all bridges and tunnels for a time and most people would be too terrified to use them for much longer than that. Americans would be afraid to drive across bridges all over the country. In fact, 9/11 gave the perfect example of how terrorism cripples a decentralized system when it first disabled, and later severely impaired airline transportation (which we then got to bail out, hooray).

    But leaving the false premise aside, the answer the series of rhetorical Why?s is the following: Because spreading out and depending primarily or highway transportation kills a lot more people in crashes every year than terrorism has in total. So, trying to accommodate terrorism by avoiding density would be a dumb move even if it did stop all attacks—which it would not do in the least. It would still be possible to terrorize the suburbs, which have shown themselves in the past decade to be particularly easy to terrify. To reframe your scary question, just because there hasn’t ever been a coordinated, large scale attack on the malls of America doesn’t mean that won’t be the next plot. If anything, global terrorists have shown a bias towards the unprecedented.

    I don’t have anything against smaller urbanizations like suburban mixed-use developments and any surviving, functional American towns; to the contrary I think they’re great! But to say that terrorism is a good reason to avoid arbitrary levels of density and arbitrary kinds of transit is severely myopic. Apply that strategy of target reduction inductively, and you have everyone moving back into caves.

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